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Are you faint-hearted?
Paul looks back on a time when only luck saved you from serious harm.
We didn’t set out to put our lives at risk, however, in those far off days, failing to complete your filming was more terrifying than a bit of danger. I suppose, and looking back, there was a feeling that we were privileged to be able to do some weird and wonderful things we did, but the risks weren’t obvious to us at the time.
My first bad experience of risk-taking came on the biggest lake in the Lake District, Windermere. The crew and myself were covering the water speed world record attempt that was held there every year. Today, the speed limit on Windermere is a respectable 10mph but back then powerboats were only limited by the size of their engine. The organisers had given me exclusive access and a power boat to follow the action, so it was all looking good…
The crew were content as they liked these events, mainly because of the free food and drink, but more than happy in the interim to have a short cruise down the lake.
My warning bells should have sounded when I met the powerboat driver. “So, you’re the TV crew, eh?” The large boom mic and camera must have given it away.
“This, he smirked, is not for the faint-hearted. Are you faint-hearted?” Whatever that meant goodness only knew but I didn’t want trouble so diffidently asked if he could take us to follow the next race. The evil grin still didn’t warn me, and as we took our places in his enormous boat with me holding the cameraman’s belt, he opened up.
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We took off like the devil himself was on our tail. The speed was unbelievable. By the time we were at 40mph I knew it could end badly. Now, 40mph doesn’t seem fast on dry land, but trust me, it’s scary on water. At that speed, hitting even a small wave was like smacking into concrete. And we did just that. As we hit a wave I went in the air; the cameraman went in the air and dragged the sound recordist (who was attached to the camera by a cable) with us.
I was bruised and the cameraman was bruised, but the sound recordist cracked the base of his spine. Luckily, he suffered no permanent damage but I learnt a big lesson, trust your instincts and ask more questions!
That experience should have been a life lesson so I can’t really explain why my next adventure with David Bean, the original Hopeful Traveller, didn’t end badly. David was a journalist of the old school, even back then. A man trained on the London newspapers from a boy. He was a wonderful writer, produced some of the best scripts I have ever read and was the most cantankerous, grumpy, scruffy broadcaster I ever worked with. He was so scruffy my bosses made me take him to a clothes shop at the start of every series and buy him a complete outfit, which he would then wear for the whole shoot, without washing it.
David was also a beer drinker, pipe smoker and utterly unconcerned about my youthful often outlandish filming ideas. The following was a prime example.
“Hang gliding, wots that mate?” “Well David, we strap you to this guy and you run off a cliff in the Lake District with a parachute, while at the same time explaining your feelings.” “Will we be in time for the pub opening?” was his only response. It turned out David wasn’t the main problem. My cameraman, who would do most of the crazy things I came up with, was terrified of heights and point blank refused to go on the second parachute to film David as he flew through the air.
“How about you set the level on the camera and I’ll go?” I said. This broke every union rule in the book, but was preferable in his eyes to hanging under a parachute above Lake Derwentwater.
So, on that autumn afternoon, David Bean The Hopeful Traveller (and pensioner in his mid-sixties) and yours truly stood side by side on the edge of a cliff. I had the camera and David lit his pipe! He wasn’t the most coordinated and a bit stiff in his joints but that wasn’t going to stop him…
We ran off the cliff, and to give him his due David gave it his all and we took off. David and I soared over the Lake with the instructors swooping and swirling in a heart stopping arial ballet.
I will never forget that flight. We probably shouldn’t have exposed David to the rigours of paragliding but his happy unconcerned face and commentary made more evocative by his London cockney accent still echoes in my head.
“Not so much an eagle soaring high above mankind, more an old black crow just looking for a safe place to land.”
When I said to David, who is sadly no longer with us, that I could write a book he quipped (through an enormous cloud of pipe smoke) “no mate you can’t, you’re illiterate. Not your fault, just a fact.”
Together, we made 37 programmes for Border TV, Independent Television and Channel 4. Now I’m the Hopeful Traveller and I hope he’ll forgive me for taking up his title.
Hopeful Traveller is a weekly newsletter and archive of stories about broadcasting in the 1970s and 80s. It is written by former-newsreader and programme maker Paul Baird. For new stories each week, subscribe.