One-day return to Bath Spa
A very enjoyable diversion today, in the historic City of Bath. I had been called up by BBC Bristol (with whom I have worked twice before, on a Time Shift documentary about the Centrial Office of Information that is due to be shown on BBC4 in two weeks, and a failed pilot for a series called The Times Of Our Lives, which involved a lot of me “walking and talking” as they say in the trade, and being shipped around assorted locations between Oxford and Bristol in search of “real people” and their memories and archives, which will never be shown unless you ask to view my showreel) – this time to present a short film about the BBC1 drama series Life On Mars, around the re-showing of which on BBC4, they are theming an evening of programmes. I jumped at the chance, a) because I like doing TV, b) I like the people at BBC Bristol, c) I love Life On Mars, and d) I would get to drive an original 1973 Ford Cortina.
Catching the 8.13 from Reigate and changing at Reading, I arrived in Bath Spa just before 10.30 and was collected from the station by Caroline and Kristin, production assistant and researcher. Francis Welch was in charge, as producer/director, a disarmingly youthful chap, but then that is often the way in television. First cameraman was Pete, soundman was Nic and shamefully, I’ve forgotten the name of the second cameraman, which is very bad form. Please never let me be the kind of presenter who forgets the name of the second cameraman. Anyway. I was whisked to a piece of picturesque wasteground with a gasworks in the background (very Sweeney, which was the masterplan), where a red Cortina was being driven, screeching, round in circles, by its owner Dwayne, and filmed in the rear view mirror. It was bitterly cold. This is why film crews all wear puffa jackets and woolly caps as industry standard.
Fully insured for the occasion by the BBC, I was called upon to drive the Cortina into shot (it will, of course, look as if I was doing the stunt driving when it’s edited together) and deliver a “piece to camera” (the technical term for delivering a piece to camera) out of the car window. Then I had to drive off. In terms of TV presenting, this is fairly basic stuff, hitting a mark etc. But for me, it was a first, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love to learn how to do new things, even if they are ultimately useless things unless you happen to be presenting a TV programme on wasteground. Filming, even on this scale, takes a long time, as the producer, director and cameraman always want “coverage”. They film everything more than once, and from every angle, so that back in the edit suite, they’ll have footage to service every eventuality.
Bored? Here’s a picture of a car. (Not the but the same model and colour)
Next, I had to do a variation on the same speech (which I memorised: “So what’s behind the success of Life On Mars? Is just a nostalgic romp for lovers of bad shirts and glam rock? Or does the show prove that British audiences are hungry from drama that pushes back the boundaries?”), which involved turning off the engine, getting out of the car, shutting the door and walking round to perch on the bonnet in a 70s cop-show kind of way, talking all the while and looking in to the camera. Pretty tricky, I think you’ll agree, but we nailed it in four. Then it was off to an Irish pub called the Rummer in central Bath, where the bulk of the film was to take place. First though, I had to drive the Cortina into a parking space, get out and walk into the pub (at which point, you must be slack-jawed at the multi-skilling TV professional I clearly am). This took quite a few goes, as we had to wait until there were no buses pulled in at the other side of the road, as they ruined the shot, and there were a lot of buses. Also, Kristin had to stop the traffic, with no greater authority to do so than the fluorescent tabard she was wearing. (People do respect day-glo yellow. Someone should write a thesis on that.) I also had to get back in the car and pull out into traffic, for an end shot.
Eventually, with all this in the can, and Dwayne profusely thanked for the lend of his Cortina, we moved inside the pub – a really excellent, welcoming, old-fashioned wooden city pub, purpose built I understand – to warm back up. While the rest of them them set up in a private room upstairs, I ate Irish stew and parsnip soup, as it was St Patrick’s Day – surely the finest pub food I have ever eaten, all homemade. At this point, far away from home, my day took on a surreal aspect. The bar staff were wearing those hilarious novelty top hats made to look like giant pints of Guinness, which is what all Irish people wear in Ireland, day in day out. Irish folk music was played over the PA.
To cut to the chase, the bulk of the programme was a discussion, which I chaired, between the three creators of Life On Mars, writers Tony Jordan, Ashley Pharaoh and Matthew Graham, and John Yorke, head of drama at the BBC. (Bit of history: John produced the first ever radio Stuart and I ever did, on Radio 5 back in 1991. I also worked under him at EastEnders between 2000 and 2002. Tony was series consulant on the soap then too, and he was something of a guru to new writers. I’d never met Matt or Ashley before, but they also have an EastEnders background, so some bonding occurred before the cameras rolled. It also turns out that Matt bought Where Did It All Go Right? as research for Life On Mars, a fact that thrills me.) This discussion took place in a room that was “dressed” to look like a room in a 70s boozer, with artefacts like a picture of George Best in a frame and half-supped pint pots strategically placed. A noisy dry ice machine filled the room with smoke. This aggravated my asthma, which is unhelpful when you have a microphone pinned to your collar. (I fear I will never be able to go on Stars In Their Eyes.) Matt had on a noisy new shirt, which also caused microphone problems and demanded retakes. As the filming progressed, I gradually poured my beer away so it would look like I had actually drunk some of it. The three writers had no need for this illusion and actually drank theirs in the spirit of three men who should actually be working on the second series of Life On Mars but instead found themselves in a pub in Bath on St Patrick’s Day.
So, we finally finished shooting at 19.25, just in time for John and I to catch the 19.42 back to London (or, in my case, Reading), and put the world of television to rights. What an exhausting day it was, but hugely rewarding and good fun, and I think it will make a nice little programme. Should be on in the next month. Because most of my TV presenting experience has involved sitting next to Stuart in a cinema in Hammersmith, it’s bracing to get out and do some walking-and-talking and PTCs. I will never claim it to be rocket science.