Knowing very little about the subject matter in hand has rarely prevented anyone in television from getting a job. One researcher I worked with on a music programme a few years ago told me she had never heard of the Sex Pistols – which did make me feel both indignant and about 104 years old. Another time a director confessed to me that he hadn’t actually read any of the work by the esteemed poet whose TV obituary he was meant to be compiling.
Mostly, once you actually get your foot in the door of any television company, it can inevitably be about being fortuitously right in front in someone’s actual eyeline at the exact moment whilst staffing decisions are being made. I’ve seen entire careers flourish with this good fortune – it’s really rather enviable. You can embellish your CV all you want – frankly being in the right place at the right time is, I suspect, currently paying a lot more mortgages across this land.
So, rewind a couple of decades – I was working in the current affairs department of the BBC in London, and found myself one lunchtime, as usual, waiting at the sandwich counter in the bleak canteen. I turned round to see my unit manager standing behind me in the queue, clearly hoping not to have to engage in sandwich small-talk. After running out of pleasantries however, he idly asked if I knew anything about black culture, as there was a job going on the magazine programme, Black Britain. It was one of the most interesting programmes the department churned out, so, well….. of course I knew about black culture – I mean – come on, tcha – who doesn’t, right?
I knew nothing about black culture. And yet, a couple of weeks later, I found myself sitting in the first production ideas meeting of the latest Black Britain series, surrounded by the coolest, smartest, hippest programme makers in the department, all very learned in a subject about which I knew pretty much nothing.
But as my job on that programme was to set the film shoots up, if I kept my head down, I was pretty sure I could coast along without making too much of a fool of myself. The subjects we covered on the programme were mostly fascinating. From subjects like following a group of young black kids from London who had won prestigious Ivy League scholarships in the States, to telling stories of families who had been on the original Windrush voyage, to interviewing black artists and songwriters, it was a great opportunity to try out new ideas.
No-one really paid much attention to me – I had very little to pitch in the ideas meetings, I was very new to TV and, although desperate to impress – I hadn’t come across anything strong enough to put forward as a story idea. But one day, one of the directors idly put forward an idea that I am sure she hoped would just be ignored, but to her surprise, was pounced upon and commissioned on the spot – black bikers…
In the mid 90s, a huge growth in the trend for young black guys getting into superbikes started to emerge. Once an area mainly graced by middle-aged, bearded, fat white guys who listened to Steely Dan, it now seemed that very cool and hip RnB videos on MTV were featuring more and more black guys being filmed in slo-mo (generally in the rain, of course) riding insanely powerful bikes. Naturally, this was a great story for a programme like Black Britain and for once, I could roll my sleeves up and get stuck in to help make the item. I had a motorbike, (albeit at that point I had a tiny little 125cc starter motorbike, who I nicknamed Bob – reasons why are now unclear) – ergo I immediately knew more stuff than a lot of the team, so I was left to set up the story.
It was a joy to work on from start to finish. I got in touch with some specialist bike groups around London – all black guys (and it was indeed all guys) – who rode gleaming sports Ducatis and Suzukis – and who met up in that odd way bikers like to do – hanging out in roadside pubs and drinking pints of orange and lemonade in the beer gardens. I spoke to a couple of the group leaders and asked them to meet me and our TV crew in Soho Square one evening so we could get some general shots of a few of them cruising up and down the streets of Soho, looking ice-cool on their massive gleaming roaring bikes.
I remember the evening so clearly – it was a warm spring night and I’d arranged to meet the crew and around half a dozen of the bikers in Soho Square around 8pm – just after dark so that the bars of Soho would be full and the streetlights would reflect beautifully off the magnificent machines as they purred along the streets. I finished work in the BBC office in White City in west London just after 7pm, then jumped onto my wee bike (so I could show them I was a friendly biker, rather than a Nathan Barley media twat) and hurtled along the A40 into town. I figured I would be nice and early and could look out for people as they started to arrive.
As I rode my little bike up Dean Street towards Soho Square, I remember thinking how busy all the bars were looking, every pavement table was full of beautiful boozing London media types, and I was excited about how stylised all this was going to end up looking on the telly.
As I approached the meeting point, I remember seeing a police van parked up on the corner from quite some distance, and momentarily felt annoyed that some pissed-up morons could potentially be interfering with our filming. How irritating. Maybe if the police had closed the road, we’d have to film down by the river instead, or maybe we could ride round Parliament Square or some other recognisable London JESUS CHRIST, WHAT THE HELL AM I SEEING HERE??????
