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The long road to Spain, Part 1
Blazing a new trail for broadcasting
It was the early nineties and Paul had the crazy idea of a documentary series following a coach party to Spain, a journey of 60 hours return!
It was 3 in the morning and I was lying under a seat of a coach. This was my base and home for the next few weeks. It was here, in this moment, I realised that it was going to be a very long few weeks.
My idea was simple. Follow and film a local travel company offering holidays to Spain by coach. It appealed to those people who didn’t like flying or wanted a family break that was cheaper. Boarding the coach at nine o’clock in the morning the coach would take holidaymakers to Dover for a quick channel crossing then overnight through France, and finally arriving at two o’clock the next day in northern Spain for a holiday in a static caravan. The journey took twenty-nine hours, (all being well) and the company ran two return trips a week.
Here was the issue. The coach would travel to Spain, spend two hours in the resort and travel back. To fully experience the trip the programme maker would have to do the full journey, a sixty hour return trip. On all levels it would be very challenging and I certainly couldn’t ask anyone else to do it, so I would.
The logistics were impressive. The coach would have a senior driver and his number two. They would take the coach right the way through to Montpellier in France where they would get off for sleep and another driver (called bottom end driver) would take the coach to northern Spain, wait two hours and drive back to Montpellier where a suitably rested first driver then took over.
Also on board was a hostess who would provide snacks and drinks and stay on the coach for the full sixty-hours. The coach had a single bed hidden under the stairs for the resting driver and hostess, but I would not be able to use it.
I saw this as a challenge and hired a talented up and coming director to look after the film crew in Spain. They would provide the stories at the campsite; I would be the coach cameraman. Oh, and I forgot to mention, at that point I had never operated a camera before. Due to the utter madness of being on a coach for sixty hours the technical union allowed me a dispensation to film and I quickly had to learn to operate one of the earliest small cameras.
So, one fine Saturday, with severe trepidation, I boarded the coach with the first season’s passengers.
I need, at this point, to make clear how skilled and dedicated the coach crew were. The senior driver, Noel was remarkable. With many years international driving he took his responsibilities for the lives of his passengers very seriously. On our first meeting I made the mistake of calling his vehicle a bus. “BUS! BUS! It’s a coach, he spat looking with distain at this interloper who would be lowering the tone of his pride and joy.
The hostess Jan, on the first trip was fantastic. Happy go lucky she was unbelievably tough, able to withstand the incredible hours and, by selling drinks and snacks, was saving up to buy a house.
Many of the passengers were return customers. Some had been taken this route as children and were now were taking their young families. They often had favourite seats, and would group together with blankets, pillows and board games.
The first part of the journey was great fun. I got to know everyone and by the time we arrived for the ferry to France we were in high spirits. After a short crossing the second driver who had driven through England gave way to Noel who had been having a rest in the small bed hidden beneath the stairs of the coach. His was the real challenge. He would drive through the night eleven hundred kilometres to Montpellier where another driver would take over.
My excitement lasted only until the early hours. It was now three in the morning and Noel was in his element and I had been on the go for nineteen hours. At the back of the coach were two seats for the hostess and her kit and this was my base. Under those two seats I laid out my recording equipment, made up my bed and fell into a fitful sleep.
By eight o’clock the next morning, (I had slept very little and was feeling distinctly car sick) we arrived in Montpellier. It was here that Noel and his second driver would leave the coach and sleep while myself and the hostess continued on to Spain with another driver.
Montpellier was one of the strangest set ups I had ever seen. In a compound of caravans lived a collection of coach drivers, all of whom were employed to service the coaches from France to Spain and return. They were called “bottom end drivers” The rumour was that some of the drivers were “on the run” from either the law or had personal troubles. They were difficult to get to know but with a little patience I learnt from one guy that he had a wife and children in England, got into his campervan one day to get fuel, turned right out of his drive and kept on going, never to return….
So here I was in France, tired, car sick and still with hours to go. Now we picked up our bottom end driver. His background was so disturbing any attempt to find out details was met with mute expressions as much to say, you really don’t want to know. He was, however, surprisingly amenable to television and we got on famously. His nickname however was slightly off-putting and gave an inkling of what was in store for me in the coming weeks, his name………Road Rage Russell!
Next time on the Hopeful Traveller, fights, breakdowns and alcohol.
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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.