Archive for May, 2015

I’ve often wondered what happened to the tankards.
The tankards isn’t the nickname of a biker gang. These tankards are the ones which always lived in the press centre at the TT, many of them personalised with the names of long-serving members of the press corps.
My first TT was 1990, reporting for the BBC TV programme ‘Northwest Tonight’. The press centre was a very self-contained, clubby place. As a newbie, I was required to attend an interview with the then chairman of the ACU, Bill Smith, who quizzed me about my attitude to the TT and my intentions regarding my reports. The only other time I’ve experienced anything quite like that was in Prague during the Cold War when the British reporters covering a European football match had to surrender our passports at the police HQ before we were allowed to work. Fortunately the TT authorities turned out to be a bit more hospitable. The press centre on Glencrutchery Road was equipped with a bar where Peter Kneale would dispense pints to the reporters after the races. I never had a personalised tankard and by the time I’d clocked up enough visits to be even considered, the bar had disappeared and the tankards with them. In came a new, work-efficient era, with a tea and coffee machine which could never replace the sort of refreshment we used to enjoy before.
Peter combined the roles of commentator and press officer. It meant that he always knew exactly what was going on behind the scenes at the TT, and his successor Geoff Cannell also took on both roles. In 2004 the powers that be decided that the two jobs could no longer be filled by one individual. The turning point had come the previous year when Geoff was caught in an impossible situation, trying to handle media enquiries after the tragic accident that cost the life of David Jefferies while also being required behind the microphone to commentate for Manx Radio.
I was appointed commentator in 2004 and found it quite difficult getting hold of the background information that my predecesors had taken for granted. Peter and Geoff had been in on the plans, the committee meetings, and knew everyone. I arrived expecting the usual standards of media information to be available and found that the TT was totally off the pace. Fortunately the appointment of Simon Crellin as chief press officer a couple of years later made a big difference.
For me, the way a sports event treats its media says a lot about the way it rates its public. If it doesn’t provide the media with a professional service, then it is effectively stating that it doesn’t care if the public knows what’s going on or not.

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Guy doing it legally. Photo: Alan Knight

Which brings me up to date and an announcement by the Isle of Man Police that they have dropped their inquiry into Guy Martin’s claims in the Sunday Times that he lapped the TT course in a car at an average 103mph on open roads. At the time there was a mix of outrage and disbelief. The police now say  ‘We have sought advice on further investigation of this matter from the Attorney General’s Chambers, and at this point, our inquiries are complete and we will not be seeking to take any further action’. Which leaves more questions than answers. What information caused them to regard their inquiries as complete? I’d imagine it was the discovery that the claims were completely fanciful, but it isn’t good enough simply to state that their inquiries are closed without telling the public what their reasons are.

 

Spills and chills

Posted: May 25, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

One day in the mid-1990s I was filming with my BBC TV crew outside the Creg Ny Baa hotel. We were crouching down at the top of the escape road alongside a medic who knew everything there was to know about the TT. You could tell he knew everything because he spoke in a cool drawl like James Stewart and he wore an Aussie-style hat. “You can always tell if a rider’s gonna make the corner,” he informed us. “It’s not the speed, it’s the line.”  We nodded and carried out setting up the camera. “Look at this chap now,” he went on. “He’s got it. You can always tell. His line’s spot on.” At that moment there was that horrible sound of metal scraping on tarmac, a shout went up from the crowd, and our new best mate was grabbing his medical bag and running off to patch up the rider whose line, unfortunately, had landed him in the chicken wire outside the Creg’s saloon.

Talking of horrible sounds, one that I’ll never forget came in my first year as Manx Radio commentator. I was staying at the Hilton, although it might have been called the Palace then, or maybe the Stakis….. My room overlooked the car park at the back. I was working away on my preparation, head down, when there was the sound of metal splintering and the most horrendous howl-cum-scream that I’ve ever heard. I rushed to the window and there was a car which had obviously reversed into a baby buggy, with the baby in it. There was more shouting and screaming and it emerged that dad had backed up the car, not realising that the buggy was parked right behind the rear bumper. The mum was distraught, hotel staff raced out, an ambulance came, and the babe was rushed off for treatment. I heard later that he, or she, can’t remember which now, was ok. But it was a terrible incident which could have been absolutely tragic.

Another episode which chills the blood, looking back, was when I was in a car being driven by a cameraman to the airport. Somewhere after the Mount Murray a biker pulled right out in front of us at 90 degrees. We smashed  into him, he flew up over the windscreen and the roof, and my instant thought was that he had to be seriously injured, if not dead. Looking back over my shoulder, I could see him picking himself up. Incredibly, he was unhurt and was full of apologies.

It’s an extreme place, the Isle of Man, especially at TT time. As the precinct lootenant used to say in that brilliant series Hill Street Blues, “be careful out there”.

