Back in the nineteen nineties I was at a bit of a crossroads in my life. I’d split up with my girlfriend and had sold the lovely house that we owned jointly. I was stuck in a job that used to be so much fun but had now become a boring dead end job that I was fed up with. I was desperate to do something really exciting, something creative so after a failed attempt at running my own motor sport memorabilia business I decided to have a last ditch try at getting into TV by enrolling on a video production course in Manchester.
It was at a place called the WFA which, if I remember correctly, stood for the Workers Film Association. It was a rather left-wing place too as you can guess from the name, and certainly it wouldn’t have been a good idea to say you admired Mrs Thatcher!
To get a place on the course I had to give a presentation on a media subject. I chose working class representation in film and television and spoke about the kitchen sink movie dramas of the sixties and seventies, (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving, Alfie and so on) the TV soaps of the nineties (Coronation Street, Eastenders and Brookside) and how contemporary British movies were then, and now I suppose, very middle class, (Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill for example.)
On the very first day we had to introduce ourselves and explain why we were on the course. I gave a quick resumé of myself and my career, a re-hash of the above presentation and a quick mention of my film making heroes from Billy Wilder to Oliver Stone. I was somewhat surprised to say the least when the next candidate said he had just bought a video camera and wanted to know how to work it and then someone else said they knew nothing about video but wanted to know more. Well, I wonder what film making subject they chose for their presentation!
We were split into small groups of three and we had to come up with a subject. My idea was to make a documentary about taxi drivers and after some discussions I managed to persuade my two team mates to come on board. We were given a brief introduction to the camera and then we were off into Manchester to start interviewing taxi drivers and filming the comings and goings of cabs in the city centre.
We were rookies and we made a lot of mistakes. In particular, we didn’t think about the questions we were going to be asking the taxi drivers. We just sort of made them up on the spot but looking back it might have been better to have had the same questions ready for each new driver we interviewed.
A big issue that almost every driver mentioned was that the City Council was enforcing a new ruling about cabs being wheelchair accessible, which meant that drivers had to either buy a new cab or pay for a costly conversion to their current vehicle. Every taxi driver we spoke to mentioned this and they were clearly upset about it.
Another thing the cab drivers pulled me up on was when I dared to call a private hire vehicle a taxi. Dear me no! Didn’t I know taxis and private hire vehicles were two entirely different things? Apparently not!
I think we spent a week going to the WFA in Hulme, picking up our camera and then getting the bus into town to start filming. We went to all the taxi ranks we knew. There was one at the top of Piccadilly railway station where we found quite a few talkative and sensible taxi drivers. Next we went over to Piccadilly itself where we came across a great bunch of drivers all trying to outdo each other with tales of drunken passengers and how Manchester City Council were trying to take too much money off them in licensing fees. At Victoria Station we met a very chatty driver who even wanted to show his singing talent. I felt his impromptu singing might have been a light hearted end to our video but my colleagues thought not. Oh well!
When we had shot a great deal of video we had to start editing and part of the training process was to screen a rough cut for the whole media school. In our film, one taxi driver had mentioned that certain places in the city were dangerous to go to as there was the possibility of passengers making off without paying or even robbing the drivers. The cabbie mentioned Moss Side, close to the city centre. One member of the audience complained that the driver was racist as Moss Side is a predominantly black area. I didn’t think he was racist; he just didn’t want to be robbed or lose a cab fare and didn’t care one way or another whether the passenger was black or white as long as he paid the fare. My co-directors wanted to cut the offending moment but I argued that the cabbie was just trying to highlight the risk factor in his job. I managed to win that debate and that scene was kept in.
Anyway, cutting the video and shaping it into something interesting was our next task and really the most enjoyable part of all. The big difficulty was that there were three of us, all wanting our own way and really the only way to make a video is for one person to have the lead. Anyway, we kept fighting to a minimum and most of the time we managed to either agree or come to a sort of consensus. The end result was a pretty reasonable video, at least I thought so.
At the end of the course I took away my copy of our video and started pestering documentary producers for the chance to make a full length broadcast version but I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere until I wrote to channel 4. I went down to see them, they watched the video and the first thing they said to me was ‘Why didn’t you get in the cab with your camera?’
Well, we had asked taxi drivers if we could do that and they mostly said ok but all of them stipulated that if a passenger wanted us out then we would have to get out, no matter where we were, so rather than risk being stranded somewhere we didn’t take any rides in the cab. Not only that, there were three of us carrying a rather bulky 1990’s Super-VHS camera, a microphone and a tripod. On hearing this the Channel 4 producer looked at me and said ‘If you were a real film maker you’d have got in that taxi!’ After that, despite my protests and assurance that I would get in the taxi when fully commissioned, numerous assistants arose, handed me my video and quite quickly I found myself out on the street!
That was my part of my brief foray into the world of TV. I never did get a job in television but then again, perhaps I just wasn’t as determined or as pushy as I should have been. The one job offer I did get was from a small video company that did a little work for the This Morning TV show. They offered me an unpaid job which apparently is the usual way into TV, working without pay until you show yourself good enough for a proper job. Sorry but I had a mortgage to pay so unpaid work just wasn’t for me.
Not long afterwards Channel Four produced a documentary series about cab drivers although mostly shot with small fixed cameras in the taxi. I still reckon they pinched the idea from me!
If you’re interested in seeing our Taxi video you’ll find it below. It’s actually one of my most watched YouTube videos.
Due to issues of drinking far too much wine and lying far too long on my sunbed, this week’s blog post was an updated version of a previous post. Normal service may or may not be resumed next Saturday.