8/5/20 11:58 am - inamac - Fanfic: New Recruits: The Art of Villainy Continues in Lockdown
Title: New Recruits : The Art of Villainy Continues in Lockdown
Characters:David Tennant(Staged), Michael Sheen (Staged), Ben Kingsley (Jaguar), Mark Strong (Jaguar),Tom Hiddleston (Jaguar) Jason Isaacs (Actor) Tom Ellis (Lucifer)
Warnings: British Actor RPF
Summary: 2020. The UK is in lockdown. But that doesn't mean that British Actors aren't still working. And one very exclusive group is recruiting.
New Recruits : The Art of Villainy Continues in Lockdown
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...
London City Airport, May 2020. A white light aircraft stands on the tarmac. The camera pans up. It must be a drone, because nothing is flying in or out now, the runway and buildings deserted: as are the surrounding streets, turning into view as the camera flies higher, the once-busy City silent but for the whirr of pigeons wings and the high pitched whine of the drone as it sweeps down to follow the line of the Thames.
The road through Docklands plunges into a tunnel, the camera passes on, over the Isle of Dogs, the hump of the Millennium Dome to the south, and Limehouse ahead. In no time at all it reaches the Embankment, empty of traffic save for one lone red bus. The drone drops to pace it, the dolphin-entwined lampposts beyond the bus windows flicking past like images on a zoetrope. Outside the Savoy the drone turns away from the River and lifts over Charing Cross Station and Admiralty Arch, passing down The Mall, where the only life is a procession of St James' Park ducks crossing the pink road and heading for Green Park.
Park Lane and Knightsbridge are as deserted as everywhere else.
Now the drone is following the A4 and the images come faster, blending into a grey and green blur until, somewhere in the West it reaches its destination, a lone house standing on the outskirts of London, close enough for the glow of the city to be a constant presence in the night sky, but isolated enough in acres of parkland to provide security from prying eyes, both human and electronic.
In front of the building a wide expanse of lawn, big enough to land a helicopter, let alone the drone, is bounded by a curve of gravelled driveway. The curve is echoed by a double staircase, sweeping up on either side of the doorway to a classical 17th Century mansion, twin to the Queen's House in Greenwich, save for the columned wings and the view of the River. The plain white facade is pierced by tall beautifully proportioned mullioned windows. Only a close observer would notice that behind the glass were thick steel screens, and the balustraded roof hides an array of sensitive cameras, antennae and listening equipment.
But there are no close observers. In 2020s locked down London the house is empty and silent.
Though not dead. If the exterior of the house is a product of the Age of Elegance, the interior is very much the province of the Age of Electronics. At its very heart ranks of computers click and wink as they collect data from all over the world. Giant screens loom over the control panels, ready to be activated at the word of the controller of this surveillance domain.
The evening light is fading now. it is 8pm on a Thursday evening. Far away the streets of England echo to the sound of clapping. Inside, responding to the time signal, the screens glow to life. With an electronic 'ping', four rooms, in various stages of untidiness, occupied by four British actors, ditto, spring into vision. A fifth remains resolutely blank.
Jason Isaacs, who has just spent the best part of an hour explaining to the nominal Chairman exactly how to log onto the video conference system they are using for this meeting, sighs into the phone held against one ear. He takes the role of the League's Technical GeniusTM seriously. It is, Mark has said, the least they can do since the Jaguar contract has usurped Jason's place as the prime example of 'Evil Brit' on TV Tropes. And in any case Jason is the only one who can get the office coffee machine to work (on those occasions when they are in the 'office'). Though to be honest, that is a piece of piss compared to explaining to a Theatrical Knight of the Realm how to use Zoom.
"Left mouse button, Ben. No, the LEFT!"
Sir Ben Kingsley's visage obligingly fills the empty space. He is wearing a suit. Of course. He would be. The room in which he sits is (marginally) tidier than the others, but for the Oscar statuette tipped casually against a BAFTA, two Golden Globes, and a Grammy on the shelf behind him. No one ever mentions that at least two of the roles for which he has earned the right to membership of this group were been nominated for Razzies, though that is a sort of accolade in itself.
