Liza Frank was born in Twickenham in the seventies and has spent most of her life in a theatre, on a film set or setting up a photo shoot. In 2007, her photography graduation exhibition was published as the book My Celebrity Boyfriend by Bloomsbury. S
he lives in Brighton and is currently working on a community oral history and photography project about tea.
View as PDF: Liza Frank - The Billy Ray? Project
The Billy Ray? Project
Billy Ray # 16: How To Put a Plank On a Boat
Mark Wilfred Anstey, Son of a Lay Preacher
25th October 2006
To put a plank on a boat you will need latex gloves, pacific maple ply, brass rivets, dollies, a hammer, epoxy resin, a drill, screws, a screw driver (slotted), spreaders, wedges, clamps, chalk, saws, a plane, a tape measure, a chisel, a guider and a plan.
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In early 1995 I was working at the new Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey. I’d started out stage managing the original venue, The Room Above The Pub, two years before and bar a couple of requests for prop making, it had been my first proper job out of drama school. I loved it but gradually I migrated across the road and instead of making sets out of scavenged wood and beer crates, I was now in and out of the less charming but better equipped new theatre. As well as occasionally being their Assistant Stage Manager, I also had stints working behind the bar and filling in for various people when they went away. On one such holiday cover, I became the Assistant Wardrobe Mistress on the play The Memorandum in which thirteen characters needed their shirts washed, starched and ironed for every performance. So every morning I would set up my ironing board outside the women’s toilets, dump the basket of fresh washing on the floor and start the Pulp Fiction soundtrack on my Walkman. I was obsessed with this album. The film had given me a migraine but the music was sublime. For two weeks I played it relentlessly while I ironed, and the song that captured me most was Son of a Preacher Man sung by Dusty Springfield.
In 1968, Ronnie Wilkins, a self confessed mischief maker and grandson to two preaching grandfathers, wrote Son of a Preacher Man with singer-songwriter, John Hurley. They had daughter of a preacher man, Aretha Franklin in mind when they wrote it but whether she allegedly turned it down for being disrespectful or whether the Tree Publishing Company President, Jerry Wexler made the decision for it to go elsewhere, by the time Franklin recorded her version in 1970, Son Of A Preacher Man was a worldwide hit and synonymous with Springfield. In an interview in the Robesonian in 2004, Wilkins is quoted as saying, “We started in a writing room at 3 in the morning for 'Preacher' and it took about 15 minutes as I said a line and John said a line… When we had it totally finished at 4 or 5 a.m., I remember jumping up and down and hugging because it was good."
The music took my mind off the ironing; I tried to picture Captain Kangaroo, whistled tunelessly along to Red Dress, shoulder danced to Dick Dale but mostly I thought about Billy Ray, the eponymous Son of a Preacher Man. I wondered what he looked like, if he was just after a quick shag, did he have any romantic feelings for the girl? And apart from the obvious, I wondered what it was he could have taught her. Just a flickering thought, but every time I heard the song, the thought would would pop back up. Soon after I finished on The Memorandum, I packed up and moved to Leeds to ASM and the cycle was broken; my obsession was replaced by all things Tom Waits, Abbey Road and Elvis Costello. I thought no more about Billy Ray until the following Christmas.
The Christmases of 1995 and ’96, I ASM’d Peter Pan at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Apart from playing various versions of Tinkerbell, I spent most of the time running around trying to keep everything in order and avoiding being humped by Nana the dog. Matthew Warchus was the director and my first sentient encounter with a Billy Ray. He was laid back and polite, he apologised after quietly bawling me out when I told him the crocodile couldn’t make it into rehearsals, I won him a tenner both years after he laid bets with the designer on who I’d hook up with at the Christmas party. He was charming, a talented director, easy on the eye and he let me play with his watch that had an engraved inscription from Sean Connery on the back. But he didn’t quite fit my idea of Billy Ray. Although, he did teach me that it’s prudent to keep a straight face when someone is telling you how appalling the situation they now find themselves in, through no fault of their own, is.
For two years after Leeds, I dotted around the country working in various theatres until I fetched up at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1997, where over the next four years I would meet my next three Billy Rays. Nigel Edwards was my lighting designer on Roberto Zucco at The Other Place. He had spiky blond peroxide hair like a 1980’s Chris Packham, and wore very tight leather trousers. He smoked a lot despite being quite asthmatic which exasperated me, not just because I was trying to give up. Most of our conversations took place when I stood at the bottom his ladder as he adjusted the lights above. The second was the actor Julian Ovenden, who was in the Ninagawa production of King Lear in the Main House while I was having a miserable time on The Taming of the Shrew in the Swan. The two theatres were connected via a dock corridor and while we waited for our respective cues we would sometimes sit on stray pieces of set and pass the time. He was rather debonair and I blushed a lot at the beginning. He told me that he used to have tea with the Queen as his dad was her chaplain. Third was Tim Smith, my Front of House Manager at the Barbican for the 1998-99 season and later on my Tour Manager on a dreadful production of Duchess of Malfi. He once asked me, very politely, if I could please curb my swearing. The very epitome of a good egg in John Lennon glasses, he always made the best possible fist out of any untenable situation.
From being quite oblivious to the Billy Rays around me, I was now becoming highly attuned; Hugh Dennis from The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Alice Cooper, Lemmie from Motörhead, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, David Frost, Jon Snow. They were accumulating, I just had no idea what to do about it.
