Lights, camera, action…
August 2015: We’re on holiday on the Ile de Re in France with the Brazilian Kombi Krew, when I’m tagged in a Facebook post by Martin Dorey. Apparently, he’s been appointed as a judge by the Caravan Club for their first ever Caravanner of the Year competition and they’re short of Campervans as contestants. He thinks it would be a good idea for us to enter. I discuss it with Alison but she’s not keen and we agree to do nothing until we get back to the UK.
|Camped on the Ile de Re|
Unbeknown to Mrs B, I submit an entry to the Caravan Club when we get back, with a link to this Blog and some videos from YouTube showing us erecting the Glawning and holidaying in the Hebrides. When I tell her later, she’s not best pleased.
In response from the Caravan Club, I get an email, thanking me for the entry, but telling me that we’d not been chosen. However, would we agree to be first reserves in case anyone dropped out? Of course, I said yes. Alison is delighted that we’ve not been chosen – remember, this is a woman who doesn’t relish having her photo taken, let alone appearing on TV.
A few days later, we’re having the late August Bank Holiday weekend away at our static in the Dales. The mobile phone signal isn’t great and I rarely receive calls whilst we’re there. After a few beers in the Dalesman in town, we get back to the van and I’ve got a 121 voicemail. It’s from the programme makers – someone’s dropped out and can we take part in the competition? Oh and by the way, it’s next weekend and we’ll need to do some preliminary filming at your house before then!
We’d actually already booked to go to Lille via the Eurotunnel on that weekend, so it’s a tough decision. We sleep on it, then decide that we can go to Lille another year, but when will get the chance to have this sort of experience again? So, somewhat nervously, it’s a big YES from us.
The film crew, from October Films who are making the programme for the BBC, turn up at our house on the Thursday before the competition and, after a brief chat, we all go outside to sit in Absinthe for the “interview”.
Alison is in the driver’s seat, I’m in the front passenger seat and Andy, the camera man and interviewer, sits in the back with Boris, filming and recording us. It’s the usual TV stuff – being asked the same question several times from different angles and all’s going well until I see Andy brush something off his face. A few seconds later a sparrowhawk enters the van through the open door, hits the side window and flops into the sink!
We all look at each other, I ask if he’s got it on film, the hawk revives itself and flies off and the interview continues for a few more minutes, until suddenly, in the back of the van, a sparrow begins to fly around, desperate to get out. It must have been this bird that hit Andy in the face in its effort to escape the sparrowhawk and it had been lying low in the van.
Frankly, Boris has had enough by now – he doesn’t even like birds in his garden, so to have two in his van whilst he’s there is an avian invasion too far. He goes berserk. I scramble to catch the sparrow and Andy goes a bit ashen faced. More than ever, Alison is regretting agreeing to go along with this!
Next, they do some “general” camera work: “Alison, will you polish that gear knob again and smile whilst you’re doing it?” and we start to wonder what sort of programme they are making, then it’s time for the next stage of filming.
They equip the van with GoPro cameras and we hook the trailer up so they can film us driving on the road. Not any road, mind – we’re going up the M6. They ask us to undertake them in the inside lane, whilst the camera man films us out of the window – it’s a bit like Top Gear, but without the bullying, violence and casual racism.
We’re not being paid for our efforts but the Caravan Club have promised to reimburse us for an overnight stay on one of their sites on Friday night, so we can be on set early on Saturday morning. I book us into the Mound Lodge CL site, which is close enough to the CC main site where the event is being held.
We arrive at the site around 4pm – it’s a pick-your-own type farm and the pitches are basically in a field on the top of a hill. Having paid for one night, I casually ask where the toilets and showers can be found. It turns out there are toilets, but no showers, and I have to break the news to Alison – she’s not happy at the prospect of being filmed at all, but without a shower? No chance!
I hastily open an App on my phone and search for another site. There’s one at Northey Lodge on the outskirts of the town so I ring them and the chap agrees to wait there until we arrive. Phew!
The site is weird. It’s obviously used mainly by contractors during the week and for caravan storage. It’s massive but with only a few showers, that are definitely in need of a refresh. The site manager is nice enough and he wandered over when he finished his shift to take some photos of Absinthe and to implore us to bring some more vans next time we come. The site has so much potential, but it needs a radical re-think about layouts and promoting itself differently. We’re rewarded, though, with a fantastic sunset and a lovely walk by the River Nene, although we did need help to get back into the site as we’d forgotten the code for the gates.
