This is a different post. I hope you like it. I started writing this blog because I believed that two wheels would be our family’s salvation. I still believe that and I want to share an experience that in some ways reflects how one wheel (as opposed to two) is not enough. And how the great institution for which I worked (and still do) and the behaviour of one production in particular has left me questioning more than ever the state of the BBC, the media, and significantly my role in it. It’s a funny tale mind, absurd and faintly alarming.
I left my staff job at the BBC in September 2013. At the time it was a simple decision, a resignation, because I didn’t like the way things were going in the department I was working in. One day in December I literally bumped into Paul Ellis. Paul is an entrepreneur and he had spotted a potential product to import from China, an electric, self balancing unicycle. Paul is a lovely man, kind, open and enthusiastic and he asked me to help him market this strange machine with him.
Together we made a video:
Not three weeks later we get an email from BBC TopGear.
I’m working on the latest series of the BBC motoring show Top Gear. We’re currently filming a cycling-related feature for the new series, to be broadcast mid-February on BBC Two.
Our director brought the Yocycle to our attention (he’s a cycle nut and huge fan), and the promo video shot in Brighton’s been doing the rounds in the office to great acclaim! With that in mind, we’d really like to get one down to our track for Jeremy and James to have a go. We’re filming this Thursday 30th Jan – do you have a model available that we would be able to use?
Don’t hesitate to call if you have any questions.
Now incase you didn’t know TopGear is a big BBC brand, it has a global audience of hundreds of millions. It was a major invitation. Sure, there was every chance that the show’s stars would ridicule the thing but even a few seconds of the Yocycle on air would give the product and the brand considerable reach. Besides, Clarkson or May struggling to find balance would surely have been Youtube gold.
Paul and I set about securing UK distribution rights, negotiating with the manufacturer, contract lawyers et al. Of course I was mindful of the possibility that this may come to nought so we didn’t actually sign any binding contracts….
So the great-day-of-the-shoot comes. Paul and I arrive at the Dunsfold Aerodrome at 8am. We’re directed to the Green Room in the charmingly ramshackle collection of portakabins that are the TopGear production office. We wait.
Sitting waiting with us in the green room are two actors. One is dressed a Jesus, the other as Hitler. We wait together and the entire morning passes with barely a word spoken to either Paul or me. In the absence of any communication from the production team I decide to keep my 10 years at the BBC quiet too.
And then things get really surreal.
At Lunchtime a hue and cry goes up. “Hitler can’t get his boots on!” The phrase flies around the portakabin like salacious gossip. There’s a bit of blaming going on too which ends up with the actor and the assistant’s assistant, people who clearly “Should’ve checked!”
Panic stations! “Hitler can’t get his boots on!” Within a moment or two everyone is being asked the question…”What size are your feet?”
Now I have big wide tens, but Paul cuts a nimble stride on his delicate sevens. He tries them on. They fit!
“Will you do it?” the assistant’s assistant assistant asks. It’s truly a Cinderella moment. Nice, kind Paul agrees to play the part to help them out and is whisked into make up faster than Jeremy Clarkson can say “Sieg Heil”.
Minutes later my business partner, friend and aspiring entrepreneur who has been invited on to the show to help demonstrate a new product is dressed as Hitler and is cycling up and down the runway in the driving rain. I said it got surreal.
The sequence is shot and we are returned to the Green Room. We asked the obvious question more than once….”When do you want the Yocycle?” Reflecting back I don’t think anyone actually ever answered.
At 5pm the light had gone and the persistent rain ended a miserable day. “I’m off” said Clarkson. The production manager (who had kept Paul in his scratchy hair Hitler shirt all afternoon ‘in case we need you again’) turned to us and said. “You’re Wrapped”. That was it. “You’re Wrapped.” Paul had no idea what she meant.
So he changed, and we left.
Of course we followed up with an email:
Thank you for the invitation to bring the Yocycle to Top Gear.
It was evident that the weather played big part in making yesterday pretty challenging for the crew. Even with Jesus, there were no miracles for us.
It was a pity that we weren’t scheduled at any point, but I’m glad I was able to assist however by stepping in at short notice as Hitler. It’s not quite how I thought the day was going to go but was happy to get you out of a hole on a difficult day.
You can imagine we were rather hoping to get the Yocycle seen on the show, which was afterall our primary objective after your kind invitation and, as you appreciate, it’s certainly a device your audience would have an opinion on. It would be a shame to give that up because of the weather.
We’d be happy to bring the product up again, complete the Hitler on a bike gag in the live show, or take part in a feature on E-vehicles.
Please let us know what the next step is and when we might participate..
We never got a response.
Why am I writing this now? Well the very next day following the shoot was the day I took Nicky to hospital. The start of the most hideous three weeks of my life. Looking back it was surreal day. It left me angry but nothing compared to anger of grief that was to come. As a grieving person one has to get used to being upended by reminders. For me, the top gear experience has become one of those reminders and everytime the show or its stars are in the press I am back there, the day before the world imploded.
In recent days I have been working again for the institution that I love and have committed the best part of my working life to. I am grateful for that, I need the work and the kids need to eat. I’m wary too, criticising Topgear when you work at the BBC is like shooting the albatross. But, if I am the ancient mariner (and, yes, I am all at sea) and you are the wedding guest who hears my tale I guess this story will simply leave you sadder and wiser too.
What of the Yocycle? Paul and I have decided that one wheel is against nature and don’t plan further investment of time or money.