On the day I delivered my first book, My Celebrity Boyfriend, I properly, finally began The Billy Ray? Project. I’d started kicking around both ideas at a local FE college in 2001, but ended up graduating with Boyfriend as my final exhibition piece in 2004. Bored and sleep deprived, I had left stage management and had gone back to school. I had had no idea what I was going to do as I’d only ever wanted to work in theatre. So I chose two subjects that interested me and hoped that something might come out of it at the end. The first was British Sign Language. I’d been introduced to BSL by the woman who signed for the productions at Leeds and I thought that it was something that I could do. That idea lasted into the second term of my second year when I realised I hadn’t studied enough for the exam and that I was mostly signing back to front.
The second subject was photography as I’d always liked the idea of learning about cameras, and after three years I had two diplomas and was quietly amassing lenses. I had no real ambition to be a photographer and the localised success of Boyfriend would have stayed as being just that had I not been working as a children’s shoe fitter in Hove. My boss was the wife of one of the Boyfriends and her best friend’s sister was a commissioning editor at Bloomsbury. Sharon told her friend about the project, who told her sister, who called me in for a meeting and commissioned me there and then. So for the next couple of years Celebrity Boyfriends were the only thing I could concentrate on. Except, of course, that they weren’t.
Being one of the older students on my courses, I’d become friendly with my teachers who were more or less the same age as me. One year, Sarah, my principle photography teacher, decided to have a Madonna themed birthday party. One of her friends, Mike who I’d met a couple of times, lived round the corner from me and I offered him a lift. I was going as Evita. I don’t remember what he was going as but he turned up wearing a top hat with a flower in it and borrowed my red lipstick to finish off the look. I don’t know when I became aware that he was a son of a preacher man but the memory of him standing in my bathroom and applying his makeup is the one that I associate most with this revelation. Despite being busy with a million other things, the idea of Billy Ray never really went away, it couldn’t, by now They were everywhere. Even Doctor Who was one.
So I decided to go out and find them. Find them, interview them, take their photograph and then get them to teach me something, as the only one who could ever teach me… And I didn’t mind what it was they wanted to teach me as long as it was something they thought I should know. I started by sending out an email to all my friends asking them if they knew of any and to pass my details along to anyone that might be interested. And they did and within a couple of weeks I had several leads. I wrote my questionnaire, began a spreadsheet and borrowed a minidisc recorder and a microphone. Then one cold, bright Saturday afternoon armed with two cameras and a bag of equipment, I went round to Mike’s bedsit and learnt how to summon my Guardian Angel.
It was fun. Slightly shocking and intimate, but fun. I began travelling round London and the South East at the weekends learning how to tell a dirty joke, how to order vegetarian food in Greek, how to roll a Katamari. As the release date for Boyfriend got closer, I decided to run away and went to Australia and New Zealand and carried on finding them there too. I met one in a bar in Perth but didn’t believe him so he rang his father in Montreal who confirmed he’d bought a licence to preach for $20 in New York in the 1980s. A Kiwi bus driver confessed to being one as our tour group had breakfast in a caravan park on the North Island. I went into the outback and had a synaesthetic experience while firing a gun, learnt the words to a haka wedged in the footwell of a coach driving across The Coromandel and experienced how to make the perfect cup of coffee in a cafe in Melbourne. I came home, Boyfriend was published and I carried on.
One cried because he hadn’t talked about his father since he’d died two years previously, not even to his wife. Another admitted something equally as sad after I’d turned off the microphone. I hadn’t been prepared for that. When I had written the questionnaire my end game was to relax my subject so that taking the photo wouldn’t be too painful for either of us. While some brushed the questions away in the spirit of the game I thought we were playing, others felt them keenly and responded with an honesty that made me feel grubby for asking. They trusted me. I feel very protective of them. Many made me laugh. It never occurred to me that communion wine and wafers are ordered from the church equivalent of the Argos catalogue or that one Billy Ray grew up fully believing that all men wore dresses. I fell in love with one of them. The pockets of time I spent in their company never failed to fascinate me: what they decided was necessary I should know, whether their choice of career had been influenced by their father’s, whether they’d ever used the song to their advantage.
I find it quite difficult to listen to the song now, even the arguably better Tina Turner live version. I’ll often fast forward if it comes on, or walk out of a shop if it’s playing. I’m not any less beguiled by the thought of Billy Ray it’s just that the song brings back so many memories: of being too polite to say anything as the Billy Ray poured chicken stock into the dish just after we’d discussed I was vegetarian, or being at a party trying to do an interview while a woman was lying on a grand piano behind us having coke snorted off her breasts. Going back and doing ‘proper’ work after that was always going to be hard without Wilkins and Hurley there to remind me of what I was missing.
In the end, I got a very silly job with very silly hours and everything else got packed away (even though my boss would send me emails like Our new culture secretary is the son of a preacher man). Then I got it into my head that I wanted to be a teacher so went to university to get a degree. In my final year, I worked in a school just to make sure, but within a month I knew I’d got that wrong. It’s not that I don’t like teaching, I just discovered that I liked being taught more.
So this is what I’ve been taught. Welcome to the Billy Ray? Project, or How To Make A Raspberry Soufflé And 49 Other Things You Never Knew A Son Of A Preacher Man Could Teach You...