"I see. Thank you." He leans forward, peering at his own screen. "Are we all here then?"
Various hands wave.
"Good. Then, as Chairman I declare this meeting of the League open. What is first on the agenda?"
"Apologies for absence. Given the current situation Mary has sent you the list." Mark Strong isn't sure how he has ended up with the position of Acting Secretary, which is actually Mary's job because wrangling an international network of covert British actors isn't something that you can do efficiently if you are one of them. Nevertheless, Lockdown has forced a lot of changes. Mark decides to treat it as one of his more efficient roles. At least Mary has done the paperwork. "Plus three Operatives on assignment."
Tom Hiddleston raises an eyebrow. "Only three?" Unlike the others, rather than facing his camera he is reclining back on the arm of a dark green leather sofa, wearing what looks like a black silk smoking jacket. The effect is spoiled by the pink fuzzy slippers encasing the feet resting on the other arm of the sofa.
"There is a global pandemic. It does cut down on our," he hesitates, looking for the right term, and settles on "live appearances."
The others nod. Mark continues. "The next thing is Minutes of the last meeting. We'll take them as read. I think we should address Further Action at the end of the meeting."
"By all means," murmurs Tom. "Business first, then," he hesitates, and gives a lazy grin, "Pleasure."
Mark blinks. "Exactly. Then we come to an application for two new members. Michael, I believe you proposed both?"
The fifth, and most recent recruit to the group, Michael Sheen, leans forward. The red tartan polo-shirt he is wearing overtaxes the capacity of his camera for a second and the screen shows a jumble of wood, stone, shirt and hair for a moment before resolving itself into a coherent picture. It ruins what should have been an enigmatic response.
"Sorry," says Tom, not sounding at all contrite, "Didn't catch that."
Michael leans back. "I made the suggestion on the advice of an... interested party, shall I say."
Michael had been recruited pretty much on the fly when a job in Merthyr Tydfil had gone tits up. The recruitment had been the suggestion of the League's late President, Alan Rickman, and none of the others were quite sure why. Officially it had been on the strength of his roles as Leader, respectively, of Vampires and Werewolves, in two separate, but equally panned by the critics, movies. Privately, despite the veto on consideration for biographical roles, there were some who felt that at least two of his recent performances qualified him.
Jason raises an eyebrow. "I hope you haven't been indiscreet."
"Oh the soul of discretion, I assure you." Michael's Welsh lilt is very pronounced, he has found that it reassures people, even when he is telling an outright lie (which he isn't, but best to keep people guessing).
"We just wondered," said Ben. Given your connections to Mr Tennant."
"Professional connections. I don't know, we do one bloody TV series together and suddenly we're joined at the hip."
There is an electronic ping and another screen lights up. "Two series," says David Tennant, obviously having heard the comment as he is brought into the group. He is sitting in a room which looks more like a restaurant than a private house, with a leather bankette seat against a wall covered with gilded wallpaper. Michael, who has practically had a guided tour of David's place over the course of their lockdown rehearsals, recognises it. He does not recognise the zipped leather jacket David is wearing in lieu of the hoodie that he has apparently been living in for the last month, but has no chance to comment as David continues:
"Three if you count voiceovers since lockdown."
"Thank fuck for voiceovers," says Mark, who had been conflicted about doing the Government Official Information adverts but had succumbed to the need to keep eating.
Jason, who has been promoting his voiceover work on the (thankfully not-cinema-released-due-to-lockdown) Scoob! via online interviews, nods. Thanks indeed.
Ben calls the meeting to order. "Jason, would you connect our other candidate. As they are both on our list as a result of playing the same role we will consider them together."
There is a very minor pause for transatlantic delay and another room pops into view. In this case a kitchen, or at least a background of cupboards and worktops. If the members of the group expect to see their latest applicant they are disappointed. The place in front of the camera is occupied by a sleek black cat. It stares at them with wide green eyes, then rises to its feet, pauses briefly to perform an impromptu stretch, before somersaulting down onto the back of the white chair and vanishing stage left. Every eye follows it.
