We Made It: Stuntwoman Tracy Caudle

With a raft of high-quality digital effects available, real stunts might seem a little old-fashioned. In truth, the art of the stunt is alive and well: according to veteran performer Tracy Caudle, not only is it often cheaper to film the real thing, but “a computerised fall never looks quite right.” She has filmed scenes for TV and film, and with credits including Skyfall, Shaun of the Dead, Midsomer Murders and Doctor Who, chances are you’ve seen her fall to her death, crash a car or come to grisly grief one way or another, many times over.

But while stunt performers have a reputation for dangerous daredevil feats, they are often employed to carry out fairly mundane tasks, just to get the job done quickly. “Sometimes it’s just about being confident driving a car,” explains Tracy. “It might be a big 4x4 that the actor isn’t happy to drive. If you’ve got someone who can drive at precisely the right speed and stop at exactly that mark, it saves doing loads of takes and spending all day filming with actors. It’s health and safety too: you might double for an elderly actor who really can’t fall over. And I did a scene for Silent Witness where I was thrown against a glass window. If an accident did happen, an actor isn’t covered, but we are insured to do that sort of thing.”

A ludicrously inappropriate outfit might be all it takes to merit the services of a stunt performer. In 2014, the celebrity press got hot under the collar over an X Factor trailer in which Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (Cheryl Cole as she was then) rode an improbably large motorbike wearing a leather catsuit and stilettoes. Indeed, the scenario was so absurd that Tracy filmed the entire sequence as Cheryl’s stunt double.

“She can’t ride a motorbike and the outfit really wasn’t suitable, so I took over,” explains Tracy. “We did lots of riding around London – playing with motorbikes, really. Louis Walsh drove his own car, and we went round Somerset House through the fountains. It was all shot at night and we had a police escort. They stopped the traffic and I had the Blackwall Tunnel all to myself – I could go as fast as I wanted.”

It wasn’t all fun though. “I had these high-heeled shoes and had to swing my leg out to change gear. One of the police motorcyclists said he didn’t know how I did it. But if I hadn’t been able to ride the bike, I’d have just had to lose the shoes. The thing is you don’t realise how difficult it is if you don’t ride a motorbike yourself.”

Falls and car knockdowns are more hazardous, but regular jobs for Tracy. Doubling for Brooke Vincent who plays Sophie Webster in Coronation Street, she was hit by a car, smashing the windscreen and landing on the road (main picture). As footage from the shoot shows, Tracy had a chance to practise, but there could only be one take. “Once you’ve cracked the windscreen you can’t do it again.”

Tracy knows from experience how to jump and roll to make the crash look convincing, but the success of the stunt also depends on setting up the shot properly, ensuring that the correct camera angles are used and the cars are travelling at the right speed. “That scene was at 13mph, but if the car had been doing 15mph, I’d have gone up and over the top.” Filmed from the right angle, the speed of the collision looks much faster.

Hers is a notoriously dangerous profession, but the worst injury Tracy has had is a twisted ankle. “You try to eliminate risk as much as you can, but still get the best action.”  While CGI is no substitute for the real thing, Tracy says that technology has made her life easier. “It makes the process quicker and you can add things in. There’s no point now in doing a 120ft fall when you can overlap film, and just do a 60ft fall. It’s affected the job from a safety point of view.”

Bigger jobs are managed by a stunt co-ordinator, but Tracy often works alone, setting up, taking over the camera and performing the stunt herself. Driving a car through a brick wall for Coronation Street took considerable skill, but it was also up to her to advise on the set-up of the wall and modifications that needed to be made to the car.

"The wall couldn’t be completely solid because you’d just bounce off it. And you have to have the right vehicle. A lot of cars, new cars, are made to crumple, which obviously is no good. You don’t have much petrol, just a little petrol feed at the back so you don’t explode, and you need the brake lights and the airbag taken out. If you go through a wall your windscreen will crack so then you can’t see, so you put barrels the other side so you know when to stop.” Often old cars are better for stunts, she explains: “If you want to skid, you don’t want ABS so that has to come out. And older cars have proper handbrakes, which you need for a skid.”

As a stuntwoman with 19 years’ experience, Tracy finds that she is doing more driving and motorcycle work as time goes on. She doesn’t anticipate retiring, and says the fun of the job is too big a draw for her to stop. “Sometimes I get to the top of a flight of stairs and think ‘Have I really got to roll down those?’ But you just do it. I’ll always want to have a bit of fun screeching a car round a corner, but maybe I won’t want to take the harder knocks as I get older. But I’ll still enjoy the way of life.”

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