Sunday, 21 October 2012

A great horse - brought to you by great people

Saturday 20th October at Ascot - and the Frankel story closes. A remarkable 3-year racing career ends on a high. The thrill of the build-up, the drama of the race, the continuous tv coverage bringing all this spectacle to you. Did you notice the slow-motion close-ups, the grass level shot on a corner, the sound of the hooves and the crowd, the fact that not one millisecond of this historic race was missed?

No? Good. That's how it should be. For this is sports outside broadcasting and it is very much in the business we call show. You, the customer, shouldn't see the workings and the people who make it all happen live. You should just enjoy the moments.

My part in all of this? Well, a large part of my presenting career has been spent standing in freezing or boiling locations talking to a lump of metal controlled by a human in suitable clothing, whilst being shouted at in my earpiece by producers & directors bathing in the comfort of their mobile heated/cooled tv control room - or "scanner" as it is quaintly still called.

I cut my teeth on outside broadcasts. The unique world of OBs.

These days I'm more likely to be found beneath the whirring blades of one of of our flying tv studios, offering live pictures from our gyro-stabilised camera system. OBs are full of special cameras. And the more that can seem to fly, the better for the dynamic coverage. Hence the "spider cam" that spans many sports stadia. The "wire cam" that flies smoothly across a venue - London 2012 outdoor venues were nearly all equipped with these systems. Many of them are UK developed and built and sold worldwide - our OB industry is trusted everywhere.

It's not just the technology - that doesn't invent itself. We have humans who are only comfortable freezing their bums off in far flung fields. The riggers who arrive weeks before an event to lay out the vital infrastructure for the OB. And then have to clean the mud off every cable before reeling it up at the end. That's about 20 miles of cable on many large OBs.

Camera operators who will spend all day stuck up a crane waiting to get a 30-second "money shot" of a passing royal. Or horse. Or royal on a horse.

We started to cover horse racing for the BBC in 2004 as independent production started to takeover in some BBC Sports output. I was out for a walk one day and bumped into a director I'd presented for in the mid-90s. Most OB directors have their own aura. Their own way of working. And a reputation. It's inevitable, because sometimes they are directing a crew of several hundred professionals who all have different ideas. They have to be Generals in Jeans. The sex is unimportant. The attitude and the ability to think ahead are everything. Steve Docherty is such a director. We chatted and, as soon as Steve learned that I had started an aerial filming operation, he said he would call.

He did. Just a few weeks later he twisted my arm into covering some racing at Goodwood free. The basis being that if all went well, he would ask us back later in the month for a week of Glorious Goodwood. Well, that went according to plan - and 8 years later we have reached a milestone as the BBC ditches horse racing and the sport is to be carried exclusively by C4 from 2013. Over the past 8 years we have become the BBC's sole provider of aerial coverage at horse racing. That means 6 Derbys, 5 Grand Nationals and about 100 other major races.

OK - I'm proud that we've done that from scratch. No other aerial filming provider has such a great record.

Yesterday at Ascot was our last flat race. And the BBC's last race at Ascot after a truly amazing 62 years.

The day for us is largely unscripted and we are trusted to turn up, turn on our transmitter and get covering. Our live picture is fed wirelessly to a receiver on an OB truck and then delivered to the director who chooses which of his 25 cameras he will cut live to air. It's edgy, unpredictable, pressured work which my team enjoy. Our brief for the races is to deliver a continuous shot without fail from start to finish - because no other camera can get that shot. On something as complex as the Grand National (42 cameras!) I will direct on the helicopter, counting the camera operator into each of the fences, whilst the pilot copes with wind, rain, sometimes snow and gets us into the right position. It's aerial choregraphy and we have developed our own unique style.

That continuous shot can save the race coverage, catching incidents not seen by other cameras. With the increasing paraphernalia at courses - enormous viewing screens, safety margins etc - yesterday I was struck by how many ground cameras had obstructions across their shots at vital moments. We see past all of those.

Steve called me once. "How low can you get?" He wanted a horse-eye view of the courses. We got permissions from the CAA to fly the courses on non-public days at 6ft above the ground! Our lap of the Derby and Grand National courses is still in use 5 years on. An amazing shot that puts the viewer in the saddle of the horse.

For this year's Derby, Clare Balding tweeted me a few weeks before. Could we get a continuous shot from Highclere stables to her family's stables at Kingsclere to help tell the story of Bonfire - her brother's horse, a favourite for the event? We did the shot whilst out on another job, as a favour. The proof of a happy ship in broadcasting is the lengths that people will go in support of giving the viewer the absolute best.

I'm sure some of the freelance off-camera people who worked on BBC horse racing will be a part of C4's offering. But many won't. C4 have done horse racing proud over the past few years and, now that they have rights to all racing, I'm certain they will continue to develop the coverage with the viewer constantly in mind.

And if you carry on not noticing how good it is, then they will have done their job.

Thank you Steve "The Doc" for your skills, your attention to detail and your ability to ignore fools. And to all the crew from Sunset+Vine, production company, - you know you made a big difference to horse racing on tv. You made a big difference to my team as well.

We will all be in operation for our final gig together at Chepstow for the Welsh National on December 27th. And then, the nosebag gets passed to C4. It will be brimming with the best quality oats, farmed by a great team.

And that is the worst analogy I have ever written. If I had a stable, I'd go and muck it out as punishment.

iPlayer coverage here. The Frankel race is the 5th - about 2h 40m in from the start of the programe

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