MOTORING / A busman's method: Robert De Niro learnt to drive a bus for his latest movie. Matthew Gwyther observes the technique of the rookies of north London

Click to follow
FROM paranoid psychopath (Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver), to dogged prize-fighter (Jake La Motta, Raging Bull), through crazed comedian (Rupert Pupkin, King of Comedy), to paranoid psychopath (Max Cady, Cape Fear), Robert De Niro is famed for living every role he plays. His portrayal of Lorenzo Anello, a Sicilian New York bus driver in his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, was no exception. He had to learn to drive a bus and pass the relevant driving test. De Niro issues those tickets and opens the doors using pure Method.

The film's plot concerns a young boy who is unimpressed by the lowly, poorly rewarded 'working man's' toil of his father (De Niro) and starts hanging out with the more glamorous and respected mobster Sonny. Driving a bus down the Holloway Road in north London may be less exciting than negotiating the streets of the Bronx in a single-decker but, in one week in January, Neil Colston, recruitment and training manager at London Northern buses, received 269 applications for work as a driver. He accepted seven for training.

These days London Northern drivers' basic pay of pounds 231 a week is sought by exhausted teachers, pensioned-off Wing Commanders, even redundant financial services personnel who were on pounds 25,000 a year. Recession and unemployment is good for Colston - the calibre of his raw recruits has risen considerably. He is keen on more women applying (only 30 out of 768 drivers are female), less keen on bus spotters or 'hairies' as they are known.

All London bus drivers used to be trained at Chiswick, which was famed for its military discipline and its skid pan. (Readers of a certain age will recall John Noakes's famous sliding session on board a Routemaster double-decker for Blue Peter.) Chiswick is now closed, but

the memories remain.

'At Chiswick you'd be roasted if you walked across the square without your cap on,' recalls Colston, who has 22 years on the buses under his belt. 'In those days we taught people from scratch who could not even drive a car. You'd end up having to pull the instructor's emergency brake every day. It was harrowing.'

Colston can recall the time in Finsbury Park, north London, when a trainee tried, in Seventies sitcom fashion, to get a bus under a low bridge. 'The instructor was momentarily distracted,' he says. 'But three-quarters of the roof came off. We still ask them to go under, or we pretend to, just to test their observation and see how they react.'

Attentive they may be, but the status of the bus driver has declined in the public perception. That's the view of John Cattermole, London Northern's customer services manager. In his home-knitted pullover, he is an old-school walking mainframe of bus-route plans, statistics and engine types. 'In the old days,' he says, 'the bus driver was the champion of the road, a high-calibre person. The reality is that it is a very, very responsible job.'

Neil Colston, a true champion, recalls the time he had his glasses broken behind the wheel when a woman took a swing at him with her handbag in Buckhurst Hill. 'I thanked her kindly and let her off.' Nowadays it is more likely to be a knife than a handbag. All cabs are now linked by radio to a central emergency control unit and the double-deckers are being fitted with three video cameras each to record miscreants. All this makes the job highly stressful. 'I've just had to dismiss one trainee,' says Colston. 'He was a 51-year-old ex-milkman with 29 years' excellent work record. But he couldn't cope. When he got behind the wheel the pressure was just too much for him.'

We went out on the road with two trainees and their instructor, moustachioed Terry Ray. Stewart Oliver is 47 and had recently been made redundant as a heavy goods driver for Express Dairies in Cricklewood, a job he had been doing for 25 years. 'That's the way things are these days,' he said. 'I won't earn as much driving a bus but I'm not bothered. It's secure employment if I pass the test, and I'll be glad to have the job.' It was his last practice session before his PCV (Passenger Carrying Vehicle) test the following day.

We pulled away from headquarters at Euston Square and it immediately became obvious that Oliver was a bit of a natural - devoted to his mirrors, keeping the right distance from the kerb, ensuring that the ride was smooth. 'An experienced examiner doesn't even have to keep his eyes open,' said Colston, riding shotgun with us. 'All he has to do is listen to the smoothness of the engine note.'

The secret these days, apparently, is 'controlled aggression'. As Terry Ray put it, as we eased down the Embankment at 26mph, 'Just look at that pillock (a motorcycle dispatch rider cutting us up). Who wants to be like that? You (the bus driver) have just got to sort out everybody else's mistakes. Don't get wound up. There's enough pressure already. Control the aggression, and then just go home and kick the cat.' At the same time you cannot afford to pussy-foot about when there is a timetable to keep to. You have to assert yourself getting into queues of traffic.

Oliver was given a couple of gold stars for his effort, and got out on the south side of Hyde Park. Next up into the cab was Johnny Wong. He had tried his hand at a fish and chip shop, and also his own driving school, but neither had worked out. This was only his fourth day behind the wheel of a double-decker.

We headed west down Kensington High Street and a kamikaze pedestrian darted out into the road. Wong slowed. 'Ease it up, ease it up]' yelled Ray. 'Look at the pedestrian. You don't want to run him over . . . Second set of lights, turn to the right.' We edged forward to turn into Kensington Church Street. Johnny went for the tight turn. 'Come on, come on. Work it round. Go on,' urged Ray, 3ft from Wong's left earhole.

At the top of Bishop's Bridge Road, keeping to the left, Johnny edged forward into a gap just before some traffic lights. A mistake, apparently. 'Pull over. Pull over,' barked Ray. The merest touch of a grimace crossed Wong's face. 'What are you doing there? Eh? Squeezing in between cars? What's the point? Waste of effort wasn't it?' Johnny, eyes front, agreed.

For a moment I wondered how De Niro would have reacted to such a provocation: 'You criticising my driving, sonofabitch? You daring to criticise my driving?' (Opens cab door, advances and takes instructor by the scruff of the neck.)

But De Niro would only be playing at it. Johnny Wong has a family to support and rent to pay. There is no answering back here. He needs that pounds 231 a week. Ray is, anyway, putting on a bit of a show for his boss and the press. 'He's getting the hang of it fine. No worries,' grinned Ray. The next day Stewart Oliver passed first time. He reports tomorrow for his first day at the Holloway Garage.