"Oh shit! Sorry. Am I on?" Tom Ellis pulls back the chair and sits, scrubbing a hand through hair which, if overlong, is surprisingly well-groomed for the second month of a pandemic. More Elvis than Ellis.
"Nice cat," says Michael.
"Yeah." Tom agrees, following the black tail as it vanishes under his desk, "That one's a bit of a role model."
"They gave me a black cat," Tom stretches out a pink-clad foot with a feline gesture. There is a container of popcorn on the side table from which he has been occasionally tossing a kernel up into the air before catching it in his mouth. He does so now, before continuing, "for the advert the ASA banned. It was a panther."
"Banned for cruelty to animals?" enquires Michael.
"No. Because the Jaguar XE sounded too fast."
Mark nods appreciatively. "Great sound."
"Gentlemen, can we get back to business?" Ben delivers the line with exactly the intonation he had used to voice Bageera. Both Toms are completely out-catted. He continues; "David and Tom are under consideration for League membership on the basis of their performances as Crowley and Lucifer. Or to put it in Evil Archetype terms, the Devil."
"Not just both playing the role of the Devil, but the role of the Devil as created by Neil Gaiman."
Michael, who has recently finished voicing exactly the same Gaiman-created version of Lucifer as Tom, keeps his expression carefully neutral.
"Coincidence," says Mark. "And playing a Gaiman villain is not exactly a bar to membership of this club." He looks briefly smug.
"Oh we all love Neil Gaiman," Michael quotes.
On screen David raises a hand. "I have a question."
"So do I..." Tom leans forward, "What the fuck have you done to your..."
"They're hair extensions!" David and Michael chorus.
"For a Jules Verne re-make," David clarifies. "Though in the current situation I doubt that I'll get round to Elstree in the next eighty days, let alone Round The fucking World."
Everyone nods. Michael, who is used to David's hair by now, is slightly taken aback by the change of clothes. "Mind you, I was beginning to think that hoodie was going to stand up on its own, but I'm not sure the leather jacket is an improvement."
David tosses the curls and poses. "I thought you guys were all about black leather and shades."
"On our cars," says Mark.
"If I get accepted, do I get a Jaguar?"
David gives a pout worthy of Crowley.
Wishing desperately for a judicial gavel, or, failing that, a flamethrower, Ben summons up five decades of theatre experience and quietly calls for attention. He gets it.
"Admittedly it is unusual to have quite so many versions of the Prince of Hell currently in play, but there is certainly a precedent going back to the very founding of our League," he says.
David frowns. "When was that?"
It is Jason who answers. "The League goes back five hundred years to a tavern meeting in Southwark." And the truth about that little business has been successfully hushed up over the intervening centuries, though the argument about the casting of the Lucifer in Doctor Faustus production of 1593 did have fatal consequences for their founder members.
"Hmm." Tom absently fondles the cat which has jumped back up onto the table and is busy inserting its head under his hand. "So what do you actually do?"
His namesake answers. "We travel all over the world, we have phenomenal trained memories, the ability to act any role, and absolute discretion."
"Do you work for the British Government then?"
"Only for pay." (Mark still isn't sure about doing those Covid 19 adverts.)
"We serve a higher authority," says Jason, sounding as if he is quoting a well-rehearsed script. "We protect the Throne. You didn't think all those Knighthoods were for services to acting did you?" He delivers the word with ironic contempt.
Ben gives him a look of exasperation. Some of the members of the group really don't seem to be taking things as seriously as their calling warrants. He continues, presumably from the same script, but more convincingly. "Our profession has always attracted people who are prepared to take risks, with earning a regular salary, if not with their lives. And because we have always travelled a lot no one suspects that we might be doing things other than acting. Especially since we have cultivated a reputation for, shall we say, a lack of intelligence, it is a perfect cover for the intelligence business."
