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How Britain Worked – Park – Guy Martin


Originally shown on Channel 4 in March 2012

Below is a preview from The Telegraph

It’s a cold, bright day in early autumn, and Guy Martin – motorcycle racer, truck mechanic, reluctant heart-throb and even more reluctant TV presenter (more of that later) – is riding on the footplate of a restored steam locomotive as it urges its way through the Severn Valley. It takes in the improbable sight of elephants and rhinos as it passes the West Midlands Safari Park, before plunging into a long, dark tunnel. The cab goes black, lit only by an orange glow from the firebox, which illuminates Martin’s face from below: this has a sallow, rough-hewn force, and is framed by remarkable Victorian side-burns. For one moment, we could be back in the heat of the Industrial Revolution.

“I would have been a foreman, a train lad in the engine shop if I’d lived at that time,” says Martin, who is there to talk about his new Channel 4 series, How Britain Worked, in which he helps to restore some of the machines that defined British working life in its great era of industrial progress. “I’d be the one on the floor telling the boys: ‘It’s either right or wrong. Measure it twice and cut it once.’”

The series takes in engineering marvels that range from the world’s oldest surviving water turbine to a Victorian fishing trawler. Its focus, though, says Martin, is very much on the unsung “grafters” of the age

“There’s been so much done on your Stephensons, Brunels or your Watts but there hasn’t really been anything done on the actual fellers on the spanners doing the graft. Alright there were the boys with the brains but it was down to the fellers putting the graft in to get it up and running. That’s what we’ve tried to replicate. Bloody hell, the work, the hours those boys were doing.”

There’s a plain-speaking directness to the 30 year-old from Lincolnshire that brings to mind the late great TV chronicler of Britain’s industrial past, Fred Dibnah. I spot a future career path, but, six-part series aside, Martin seems to have other ideas. “Presenting’s not a real job, is it?” he says. “It’s not getting your hands mucky. A lot of the stuff I’ve done, like driving a train, replacing sections of Llandudno pier, seeing inside a water turbine, you would never normally have a chance to do, but I still don’t see it as a proper job.”

In fact, last time Martin made a TV programme, The Boat that Guy Built, for BBC One, in which he and a friend renovated an old narrow boat, he says he ended up losing his real job, as a lorry mechanic for his father, for whom he’d been working – if you include weekends – since he was 12. For a brief moment, he says, he considered devoting himself full time, not to TV presenting, but to the career for which he is much better known, motorbike racing.

“That was until dinner time when I couldn’t stand it any longer. So I push-biked into town and I got a job,” he says.

“I couldn’t race motorbikes full time. I’d just get sick of the sight of them.”

It’s as a bike racer, though, that Martin enjoys the status of a cult hero, especially for his exploits in the Isle of Man TT races – he has many times finished on the podium but never won. In 2010, he survived a spectacular crash that ended in a fireball, breaking his back in three places. I ask him to talk us through the moments that could have ended his life.

“There’s a line you have when you’re racing and you can ride up to that line,” he says. “If you push beyond it you might crash. But first is first, second is forgotten, that’s what we say. I want to win, whatever it takes. I was pushing too hard. I knew I’d crossed the line, I knew what I was doing.

“Going into this corner, 160/170 miles an hour, I lost [control of] the front [wheel]. I thought, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it, I got it… I ain’t got it.’ I’m off the bike then and I slam into a wall and I thought, ‘Oh no.’ No panicking. I just thought, well that’s it. You hit a wall 170 miles an hour, you’re not coming out of that, are you? Just by luck I hit it at the right angle and got away with it. But no one made me do it.

“If I’d ended up killing myself, my mum and dad might be upset and Steph [his girlfriend] might be upset, but I have no regrets. The buzz that I get from the TT far outweighs the risk of getting killed.”

The good thing about TT racing, he says, is that “health and safety” hasn’t got to it yet, a phrase that also crops up when we talk about why he thinks Britain lost its reputation as the workshop of the world? We went soft, he says. “At the height of the industrial revolution, it was all work, work, work. There is a bit more to life than work. But it didn’t do us any harm. Look what we were.”

The accuracy of the engineers working at the time came as a surprise to him, too. “Trying to recalibrate my mind to work in imperial rather than the metric system was a fair challenge,” he says. “We were replicating the way things were originally done a hundred odd years ago, and the measurements were within a couple of thousandths of an inch.”

“Of course, they wouldn’t have been restoring anything, just building and building,” he adds. “Hopefully doing a programme like this will switch the light on for a few folk about what a great people we were.”

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