Viv Placks is an amazing make-up artist who trained and worked at the BBC and then went on to have a successful 40 year career in both film and television. Viv has worked on a staggering list of legendary faces such as Julie Andrews, Liam Neeson, Shirley McClaine, George Hamilton, Julie Walters, Ian Charleson, Rupert Everett, Sharon Stone, Gene Wilder, Mike Myers and Margaret Thatcher! During the nineties Viv spent the decade as Department Head on Birds of A Feather, a BBC1 prime time show that everyone watched. As my mothers best friend her vast knowledge has been a huge source of help and guidance for me during my career, most notably getting me through the toughest job I ever had! Here Viv shares some of her fascinating stories and, of course, her best make-up artist tips.
Snapshot of a 40 year film & TV career

MANW: Hi Viv, you're semi-retired but how did you start your career and what was its progression?
VP: I left school in 1963, I was 15 with no qualifications but I always knew I wanted to be a make-up artist. I only wanted to train at the BBC, but you had to be 21 and have qualifications for their training course, so I went to Tottenham Technical College on a two year Beauty & Hairdressing City and Guilds course and then worked on various make-up counters at a large department store on London's Oxford Street (it's no longer there). I kept writing and ringing the BBC and I finally started the course when I turned 21. It was fantastic training, they taught you everything; period make-up, wigs, cuts and bruises, broken bones, all of it. I was there from 1968-1972 and I worked on a variety of programmes, including my favourite Top Of The Pops where I helped make-up David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Brian Ferry, Elton John, Paul McCartney and loads of others. I was a huge Beatles fan and thrilled to have Paul McCartney's face in my hands, I even kept the soup bowl from his lunch! 

After 4 years I took a huge leap from the security of the BBC to the cut-throat world of freelance make-up, where there were so many girls vying for work. I made cards with my name and number and trudged around Soho, in London, where all the commercial companies seemed to be. There was so much rejection, most of the secretaries didn't even look up at me but, eventually, I got a phone call for a Heinz Tomato Soup advert. I was so nervous, but I was also quite a looker which helped! From that job I got another and it snowballed by word of mouth, all fantastic work and great money but very sporadic, maybe once or twice a month. I worked on commercials and music videos (promos) which were hard work, very long hours and not much money but I didn't care, I loved it. I did promos for all the pop stars at the time like Simple Minds, Madness, Barry Manilow, Claire Grogan and Dexys Midnight Runners 'Come on Eileen' which won an award!

MANW: You went on to have a very successful TV and film career. Now it's extremely difficult to move from TV into film and vice versa. Was it difficult back then and how did you manage it? 
VP: I can't remember the first film I worked on but it must have been through a recommendation. The first film I Chiefed was Underworld in 1984, starring Larry Lamb (who's in Gavin and Stacey now), which had a lot of prosthetics in it, so I learnt a lot. The film world was very tight knit and names would be passed around. Early on I remember getting a call to look after a particularly difficult American actress for a film and I think that put my name out there that I could be relied on.

MANW: Even as a daily* did you prefer working on films instead of TV and promos? 

VP: Films  are very different to the way the rest of the industry works, they are much slower with more time to make-up the artists, which I prefer. I would do promo tours for films traveling everywhere with the leads, which was quite an experience, particularly Austin Powers with Mike Myers. His wife came with and they were both so much fun, but it was the week Diana died so everyone was quite sad. I worked directly with some wonderful lead actors and directors, like Gene Wilder, who was wonderful and I wished every job could be as pleasurable as it was with him. You build relationships you wouldn't have time for on commercials or promos and I had some great experiences that will stay with me forever. We filmed Mutiny on the Bounty on a wonderful island in Tahiti (tough job!) and I got a tattoo to celebrate such a beautiful place, I remember talking Daniel Day Lewis out of getting one as I knew how hard tattoos were for a make-up artist to cover! I also remember putting tattoos on Liam Neeson for another film and having to check they were still okay right before his shower scene and he had no reservations getting naked for me to inspect my work. I blushed from head to toe, whilst he and all the crew laughed at me- another experience I will never forget! I worked on so many films, including Fifth Element, The Shining, and Golden Eye and, even as a daily, I preferred being on a film set.
MANW: Where you never tempted to go down the fashion or editorial route?  

VP: I did a few photographic sessions, one being Soft Cell 'Tainted Love' album cover and a couple of fashion shoots but they took ages to pay and were too posy and clicky for me, it wasn't something I really enjoyed.

MANW: I remember coming to a taping of Birds of a Feather when I was younger, which may have been my first inspiration to do this as a career! What are the good and bad of working on a long running series or film?  

VP: Films are very long hours and physical work, it's not a glamorous industry. I worked on a film at a Pontins beach in Kent, right by a nuclear power station and that was the coldest I have ever been in my life, it's not always 5 star luxury! Once I got married and had a child it wasn't ideal to be away filming so I went back to TV to chief Press Gang (huge TV show in early 90's) and from there I moved to Birds Of A Feather and stayed there for its full 9 year run. The girls (the three main actresses) were fab to work with, we all got on and became close friends, which was lovely but the trouble committing to a show like Birds is we only recorded once a week, plus occasional location work, so taking and fitting in other work was very difficult. Also, 'Birds' was filmed in front of a live audience every week which was terrifying! We always had fab Christmas specials with lovely guests, like Richard Branson and George Hamilton, and they were a lot of fun.

MANW What is the process of creating a characters look and how limited were you? 

VP: Creating the look for 'Birds' was quite simple- two suburban housewives and one fashion conscious woman of a certain age, with an eye for the men. Lesley Joseph, who played Dorien the man-eater, was very professional and knew what look suited the part, so we worked together on creating her.  'More was more' with Dorien's character and she was great fun to do- loads of make-up, nails and lashes. There were never any budget limits placed on any of the characters I worked on or designed in my career; tattoos, scars, missing limbs etc. I did it all, unless I couldn't handle the job and then I employed a prosthetics specialist. Not having the money never seemed to limit what we could do back then, but I was trained at the BBC to do bald caps, blood and guts etc so, to a degree, I could do most of it.

MANW: You worked with some legendary actors, like Shirley McClaine and Julie Andrews. Can you tell us about any stand out moments of your career?
VP: I was called to make-up Mrs Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in October 1984, the day Mrs Ghandi was assassinated. Normally she just had a hairdresser but that day she wanted a make-up artist before she spoke to, what would be, world wide news coverage. It was the most terrifying and nerve wracking experience of my career, plus I had no idea what to wear- jeans? dress? fatigues?! The best part was getting in a cab and saying "Take me to 10 Downing Street- it's for England!" I had 15 minutes to make her up and she was very calm and kind. I told her I was nervous and she smiled and said "please don't be nervous my dear" but I still was, imagine telling Mrs Thatcher to stop talking and blot! It was a great experience, not many people can say they made up the Prime Minister. 

MANW: You've been in the industry a long time, how do you think it has changed and what advice would you give to new artists starting out?
VP: The industry has changed dramatically, when I started you had to be in a union to work in films and it was very strict. You also never dared touch a brush because hairdressing was forbidden except for the hairdresser employed and vice versa. Today you need both hair & make-up skills to get a job to keep costs down. We worked long hours but we also got huge overtime rates, now you work 24/7 for very little and it seems like the
craft is not as respected as it used to be. It was also not as easy back them for untrained or self-taught artists to 'get by'. It was a tight knit community and very nepotistic, that probably hasn't changed much! 

I would advise anyone wanting to go into this industry to get as much education and qualifications as possible. Then be determined to do whatever it takes to get a foothold in, that means working long hours, in all conditions, without moaning. Keep confidences, always be polite, don't gossip and try to keep a low profile, yet be efficient. If you are willing, flexible and have a nice personality you will do okay- if you really really want to do something you will!

MANW: All artists have a 'wish list', mine is The Mighty Boosh.
Christine Cant did an amazing job with the wild character make-up. Are there any shows you would have loved to work on? 

VP: Yes, True Blood! I love all the blood, guts and the humour, I would have loved to work on that show.

MANW: Ok, on to the good stuff. What are your tricks for flawless looking skin?  

VP: To get flawless looking make-up you need to prepare the skin underneath. Get a good cleansing routine, exfoliate exfoliate exfoliate, drink lots of water and have a happy disposition and smile. A smile and an even skin tone are the best beauty products you can have. I also always use a primer and good quality sponges from a specialist make-up store, not the cheap high street ones that soak up all the make-up.

MANW: What are your top 5 holy grail kit products?
VP: Clarins Beauty Flash Balm, Carita Glowing Wrinkle Smoother for under moisturiser, By Terry Light Expert foundation and concealer, Mac Strobe cream and a good red lipstick.

MANW: Finally, false eyelashes - the longer the better or enough already they look ridiculous?  

VP: The long Towie ones look ridiculous but done properly and personally fitted they are fantastic. I have a very expensive lash-extension addiction!

* A daily is hired on a 'daily' basis to come in as and when needed for the duration of a shoot to work on any non-lead actors. eg. secondary actors or crowd scenes.

If you liked this interview and would like to read other leading industry makeup artists stories have a look at the rest of the 'Meet The Artist' series here.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if Viv remembers working with an actor called John Segal and what it was like and has she seen his FB page?


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