It’s usually dangerous to draw too many conclusions from the NW200 about likely outcomes at the TT. Alastair Seeley’s dominance at the Causeway Coast is one reason. Seeley consistently mops up at the North West but doesn’t do the TT. Despite that, there are maybe some pointers to be found.

I don’t want to go any further though without saying that the most important thing is the wellbeing of the woman who was seriously injured in Saturday’s three-bike incident. I felt too many people were too quick to ‘move on’ from this desperate accident. ‘The helicopter got away, how soon can we get back to the racing?’ No, that’s not the right way to go. As I write, over 24 hours has passed and the woman is still on the critical list in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. I sincerely hope she makes a good recovery. The same thoughts go to Stephen Thompson, also rated critical having been involved in the same incident.

We can’t tip Seeley for success at the TT, but we can say that his Tyco/TAS team have got the BMW working well. If that level of preparation carries through to the team’s BMWs on the island, then their TT experts William Dunlop and Guy Martin should prosper. William has the edge on Guy at the moment and Guy will have to be properly focused on the island. His ‘boring boring’ rant was out of order and also out of character, more a sign of frustration than anything else. I’d love Guy to win in what he says will be his last TT – although he hinted in a BBC NI interview that he might have second thoughts. At the moment, I have to say I think he’ll do well to get on the podium, never mind win.

Michael Dunlop’s switch to Shaun Muir’s Yamaha team makes forecasting even more difficult. Much the same as Hutchy’s switch to Shaun’s outfit after his five-out-of-five on Clive Padgett’s Hondas, before injury intervened. Michael has done it all on Honda and BMW bikes – but Yamaha? Well, if I’ve learnt one thing, it is never to bet against M.Dunlop. He will be a major contender. So will John McGuinness and Conor Cummins on the Hondas. The North West confirmed Lee Johnston as a big player, winner of the Superstock on Saturday. And Hutchy looked pretty good too, thank goodness, third in the Superstock and second in the Superbike, both on Paul Bird’s Kawasakis. The weekend also reminded us that Bruce Anstey is very much in the frame.

It’s impossible this year to come up with a single overwhelming favourite so it looks like we’re set for a massively exciting TT with the victories being shared around a bit more than in recent years.

I hope Guy turns up with his mojo in good working order. And I do hope Michael doesn’t go for a repeat of a silly little stunt at the start of proceedings on Saturday when he seemed to be goading the excellent BBC reporter Stephen Watson into giving a gratuitous plug to Michael’s sponsors. Stephen dealt with it well, but come on Michael. If Stephen had fallen for your little trick he’d have been in big trouble with his bosses. If anyone had tried to make me do something which is a disciplinary offence, if not a sackable one, when I was at the BBC I’d have thought long and hard before giving him any live TV exposure again.

Update: BBC TV interview with NW200 Race Director Mervyn Whyte, May 18th 2015

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One question always pops up in my mind when the NW200 comes around – given that the NW has been shown live on BBC TV for several years now,  how long till the TT is also televised LIVE? It’s something I’ve been discussing with the man in charge of the TV operation at the TT, North One’s Neil Duncanson.

The NW200, coverage produced by Greenlight for BBC NI,  is always compelling viewing. Admittedly, sometimes that’s because the pictures go down and we can enjoy the commentators squirming! That of course is one reason why we are still some way from seeing the same live output at the TT. Reliability issues have to be solved. But having said that, the races are shown live and that puts the NW some way ahead of the TT.

NW200The Greenlight team place several fixed cameras on the ground around the start/finish section from Metropole to York Corner. These generate dramatic shots but for most of the 9-mile lap the bikes are out of vision, so the key is the helicopter. The chopper allows live shots to be seen the whole way round the course, and (most of the time) the signal back from the chopper to the OB trucks is reliable enough.

At the TT, they’d need to do the same – but it isn’t so easy. Choppers may struggle to keep pace with the leading bikes across the mountain, and producers would have to think about deploying more than one chopper because at the TT, unlike the NW, the leader of the race could be back in sixth or seventh position on the road. There used to be an argument that a TV helicopter was unrealistic because it wouldn’t be allowed to fly in poor visibility. But these days, races don’t go ahead in poor visibility because the emergency choppers have to be able to operate. So that objection has gone away – but there are still a lot of hurdles to clear.

I’ve had a fascinating conversation with Neil Duncanson, who shed a lot of light on exactly where we are with this debate.  North One is the company which produces all the coverage of the TT for ITV4 and other outlets. Neil told me that this whole question of live TV coverage is very high on the agenda, especially as plans for a TT World Series continue.

