Monday, February 9, 2009
Selina Scott to the Rescue
Seeing the ruins of Lord Steven’s garden fence beneath my dented car on Monday night, I was reminded me of another fence I mangled some 25 years ago.
In 1984 I had a little red sports car, a Mazda RX7, which I used to drive at absurd speeds whenever I had the opportunity. At that time I was still working for the BBC, producing a BBC1 dance series called The Hot Shoe Show, with Wayne Sleep and Bonnie Langford. That series had brought me into contact with Andrew Lloyd Webber for the first time, and I’d just directed a video of his musical Song and Dance. The Hot Shoe Show was in its second season, and had an incredibly complex and exhausting schedule, but I still said yes when Andrew asked me if I’d moonlight to direct a video of Unexpected Song with his new wife Sarah Brightman. So it was that after a long day in the office in Shepherds Bush, I’d hit the M4 and drive over to Sydmonton, his Victorian pile on the edge of Watership Down in Berkshire to plan the shoot.
As I’ve never been one to knowingly arrive early for anything, I used to force my Mazda to ridiculous speeds in order to make up time once the road had emptied itself of rush hour traffic. Just after Reading there’s a stretch of motorway which runs without an exit for about 13 miles. It must be one of the most boring stretches of motorway in the country.
One evening I was cruising in the fast lane at well over a hundred miles an hour, and I was about ten minutes from the Newbury turning to Andrew’s house. I was finding it hard to keep my eyes open and had to turn the air vent onto my face to stop myself nodding off.
Then I felt a bump, and blinked hard. A pair of Wellington boots was flying in slow motion past my windscreen, followed by a kettle, some large lady’s underwear, and then, held weightless in suspension as if in a space capsule, a cloud of small household items. It turned out to be the contents of a small white caravan which I’d apparently shunted up the rear, and which had managed to absorb some of the impact of my car. Over what seemed like about thirty seconds (but in truth must have been a fraction of this time, for the adrenalin in a road accident causes everything apparently slow to a snails pace) I pushed caravan and its unfortunate owner off the road. The driver of the other car and his wife, quietly motoring to a week’s holiday in Devon, must have had no warning. One moment they were gently pootling in the middle lane, as caravan owners tend to, oblivious to everything else but the Archers on the radio, the next they were being pushed out of control towards the hard shoulder.
I’ve driven this stretch of road many times since, and I’m amazed at the narrow escape we all had. At the point where the accident happened there’s a steep ravine to the left of the road. Immediately afterwards there’s an equally steep embankment about a hundred feet high. In between the two runs a small ramp of grass and trees, like a sliproad no more than ten feet wide. One second earlier and we’d have been over the ravine, with a fall of into the river below; a second later and we’d have hit the hill and overturned. As luck would have it, with just a couple of feet on either side, my car pushed us all up this narrow ramp. Slowed down by some newly planted trees, we came to rest at the edge of a field. I can still picture the broken fence post in front of me, and the steam pouring from my bonnet.
I got out of the car, and went to check the others. Luckily noone was hurt, but the caravan had disintegrated and both cars were written off.
“What happened?”, said the confused driver, a man in his 50s who worked for the gas board. Avoiding the temptation to apologise and say I must have fallen asleep and driven into his mobile sitting room, I merely repeated, “What happened?”
Together we made our way down to the motorway. Traffic had come to a halt as people stopped to gape at the carnage. Except there was no carnage, just two cars and a few bits of tangled metal in a field.
“What happened?” The words spread round the onlookers. Someone found a bit of white caravan by the roadside with a blue scratch on the side. Then someone else said he had seen a blue van drive off after the accident. And then the police arrived.
They were terribly polite. They took our details, examined the debris and called for a tow truck to extricate our cars from the field. By now the “witnesses” had embellished the story. Apparently a blue van, going much too fast, had struck the caravan and knocked it into the side of my car, pushing both vehicles off the road. The policemen nodded, and wrote things into their notebooks. They radioed the details of the blue van. I kept quiet.
“And what do you do, sir?” one of them asked.
“I work in television”.
His notebook closed. He lowered his voice and said into my ear, “Do you by any chance know Selina Scott?” Selina was in those days the host of BBC Breakfast News and by far the most desirable female celebrity in Britain: to police officers, anyway.
“Actually, I do – we worked in the same department for a while”.
“Do you think you could get her autograph?”
“I’m sure there’s no problem, officer.”
We were standing beside a smashed motorway marker sign. Coincidentally, it appeared to be exactly the same colour as the blue scratch down the side of the bits of caravan. The same blue as the missing van. The policeman studied it carefully, and wrote something down in his book.
Just then the tow truck dragged my car out of the field. It came to rest beside us. There, embossed on my rubber front bumper, was the imprint of the number plate of the caravan. Clearly my car had struck it precisely in the rear.
The policeman frowned and turned to me again. “Of course, sir, if you hadn’t been hit by that blue van; if, dare I say it, you had fallen asleep at the wheel, and you’d driven into the back of that poor couple’s caravan, now that would be quite serious. It would in fact be called dangerous driving.”
I nodded sadly, as more bits of broken blue sign were extracted from the remains of the caravan.
“Could I have a private word, Sir?”
The policeman led me up the side of the motorway.
“The thing about dangerous driving is, that it’s incredibly difficult to prove. Usually, it’s just not worth our time. Now, are you absolutely sure that you can get Selina Scott’s autograph?”
Two months later I got a letter from Thames Valley police. It apologised for the fact that they had been unable to trace the third party in my unfortunate accident on the M4: despite exhaustive enquiries they were unable to find the blue van.
That was my first and last road accident. Until last Monday, that is. Tomorrow I take the Volvo into the “Mill Car Clinic” for an estimate. It’s been an expensive week.
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