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Most senior managers have spent years in local government climbing the greasy pole, but Lambeth's Michael Bridgelan...
Most senior managers have spent years in local government climbing the greasy pole, but Lambeth's Michael Bridgeland

trod a different path - the boards. Chris Mahony spoke to him

Actors often 'take a show on the road', but Michael Bridgeland's dramatic career change took the saying quite literally.

Lambeth LBC's acting head of transport and highways only entered local government three years ago after well over a decade pursuing his acting and directing ambitions.

Bitten by the acting bug while studying at Imperial College London, he ditched his engineering studies and opted to gamble he could be that rare beast - an actor who carves out a decent living.

Mr Bridgeland earned his Equity card via a circus show in which he 'ran around with a 12ft inflatable giant on my back wrestling with another chap with a 12ft inflatable giant on his back'. Stints with educational theatre troupes and small-scale theatre work on the fringes of London and Edinburgh were interspersed with market research and time share selling.

'I carried on like that for about 10 years and I had said I'd give it five. By that time I had developed a far greater interest in directing productions so I studied directing at a drama school and started directing.

'One of the reasons I went into directing was because I realised that I was quite good at getting people to do things. Essentially directing is about getting actors to all act the same play. All actors have got egos and they all want to go in their own direction.'

It began to dawn on him that skills learned in the theatre could be universal.

'The main skill really was this ability to get people to do things and to want to do things - essentially that is management.'

He decided to fuse twin passions by applying for two 'half-time jobs' promoting cycling. He had been a cycling campaigner during his theatre life. A cyclist all his life, he suddenly found himself in possession of two proper, paying jobs - one with a local cycling campaign and the second with Sustrans, co-ordinating events to mark the launch of the national cycling network in London in 2000.

Despite his passion for the cause he admits to growing a little weary from the push me-pull me problems of two nominally half-time jobs and successfully applied for the full-time post of Lambeth's cycle projects manager.

His lack of engineering and local government background meant he did not really expect to get what is a fairly senior post. A little over a year later he emerged from an internal recruitment process as acting head of transport and highways.

He seems genuinely excited - perhaps displaying the endearing enthusiasm of the relative new boy - by the opportunity to effect change.

But he inevitably admits to some initial frustration at least at the feeling that achieving change is 'sometimes like pushing water uphill'.

Seemingly an optimist by nature, Mr Bridgeland believes his old life has equipped him for the new challenges.

'The main advantage I have had is the factthat I have not got all this baggage. I work with a lot of people who have worked in local authorities all their lives and to an extent they have been sort of worn down by the system. One of the things I learned very quickly was how long things take.'

At both public meetings and in presentations to councillors, he draws on skills he prefers to think of as 'presentational' rather than acting.

'I know how to talk to an audience. I do feel sometimes I have a distinct advantage. In preparation for those large meetings everybody gets nervous. The guys with less experience get nervous because they think of things that might go wrong. I get nervous in the same way as I might if playing a football match - because it is going to be exciting. You never know what is going to happen.'

If prompted, he would urge councillors and officers to seize the chance of public speaking training.

'There are some very simple techniques. Things like eye contact, breathing. It sounds stupid but people don't always remember to breathe. When you put little things like that together it completely removes the mystique.'

Having talked about actors' egos earlier, the temptation to ask whether those of councillors are as bad proves impossible to resist.

So are there more prima donnas in the council chamber than the dressing room?

His response is disappointingly diplomatic. 'Oh dear. No, I don't think so. The acting profession is full of insecure people with fragile egos. That is where prima donnas come from. I think a lot of politicians are insecure as well and can be swayed by the thought of losing a few votes. That is sometimes what it feels like but you just have to get on with the job.'

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