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Michael Dunlop 2013. photo: Alan Knight

He told me: “Ask any major broadcaster of sport and they will tell you that only live coverage is important, whether it’s football, rugby, the Olympic Games or Formula 1. In these days of modern media saturation and digestion, the world wants its events served up live and will pay handsomely for the privilege. There is no doubt that the TT would be an amazing live TV product and the reason it hasn’t happened yet is simply a combination of technology and money. Unlike the NW200 or Ulster or indeed any circuit race, the TT is 37+ miles of twisting public roads that roll through towns, villages, countryside and over mountains. The cost of planting enough course cameras, flying enough helicopters and creating the tech to beam live on-board images from the bikes is extremely prohibitive cost-wise and for a single event it has proven the main barrier to progress. But as time has moved on the tech is improving and getting cheaper. however, it’s still not cheap enough just yet and the issue of getting on-board pictures live from the bikes (which motorsport fans are so used to now) is still a costly stretch, but it simply needs a catalyst to help get things moving.”

That’s a terrific insight into the thought-processes going on at the moment. As Neil says, it isn’t just a matter of getting pictures out. It’s the style and quality of pictures that people want and Neil’s clear feeling is that the wider audience won’t settle for anything less. Viewers of sport are now accustomed to live shots from the helmets of horse-racing jcokeys, from F1 cars and even from cricket stumps. The business of sports TV has leapt forward from being simple information to becoming rich entertainment, and if the TT is going to make an impression in that market, it has to get it right from the start.

So where will the catalyst come from? Neil says: “Clearly the IoM government and tax payers do not have the money to invest in such things, so it will be up to broadcasters, producers and possibly future promoters to foot the bill. If a World Series was to become a reality the cost of this coverage could be amortised over a number of global events and over a number of years. I believe this is the most likely end game, but ultimately the IoM government will decide at the end of the year whether they want to proceed with it. Until then quality live coverage of the TT is still just out of reach. Of course elements of live coverage could be produced now – ie pieces of the course, some hele tele and no on boards – but our view has always been that the event is too important and precious to waste poor coverage on it. As the old cliche goes, you only get one opportunity to make a first impression. I dearly hope we will get that opportunity in the near future and if it happens, boy will it be something special”.

That sounds exciting, but it’s significant that Neil says the ball is in the court of the IoM Government.

Another factor is the ever-increasing spread of the smartphone. 4G has arrived on the island within the last month (not sure why it took so long when 3G has been there for several years) and these speeds would allow TT fans to access live TV pictures and commentary around the course. That of course would be a new rival for Manx Radio – but we’re not there yet. The smartphone audience on the island will be important, but the real numbers are those to be found worldwide. As Neil adds: ‘The real factor is an increasing demand for high quality live Motorsport coverage and the ability for specialist sport networks to pay high rights fees for it in an ever increasingly competitive world. The TT has an enviable brand and pedigree and in recent years has seen something of a renaissance in terms of the racing and global awareness. The quality of the riders, the closeness of the racing and the increase in teams and manufacturers (all part of this upward TT curve) have made our job at North One a lot easier in terms of making the TV look good.”

It’s all a long way from the days when I would film short segments of a race, record a voiceover at the end of the tape, then rush the tapes to Ronaldsway to be placed in a Manxpack and flown on Manx Airlines back to the BBC in Manchester, then for a VT editor to match my voiceover with the correct pictures and scramble it onto air in the nick of time before 7pm!

So where does that leave the notion of live TV from the TT? Waiting on the IoM Govt’s decision on a World Series, in Neil’s view. So that’s one to lookmout for with even more anticipation towards the end of the year.

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Geoff Duke was one of the sportsmen who illuminated post-war Britain. He was glamorous – in the current era he would have been ‘cool’ – successful, and reliable. At a time when ‘Made in Britain’ was a kitemark of quality, Geoff was one of a number of British sportsmen who could be totally depended on – Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Len Hutton, Stirling Moss. Geoff’s passing at the age of 92 is a sad moment, and also a reminder of a class of competitor who did so much to get big-time sport back on the agenda after the traumas of the 1940s. Of course, his tally of six TT victories doesn’t place him anywhere near the top of the table, but how many more wins would he have racked up if the TT had contained the number of races then as it does now? Geoff won the Clubman’s TT in 1949 and the Manx GP Senior the same year, then the TT Senior the following year for a winner’s prize of £200 which his team, Norton, put in their own pockets. In 1951 he became the first rider to win a double World Championship, he took a hat-trick of world titles for Gilera, and showed himself to be a man of principle when he supported a privateers’ strike in 1956, incurring a suspension which kept him out of that year’s TT. As Mac McDiarmid recalled in his excellent book ‘The magic of the TT,’ Geoff served as a travelling marshal instead. He was someone that people had heard of even if they didn’t follow motorbike racing and was one of the earliest winners of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (1951). Geoff settled on the Isle of Man and it’s appropriate that the media business set up by his family continues to chronicle the world’s greatest road races and keep the Duke name well and truly in the forefront.