More than a slash of lipstick

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker reports on a course that can transform lives as well as faces.

GILL Vincent spent 13 years as a secretary at Yorkshire Television and became a producers' assistant on the soap, Emmerdale.

"I ended up being bogged down by paperwork, answering viewers' letters," she said. "Now I never want to see another bit of paper for the rest of my life."

Now Gill, 43, is changing careers. She is learning how to become a make-up artist on a new course at York College.

On a Thursday afternoon, she sits in front of a mirror, while fellow student Gavin James transforms her into a tramp, complete with matted false beard, grime and bags under the eyes.

Gavin, 40, has also switched careers. He was a lawyer until a 70-hour working week and two heart attacks forced him to give up. Now he wants to set up an agency for make-up artists.

"I love this course - there's such a buzz all the time, and everybody's part of a team."

The course, Media Make-up NVQ level 1 and 2, began last September. Tutor Val Elliott is a freelance make-up designer who works on hit series such as Heartbeat and Emmerdale.

She devised the two-year programme to fill a big skills gap. Traditional routes into film and TV make-up, such as the BBC and independent TV companies, no longer provide the training.

Meanwhile, the film industry is booming. "There are so many films being made in this country and there's a lack of trained staff," she said.

During the two years, students get a broad training, including ageing, casualty make-up, wigs, how to make bald caps, period make-up, prosthetics and health and safety. By the end of the course, they should be equipped to go into the studio. But the job isn't all about rubbing shoulders with showbusiness stars.

"We try and detect at interview those who are coming in because they think it's going to be a bit of a wheeze, just meeting the stars.

"It's actually very hard work. It takes up a lot of your time. You can have 12-hour working days, six days a week, sometimes seen.

"It is very glamorous in that you're meeting all sorts of interesting people: politicians, royalty - you do meet all sorts.

"But there's also a lot of standing around in wellington boots, rain pouring down your neck.

"I did some filming once where we were out on this moor in the middle of the night. The rain was coming in like arrows and I've never been so miserable in all my life."

Val began her career in the Sixties, taking a hairdressing and beauty therapy course at what is now the London College of Fashion. She joined the BBC and spent three months training as a make-up artist at Shepherds Bush, before going on to work on classic serials for the newly-launched BBC2.

How does she compare learning the trade then and now? "You can't beat being there and doing the job. They're going to learn so much more when they get into the studio, in terms of how to behave, and studio discipline."

Her own position in the industry is opening doors for her students. Yorkshire Television is taking a strong interest in the course.

The students have had trips to film sets and last November they went in at the deep end, doing make up for one of the televised Children in Need events.

To get on York College's course, they needed qualifications in hair and beauty or art and design.

The job of make-up artist calls for a number of qualities - especially when dealing with sometimes stroppy actors.

"We're looking for people who can work well as part of a team. You have to be calm and the sort of person who doesn't take things too personally.

"Sometimes an artiste who is very highly strung can say things they don't mean.

"You also need to be discreet. People do tell you things - they do like to tell you their personal problems. But it must never leave the make-up room."

For those that make it, the career of make-up artist is a rewarding one. "It gets into your blood," said Val. "There's nothing quite like it."

For further information contact York College on 01904 77039.

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