"You mean," asks David, "that every country's actors are also spies?"
Ben laughs. "Oh no. We play to our strengths. In France it was the Bakers Guild who developed the same covert ops side business. There are French chefs working all over the world since at least the Middle Ages. Let them eat cake was not just an expression of aristocratic privilege. It was a coded message from the Throne to a network of royalist spies. Of course they switched allegiance after the Terror."
"And that is what you are asking us to join? What was the Jaguar advert all about then? Didn't it blow your cover?"
"It's called 'hiding in plain sight'," says Ben.
"And besides, it did help fill our coffers," Tom, abandons his popcorn briefly to lift a half-full glass of wine in toast.
"And our garages," Mark looks even more smug, if that is possible.
"By our he means the League car pool," adds Ben, before David can launch a protest.
"We kept the helicopter as well," Tom adds. "Jaguar make helicopters too." He sips wine, before adding, in faultless impersonation*, "Not a lot of people know that."
"We also do a bit of misdirection occasionally. The London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was a nice exercise in combining business with pleasure." Michael winks. "She's a game lady, is Brenda."
Both Tom and David look thoughtful, digesting this information. Ben takes advantage of the pause to put the meeting back on track. "Devils," he reminds them. "Lucifer. Beelzebub. Satan and all his little imps."
"The Serpent in Eden," adds Michael. If they had been in the same room, instead of separated by hundreds, if not thousands of miles, he would have nudged David. David reacts as if he has anyway.
"The question,"Jason breaks in, "is whether the devil, in any incarnation, is actually evil."
Mark nods. "Milton would argue not."
"Not all villains are actually evil," Jason points out. "At least to themselves."
Tom rummages for more popcorn, "But it's so much more fun to play if they are," he smirks "That and the obsession with power."
Mark gives him exactly the same look of resigned exasperation with which he had responded to that sentiment in the Rendevous ad.
"The question," says Ben, attempting for the umteenth time to get the train back on the track, "Is whether these particular performances constitute grounds for admittance to a group known for playing evil villains. Do Lucifer and Crowley qualify?"
"He's the Devil," chorus David and Tom.
"Yes, but is he, in either of your shows, demonstrably evil?"
David thinks rapidly. "Well, Crowley did create the M25. And executed a number of houseplants."
"Not on a par with systematically murdering his brothers," points out Mark.
"One brother," says Tom. But in his defence he was manipulated by his Dad."
"Something of a Gaiman trademark," Mark is acerbic.
"Can we forget Crowley," David asks. "What about Barty Crouch?"
"Doesn't count," Jason explains with an expression of regret. "Pretty much every member of the League did Potter. And besides, Ralph and Alan out-evilled us all."
"So what do you think"
There is a silence as the five members wait for the answer.
"I think," says Tom, carefully, "I think that all this is a load of crock. Playing baddies, working for some Royal secret society; it's all nonsense."
David's eyes gleam, and his smile is pure Crowley. He nods. "Yeah. What he said. You're all bloody good actors, but we're not buying."
Jason blinks. "Very good."
Tom puts down his wineglass and sits up on his sofa. "Oh well done!" he applauds. "It usually takes people much longer."
Ben nods. "Nevertheless, we do have a purpose."
"Even if," says Mark, "the Jaguar stuff is all smoke and mirrors."
"So, bearing that in mind," finishes Michael, "Would you like to join us?"
There is a pause. Two long months of Lockdown and the prospect of more have changed everyone's priorities. Then, in chorus, Tom and David grin. "Hell, Yeah!"
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
*impersonation of Peter Sellers impersonating Michael Caine (Not a lot of people know that either.)
I should like to thank IMBD and You Tube (where I found the complete 2014 Jaguar 'Art of Villainy' series). Also Covid-19 for locking me up with nothing but an internet, TV, and DVDs of Good Omens, Lucifer, Stardust, and Peter Pan. And their extras.
Hence this one-shot. Which may turn into a series. (And I know I haven't finished the Filming HP7 series, but it isn't forgotten.)