This story is one I’ve told many times in person, so if you think you’ve heard it before you can go and have a beer or something while I get it off my chest.
I was reminded of it when Andrew Steele, my former boss (well, my former-boss’s boss’s boss but who’s counting?) told it as part of his valedictory address at the combined summer barbecue and retirement party they held at BBC Park Western on Thursday night. This is the full, true (as far as I can remember) and unexpurgated reality.
It would have been March or April 1990. I’d been a cameraman, a fully fledged, post holding cameraman, for rather less than a year, so I was still pretty much the new kid on the block. There had been torrential rain and flooding in parts of North Wales and one town, Towyn near Llandudno in Conwy, was apparently particularly badly hit. I was sent up there to cover it. For reasons I don’t actually remember I didn’t have Denis Howard my usual sound recordist (sound recordists, those were the days, eh?) for this. I was temporarily partnered with someone who shall remain nameless –he’d been a sound man for a few years having started a little while after me.
We drove up to Towyn and the next day filmed around and about for a while. Towards the end of the afternoon we realised it was approaching high tide and went out to an area where the sea had come over the defences and was inundating the railway lines. I got some nice pictures of all that and we headed back to the car to take the cassette to the link truck a couple of miles away.
That was when we found it had all gone a bit wrong. We’d driven up the main road with no trouble but–well remember I said it was approaching high tide? The sea had come in and flooded the road both in front of and behind the car. We’d parked on a bit of a high spot so the car was more or less dry but there was no way we could drive through the new lakes on either side of us. We didn’t even have a clear idea of how deep the water was. We were trapped.
I called the producer at the truck and explained and we settled down to wait. After a while the BBC Breakfast crew came past. They’d had the foresight to fly up to Liverpool and hire a Range Rover so they were still mobile. They took the pictures off us (“Nice pictures,” someone said later) and we waited a bit more.
It was getting dark when I decided I could see the waters receding. I don’t think they were; I suspect I saw what I wanted to see but that’s hindsight for you. I told the sound recordist it was shallow enough to try driving out. He started the car and we edged cautiously into the pool.
We got about twenty yards before the engine sucked up a lungful of water and died. I shouldn’t have been surprised; the water was about level with the doorsill at that point. We tried starting the car but (obviously) it wouldn’t and that flattened the battery. Now we were even more stuck.
Ages later, or it may only have been half an hour, a fire engine came past and the crew, bless ’em, stopped to see if they could help. They tried jump starting the car but even the huge battery in the truck couldn’t get us going. (Of course it couldn’t. The cylinders were full of water. ) Eventually they towed us out of the flood to a safe bit of dry land near the links truck. We grabbed our camera gear, locked up and walked the rest of the way. I think we cadged a lift back to the hotel with the the second news crew. The next day I saw the car on the back of a low loader being taken home.
One of the nice things about the old job was the cameraderie. After a wet, miserable day like that you get together with your colleagues and have a drink and chat and cheer each other up. I tried to buy a round for the four of us in the bar and couldn’t find my wallet. Panic. Where the hell had it got to?
I figured it out eventually. When the fire brigade had dragged the car out of the flood I’d dug out my wallet to give them a tenner (“…for the widows and orphans fund” as Andrew said in his speech.) I was wearing waterproof overtrousers at the time and must have put it back through the pocket slit but not into the actual trouser pocket below. The wallet was probably halfway to Ireland by this time.
It took a while to live all this down–in fact I’m not sure I ever did. Even as recently as last year people were still making jokes about not sending me to cover flooding.
One of the reasons I couldn’t live it down was because the other cameraman on that job made it his business to spread the story about and keep it alive. Fate saw that he suffered for it though.
About six months later we were, again, both on the same story– a miner’s rally and conference near Durham. I was working for Newsnight; he was again on news. He was covering a march and at some point his sound recordist, a really nice bloke on attachment from TV studio sound, dropped the car keys. That would have been awkward but survivable given that they had a set each. The problem was that the keys had the registration number on the tag. Someone–probably a miner–found them, located the car and in what we surmised was retaliation for the BBC’s perceived bias in reporting the miners’ strike some years earlier, drove it into a field and set fire to it.
Total write off, along with a fair bit of expensive TV gear. Not the camera, that was in use, but quite a lot of other stuff. The blackened skeleton of the steering wheel was on display behind the assignments desk for years.
So now I could point out, every time my fraternal colleague had a few beers and began the story of how I drowned a car, at least when they’re wet, they’re that much harder to burn.