We’re there by 10.30am as required and park behind another VW in the holding area. It’s a 1966 ex Swiss Army Splitty with a matching Eriba caravan. We think we might as well go home now.
Allyson and Chris are lovely and we chat whilst we we’re waiting for the other entrant to arrive. There are 6 of us in the semi-final and the competition is being held in two heats, over two days, to leave 3 competitors for the final, which would be held over the next weekend.
The other 3 semi-finalists were already on site, being filmed doing the timed awning erection challenge, so we had to hang around for a while. The missing caravan for our heat, finally arrived – they’d been stuck on the A1 in traffic going to the Burghley Horse Trials, for over an hour. Ann and David from Port Talbot are the Welshest people I’ve ever met and run the Dolaucothi Estate, National Trust site.
They’ve also got a 3-legged dog called Beauty.
Eventually, we receive our instructions – we’ll be given details of our pitch number; we have to find it, park up and erect the awning, ready to serve a cup of tea to one of the judges in our van.
We soon found the pitch (it’s not too difficult when you’re at the back of a 3 vehicle convoy, all going to adjacent pitches!) and started to erect the Glawning. It all went smoothly and we were soon inviting Grenville Chamberlain, the Caravan Club’s Chairman and Head Judge for the event, into the van for a brew and an Eccles Cake. I must confess, though, that I might have called him Granville a couple of times.
Luckily, everyone loved the Glawning, particularly later on, when we had the frontier stove on and were chilling for the evening, although the judges called it ‘droopy’ durng the programme.
|Grenville Chamberlain, Chairman of the Caravan Club|
There was now a lot of hanging around. The next stage was the manoeuvring test which was being held off-site at a nearby Equestrian Centre. We’d been allocated the last slot, so had to wait for all the others to finish before we could go.
Initially, we were told it would be around 4pm when they’d tell us to drive up to the farm, but this kept drifting backwards until eventually it became 6pm, then 7pm and then we found out it had got too dark and we’d have to do our turn on Sunday morning, after Allyson and Chris had completed their session.
Saturday evening was spent in the Glawning with a bottle of red, but not before we’d had to be filmed switching our lights off and shouting, Goodnight, a few times!
We were up early to walk Boris, before driving over to the Equestrian Centre for 8.30am. Allyson and Chris finished off their tests, before we were allowed in and given a quick set of directions, then drove around the back of the centre to end up facing into an exercise field, set up with hay bales
The Producer came and had a chat and said, “Remember, if the Judges say you have to do something, then you have to do it, but if they haven’t told you that you can’t do something, then it’s allowed”. We had no idea what she meant…
So, on to the first test. We were going to be timed driving through the bales in an agreed order, figure of eight-ing back to the start. To be honest, this was never going to be a problem for us. The bales had been set to allow large caravans and a motorhome to pass through, leaving loads of room for Absinthe and the trailer. As a precaution, I stayed outside the van whilst Alison drove and made sure she was clear, but it really wasn’t necessary. So far, so good…
Next up, the judges want us to park facing into the field with a yard behind us, that has a large tree in the middle. Again, being timed, they want us reverse round the tree, coming back to the gateway to the field, but facing out over.
Before I continue, I need to share part of an email I sent to the organisers when they asked for details of our trailer: “As promised, attached are the dimensions for our van. Our trailer is 1.4m wide, approx. 2m long, 1.1m high and impossible to reverse!”
Worse was to come next, though, as they took us to an inside area and asked us to park up at the back with the trailer against the wall. The plan was for the driver to change i.e. I’d be behind the wheel, whilst Alison shouted instructions from outside the building. I was supposed to drive up to the opposite wall, then reverse around until I was facing out.
