Sitting in a Bugatti in a freezing gale at the top of a one-time speed hillclimb course, at the behest of the “Top Gear” ‘1V programme, I thought back to a few other times when I have been “on the air”. At first it was very new and exciting, cables snaking across the studio, worried technicians abounding (not to mention bounding) and all sorts of worries for producers, not least whether the victim about to be shot on camera might, to calm the nerves, have had a drop too much. . .
It was in something of this backdrop that I occasionally performed. Well, I talk too much, and if I was to earn a buttered crust or two by doing so into a microphone, why not? When some topical subject cropped up I have a suspicion that the TV chaps used to ring the top GP drivers and motoring writers to find someone to launch a discussion. But if a major race was about to take place, all were abroad. But I wasn’t, because DS) was, in those days. So my assistance might be resorted to. I recall being told that a Monte Carlo Rally piece was going out “live” and could I chat for a few minutes about the days when this was a truly tough assignment, starting from queer places in unheated open cars? “Certainly.” (those buttered crusts!). “OK, it’s at Broadcasting House in London.” “Where do I park?” “You’ll have to find a meter — but it’s “live”, so don’t be late.” Meter no problem. Present myself to uniformed commissionaire. “Ah, it’s live, someone is coming for you”. Girl leads me down steps and along endless corridors, to a small waiting room. “They will fetch you.” Time passes. Nothing. Phone rings. Should I answer it? Well, no-one else. “Who are you?” “WB.” ;Christ, where are you, have you been made-up, (EH?) well, keep calm, but it’s nearly on. Look on the door and tell me the number. Christ, not there. . .” Eventual patter of running feet and I am hustled into a cable-snakey, brightly-lit
studio. Alas, the old Rally footage has just been shown and they are mouthing “And now, the editor of MOTOR SPORT is here to recall those heroic men and women and what they endured . . .” Panic! But it wasn’t difficult for me to mumble a few relevant thoughts into the microphone about those pre-war winter rallies. I got my crust, and a letter thanking me for “saving the Show!”
Another time it was to be about what a motoring journalist actually does. “Could we do it at your house? Is there anywhere we could go for filming? You have a ‘motoring dog’ — could you bring him?” “Yes, and there’s Fleet Common and yes, but its a bitch, actually.” I even asked if a “secret” new car would be of value, as I happened to be testing a yet-to-be released BMC front-driver. “Oh, please.” I cleared that with the BMC. So off went the vans, the technical chaps, the continuity-girls (one had thoughtfully brought choc-drops for the labrador), the camera crew — and me. Unfortunately aeroplanes from near-by RAE Farnborough would drown the sound. “Oh, good, it’s going away.” But I knew it was very likely to circle and quickly return, very low. . After that long day and much use of my telephone, 1 got a very tiny crust — margarine instead of butter! The dog wrote to thank them, asking when her master’s fee would arrive. Sadly, they were not amused! Next, having a rally to cover in Wales, BBC 11/ decided to make full use of the journey by interviewing me as well, finding that was where I had moved to. Vast vans in our fields for days, security men, camera crews, and on the day, Cliff Michelmore himself. He
was driving with obvious pride the very latest BMW (unfortunately for him, I had one too, mine a test car, so we both drove in these to lunch). The commotion had long died down, when, knock on door. Security man — “Would you please lock up your dog while I walk ours?” “No need, BBC left two days ago.. .”
I had to go to London (MOTOR SPORT calling) when that programme went out. Passing a radio shop in the dusk I saw a ‘TV set working, just as the show was coming on. Stopped to watch. Suspicious policeman sidled up. “I have been watching you, SIR. What’s going on, SIR.” “Look,” I replied, “there’s me!”, pointing to the set. He stayed to watch. .
Two final TV episodes, both at Alexandra Palace. I did a talk with Lord Stokes, who arrived with his Personal Assistant. Girl asks “Is your PA coming?” “Well, no.” The new Rover 2000 with its quickly-detachable body-panels, for easy repair, was discussed. “But didn’t Citroen do it first?” 1 asked. Going down in the lift afterwards Lord S looked at me and said “I don’t know why you had to mention the Citroen.” I don’t like lifts but it made that one bearable! Another time a Labour MP II can’t recall his name) did an anti-motorist interview about how all speed-limits should be rigidly observed, fines increased, what a killer speed is etc, I did my best to counter this. Show over. he was desperate to get to the House of
Commons for the late sitting. But no TV car could be found. As I was going to pass the H of C anyway, I offered him a lift. I kept strictly to the 30 and 40 mph limits, of course. “Do you always drive this slowly? Can’t you go faster?” he almost yelled, repeatedly looking at his watch. But he got his revenge. At the H of C entrance he said, “I’m late, drive in.” A burly policeman glanced through the car windows, recognised the MP, and waved me on. But have you ever tried to get OUT of the House of Commons Yard without a pass?
Curious, the things you remember, sitting in an old racing car at the top of a hill on a winter’s day. . .
The Motor Car
Isee the BBC is helping the Government in its anti-motoring campaign. But whereas the latter is still spending money (our tax-money) on roads, Michael Palin, in Car Sick, presented for Transport 2000 the argument that more railways are needed and that if billions of pounds were spent thus, we could all survive without cars. What nonsense! Do you want to give up your car? Before anyone says they do, and those in rural publictransport-starved areas won’t, stop to compare door-to-door times with train-travel, and the cost of motoring, especially in shared cars, with rail tickets! Car Sick tried to get its message over by showing traffic hold-ups into and out of London, on what are at present inadequate roads. But once away from such frustrating congestion, there are many routes on which it is a pleasure to be in a motor-car. As for pollution, even Transport 2000 admits that power stations, needed to run trains, pollute. . .
Just try to get people to give up their most prized possession after house and family! Significant perhaps that when the Daily Mail did a story about a family of 18 children brought up in a working-class, but happy, environment and interviewed the kids after they had grown up, many of them were glad to have owned a car. Most of us are. . . So, of course, it is sensible to try to educate the young to the dangers of badly-driven cars. The very costly BBC Drive series, with Alexei Sayle and an horrific approach, may, or may not, be helpful. The money might be better spent on giving police instruction to young persons at youth-training centres and clubs, perhaps with demonstration rides in police cars? — anything to keep them away from TV’s Ben Elton and Dave Allen!
Credit where due
In a leading article “Why DO We lose everything — Crushed at cricket, Ridiculed at Rugby and Shamed at Soccer, now Torvill and Dean can only finish third in the Olympics”, the Daily Mail’s Ian Wooldridge asks why we are “failing so abysmally in virtually every field of sporting endeavour”. Not quite every field, Mr Wooldridge. You omitted to mention that Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill are doing rather well in top class motor-racing and that Richard Noble still holds the World’s Land Speed Record after 10 years with “Thrust II”, at 633.468 mph. W B
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