21 Jan 2021
The chance to work on Steve McQueen’s acclaimed BBC series Small Axe about London’s West-Indian community was a massive and much wanted opportunity for Annie Little.
“As soon as I heard about Small Axe, I was like I’d sell my kidney to get on the show, so I contacted Nicky Ball at ScreenSkills to see what was possible, and amazingly through the Trainee Finder scheme, I was able to get on it in the hair and make-up department as a junior,” says Annie who was born and lives in London
She was brought on as part of the fittings team, helping dress wigs for the actors as they were tested for their hair and make-up look for the series which was set between the late 1960s and 80s - working from a mood board set up by the hair and make-up designer JoJo Williams in collaboration with McQueen.
“I helped source some wigs and further images of that time period, so we could create a wider mood board for looks that would be applicable to characters of a certain age or style,” explains Annie. “We were working from a wig studio, so we could go into their stockroom, as well as the designer’s own stock.”
But unlike many other trainees, Annie was no novice. She was a qualified hair and make-up and wig specialist, whose early experience included making and selling wigs and working in theatre and for creative companies, including in Canada, where she spent 18 years with her family.
It was when she moved back to London a few years ago to be with her sick parents that she decided to try her hand in the film and TV world. Her first assignment was the ITV series Victoria in 2017, on which she did the hair and make-up for one of the actors in series 2 and was a trainee in series 3.
It wasn’t easy to find further work in the industry, so she decided to apply for the ScreenSkills Trainee Finder programme and was offered a place in 2019. This led to the Small Axe opportunity.
“Because ScreenSkills is a trusted organisation, being on one of its programmes lets others know you are serious about your work and your self-development,” Annie says. Indeed, it was quickly evident that her experience and determination would prove invaluable and so she was attached to work directly with the hair and make-up designer.
“I was supposed to be a trainee, but they gave me the role of hair and make-up junior, helping out with the wigs. I also got the chance to go on set and see how Steve McQueen works, which was brilliant. He’s so hands on. If something needs doing, he doesn’t call someone else to do it, he does it or gets it himself,” Annie enthuses. “He’s also good at getting the actors to go a bit further. He doesn’t rest on what they think is their best but gets them to go deeper. He knows when he’s got a scene but isn’t afraid to let it run to see what else comes out. And he’s not stand-offish. You could be next to him in the lunch queue and he’ll chat, no one’s getting his lunch.”
During her experience on set, Annie decided to also gain further insights and support through ScreenSkills’ mentoring programme, especially as she was still relatively new to the industry. “I asked for a black woman in hair and make-up and got a white man in production,” she laughs. “But actually it was the best thing, as it gave me some distance, perspective and objectivity.”
The mentor she was assigned was producer Neil Chordia, co-founder of Eclipse Films, who gave her an invaluable perspective on how the industry works and who’s who from the top down. “As a trainee looking up, it was really helpful for me,” she says. “Plus, I was having some professional and personal problems, and he was able to explain how he coped in his own situations when running a show.”
After completing her hugely successful stint on Small Axe, ScreenSkills helped Annie move on to the BBC TV film Sitting in Limbo about one man’s struggle to be accepted as a British citizen during the Windrush immigration scandal. “That was an intense experience, but a brilliant project, again working in the hair and make-up department, with a predominantly black cast, filming in and around London, with a smaller team than Small Axe. It was a further great learning experience.”
She then worked in the fitting team on Amazon show The Power between January and March 2020, which took her abroad to South Africa, before Covid struck and put a spanner in the works. Endless Zoom calls to keep learning followed during the first lockdown in the UK. But once restrictions started easing, Annie decided to upgrade her barbering skills with a three-month course at the London School of Barbering.
To help pay for the course, she again returned to ScreenSkills in the hope of receiving as bursary. “I wasn’t sure if I qualified or not, but a friend had used it and said I should apply. So, I did and thankfully was successful,” she says.
While on the barber course, Annie had to wear a visor, gloves and disposable apron, which set her in good stead for the projects to come, including on the independent film Medusa Deluxe, which was shooting in Preston in November during the pandemic.
“I’ve got a potential couple more projects lined up and would like to say a huge thanks to ScreenSkills for providing massive support over the past couple of years, helping me get work on some incredible productions and speak to a range of professionals who know how the industry works, which has helped make me feel confident that I am getting the right information, training and opportunities.”