As I turned into Soho Square, a massive sea of leather, wheels, and helmets hit my eyes and the roar of the engines was utterly deafening. I slowed, wide-eyed, to a stop, as I tried to take in the scene. There must have been over a hundred black guys on bikes, joyfully roaring around Soho Square, revving their insane engines, blocking the honking traffic in every direction, causing passing pedestrians to stop and gawp at this deeply cinematic spectacle. The smell of burning rubber hung heavily is the air as wheel spins and tyre tricks were all being played out round the streets. Parked right in the middle, was my little crew van with our cameraman sitting on the roof, grinning like a madman, camera on his shoulder filming everything he could, whilst my director stood underneath, at the receiving end of some deeply animated screaming from a police sergeant who had doubtlessly come from the parked up van on the corner.
It seemed word of our shoot had got out. Just a tiny bit. Friends had told friends, who brought their friends, who found new friends and they’d brought their friends. And around 100 bikers were now wanting their moment on BBC TV, revving round Soho Square and posing shamelessly for the cameraman, who was gleefully lapping every second up. My director looked liked she was about to be sick all down the furious red-faced shouting policeman. Even from a distance, I could tell that her BBC ID-pass and her company letter headed risk assessment were cutting precisely zero mustard with the angry law man. Immediately two thoughts fought for pole position in my brain – Was this my fault and if so – Was this very bad?
I parked my bike up and precariously picked my way through the masses of cruising machines to the crew van. I thought the director was now going to cry – she had wanted very little part in this entire film in the first place and now it would appear, we were making some very senior looking policeman very angry indeed.
However, no matter how horrified we both were at that point, some in-built media monkey radar was also bleeping loudly in both of our heads…. This Was Amazing….. Apart from the whole breaking-the-law/angry policeman angle – this was something else – this was an astonishing spectacle and we HAD to do something and fast. The bikers were loving every traffic-stopping moment – they were basking in the attention of the camera and the crowd that was forming to watch and, dear god they looked – and sounded – powerfully glorious. It was very clear that the tiny narrow roads around Soho Square simply couldn’t cope with the throng of engines currently encircling it. The policeman had also been crystal clear – we had to leave immediately. A very rough plan was drawn up.
I’d already spotted the three group leaders, with whom I’d made the arrangements, a couple of times as they grinned and waved and passed me riding their giant Ducatis. Over the deafening roars of the engines, I managed to outline our rough proposed plan to them and asked them to pass it amongst the rest of the guys. And so, taking a deep breath, I mounted my little 125 cc bike and rode into the crowd of giants….
In order for the crew in the van to have a chance of capturing the best shots, the plan was that the 3 group leaders would follow me and all their respective associates would follow them – and the crew van would flit between all the groups and film the whole thing. The bikers were free to ride however they pleased – they were free to break off and circle the van, do wheel spins or wheelies or whatever they liked – the only guideline was – they couldn’t overtake me…
With great power comes great terror. With my hands shaking but with adrenaline pumping out my eyeballs, I pootled off up Park Lane, my tiny hair-dryer of an engine utterly drowned out by the Wagner-esque roar of the machines behind me. Any time I dared glance around, a truly surreal spectacle met my brain – of a massive throng of wheels, a tsunami of noise, each biker taking more and more power from the scene as it developed – all looking like Bond villains and all having the time of their lives.
We rode, en-masse – up to the top of Park Lane and I led the snake of bikes round and round Marble Arch as many times as we dared before we then had to leave before the police moved us on again. We had to all re-group somewhere controlled which wouldn’t annoy the the police and somewhere where we could take control of the situation and even get to talk to some of the guys, so we decided to head back to the big BBC car park at White City.
And off we went. A convoy along the A40. Me, pootling along on my little spluttering bike, spearheading the coolest looking spectacle that had ever graced the grimy Westway. Ever. It was exhilarating.
The final programme contained about 32 seconds of this footage. Turned out it was so dark, the camera could barely pick out any decent shots and there was a lot more to say in the item, over and above shots of guys looking cool.
I didn’t mind so much. I’d finally earned my stripes on the programme and the director and I became firm friends. She even hooked up with one of the group leaders and they dated for a few months. And I started saving for a much bigger bike….