As soon as we got inside and parked up they acknowledged that we wouldn’t want to try this manoeuvre. Andy, the Motorhome judge, and arrogantly professional stuntmuppet, was adamant that he could do it, but I pointed out the dint in our rear bumper where we’d tried before. I offered him the keys to have a go himself, but the crew thought it wasn’t a good idea. I did say that if they gave me a caravan I’d do it, no problem, but in the end we all agreed not to go any further on this test.I wasn’t happy and if you’ve watched the show you may have noticed me giving him the eyes…
Act Four (The Finale)
So, back to the site for the last element of the competition – The Concours d’Elegance, or Show and Shine as Dubbers prefer to call it. Basically, you polish your van to within an inch of its life and dress it up inside to show off the interior. Hardly, our sort of thing: I’ve got better things to do, than stand in a field waxing my Brazilian…
Before we all parked up in a separate area to get on with our polishing routines, we were filmed driving round the site in convoy (again, and again, and again…)
Finally, in position, we set about dressing Absinthe.
|Dirty lidded trailer…|
|Lucy Jayne liked our interior…|
|Meanwhile, Boris is bored|
|The 6 Competitors|
In the end, we were successful in not getting through to the final (much to Alison’s relief). In a way, I was disappointed, because I don’t really like losing, but was happy to congratulate the three who did get through. At least it meant we didn’t have to drive back down to Peterborough for another weekend.
I’d been looking forward to the cooking challenge and meeting Martin Dorey and it was sad that neither of the VWs got to take part in the final. I think it would have helped the Caravan Club extend their popularity if at least one of the finalists hadn’t got a white vehicle…
There’s a full set of photos here: FLICKR
Having watched the programme, I guess we didn‘t come out of it too badly. As with all TV, they changed lots of the facts and also the running order of the tasks. We had to do our manoeuvring on Sunday morning (I suspect that they gave some lady drivers much longer than 15 minutes to complete their last task) whilst the others were busy cleaning their vans – not that it would have made any difference – Absinthe is for using not cleaning.
It was obvious to us from very early on, that they needed a caravan to win and that Andy, the Motorhome judge would want a Motorhome in the final.
Grenville didn’t come over too well on the programme (one reviewer described him as caravanning’s Captain Mainwaring), but actually we found him charming and extremely dedicated to the work he does for the Caravan Club. I think his gloved fingering of the inside of the trailer lid was unnecessary, but, hey, each to his own.
I really didn’t get on with Andy, the guy with the Motorhome. He was smug, opinionated and believed he could do anything. He obviously had a problem with Absinthe (or me), describing her as a “lifestyle accessory” – I’m not really sure what he meant, but she’s definitely more than that to us. Yes, we like her to look her best but, first and foremost, she’s our conduit to fun and laughter and new experiences. I wish him well with his Motorhoming – and admire his ability to get the name of his company in shot, even though we were quizzed on arrival about our Forum hoodies, to make sure that the Brazilianvwbay’s logo was not related to a commercial business.
The contestants have been described on Social Media as weird, and not representative of all caravanners, the latter part of which is definitely true. They were, however, made to look worse by the editors, to try and make entertaining TV. Mandy, the producer from October Films, told me on the day that the first programme was broadcast, that she’d never had so much interest from the media in any other programme she’d made. The fact that The One Show picked up on it is evidence that she was right. (We were asked to take part but declined on the grounds that driving Absinthe and the Trailer down to London to the BBC studios, for two minutes airtime was a trip too far).
Gogglebox seemed to love it, as did Chris Evans on his R2 show and we were asked to do an interview on Radio Lancashire, which went ok, I thought.
|Graham Liver – Radio Lancashire’s morning DJ|
|Waiting to go into the studio|
For me the programme missed out the fun aspect of being on a site, whether in a caravan, campervan or Motorhome. It’s not about awning erection, manoeuvres or polishing. Rather, for us, it’s about having fun with like-minded people in a relaxed atmosphere, in a beautiful location. All of that, though, might not make for interesting TV.
It would have been nice if they’d had a family with kids too, but we were told that the legal responsibilities of having children on site and being filmed were far too onerous – an opportunity lost, I think, to extend the reach of The Caravan Club, who have a rapidly ageing membership, and too few new members joining.
THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
We won’t be putting ourselves forward for TV again, now that we’ve been there, done that
Caravanners on Social Media are a hard bunch to please
I’d rather spend a day with our Forum camper friends than a weekend with judges
Life’s too short for Concours d’Elegance
Despite Grenville’s criticism, I’m going nowhere without my duct tape
If I ever colour co-ordinate my underwear or make sure the labels on our tins are lined up, then it’s time to stop
Our friend, Geoff Dixon designed some stickers for Absinthe: