My interest in doing a project about extras came from doing archival research where I would have to watch and rewatch scenes from old films. I found myself wondering about those peripheral figures who live their lives in the margins of the narrative. You might see someone reading a book on a train platform, a nurse wheeling a trolley out of frame, or a soldier looking forlorn—then, just like that, they’re gone and you never see them again. We all have background characters in our own lives, and we’ve all been background characters in other people’s lives. Some may feel it more than others; they might feel backgrounded by louder, more confident people in the room. But others might take comfort in it—after all, it doesn’t have to be lonely—there are lots of people here, and they could be having a great time.
Few have embraced the background quite like Jill Goldston—the UK’s most prolific background actor. After running away from home as a teenager to become a dancer at Butlin’s, a friend suggested she could make a bit of money doing extra work. She joined the union (a prerequisite in those days) and signed up the circuit. Her friend took her to do her first gig, Just for Fun, a British youth culture music film released in 1963. For this, she stood in a crowd of awkward teenage girls, behind the singer Mark Wynter. It was a perfect first role for Jill because she just had to look warm and enthusiastic, and these are very much her natural traits. Having not yet mastered the craft of ignoring the camera, she briefly breaks the fourth wall and glances at us. For me, it now seems almost knowing, introducing herself as she embarks on her astonishing career.
Over the next 50 years, Jill worked relentlessly. She found a sense of community and some lasting friendships. She was often cast as a nurse or maid, frequently enough that she owned her own costumes. These characters were dedicated workers, dutifully carrying out their tasks, mirroring the commitment she brought to her performances. With no ambitions to be a star, she fully embraced the craft of being an extra on its own terms, drifting in and out of scenes in any role for which she was required. Sometimes she would purposefully drift even further into the background, as she discovered she could work more paid days on a job if she wasn’t caught on camera early on.
By the time Jill retired she had worked almost 2,000 jobs across film, TV and commercials. Her husband had kept a log of all the titles, and when I first met her in 2019, she handed me a long printout of this list. Searching for Jill in the following years became a surreal pastime; I became able to identify her in just a couple of blurry frames and pick her out of enormous crowds. Scrubbing through media, I could play back scenes in real time if they were sparsely populated, but for big-budget films with hundreds of extras, it could take the best part of a day to go through crowds frame by frame. I spent many hours searching through films like Valentino and Little Shop of Horrors, for instance. Occasionally I had help from film forum users and IMDb contributors, who, once or twice, found her in footage I had wrongly written off as being Jill-free.
Jill, Uncredited is a moving-image portrait made up of some (but by no means all) of these appearances. And while my conversations with Jill herself helped guide the structure, I think her beautiful performances tell their own story. I hope you enjoy it.