Television presenting: It'll be all riots on the night

For James Brown , founder of Loaded, the chance to present a documentary on mob culture was a gift. The reality was somewhat different...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The big difference between editing magazines and presenting a documentary series is the public. With magazines your readers send you e-mails, with TV the punters just burst in at every opportunity desperate to know what's going on and how they can join in or cause a disruption.

If I have learnt one thing from making a series on riots for Bravo it is that everyone who drives a van for a living will automatically hoot their horns and hang out of the window laughing about it when they see you filming. It's OK when you are in a country lane outside a detention centre in Bedfordshire. It's not so easy when you're on the roundabout on London's Park Lane with 50 white vans a minute flying by. It happens so often when I'm filming that I can only laugh, because it's just the sort of thing I would do. But as a result it takes half an hour to say: "And this is where the mounted police came in."

It'll Be Alright On the Night has turned us into a nation of media terrorists. When we are not stopping for van drivers giving us the horn we are stopping for emergency service sirens. They are so frequent we now ignore them in ordinary life that the irony of stopping to miss the sirens appears lost on my career-hardened documentary team. Everywhere we go from Trafalgar Square to Birmingham's Centenary Square, the police check out what we are doing.

I find the best way to deal with loiterers or kids giving the V sign to camera is to tell them it's GAY TV: this usually clears the place. In Bradford a bunch of kids being cheeky legged it when they heard this. Ten minutes later they went past in a bus with 50 other little bastards in black blazers all screaming "PUFFFTERS!" out of the windows.

I have spent years either not having the bottle to present the big shows offered to me, or turning down the ridiculous documentaries offered to me. Because the first magazine I edited, loaded, was such an all-encompassing commentary on men's lives I have since been invited to speak as an "expert" on everything from snack goods to royal marriages, political leadership contests to modern ballet. For every documentary I appear alongside Peter York and Janet Street-Porter on, I have said no to nine others.

However some things you can't turn down. A guy called Glen from a company called Vashca rings up and says: "Would you like to present a series on riots? Bravo have commissioned me and they want you to present it." He sounds like he is being forced into asking me this. Unlike every other TV conversation I have I do not ask how long it will take and how much the money is. I simply say "Fucking brilliant, yes, I have a thing about riots."

Riots are fascinating, a brutal explosion of social anger that gatecrashes the news. For a moment I have a fantasy of becoming the Jonathan Ross of Civil Disorder. I get some clothes from 6876 and One True Saxon. I listen to "Babylon's Burning" by The Ruts, I am ready to pick up the mic and run into the world of class war, direct action and violent urban conflict. Three weeks later I am outside a panel-beater's yard, under a flightpath, in front of a railway bridge, next to a coach park on a road used by lorries to get to an industrial estate. Near the Millwall ground.

It is not the quite Britain's Noisiest Location, but it could be. Despite my terror I am trying to talk about a football riot. By walking to camera I find it easier to remember what I have to say. I wave my arms around so much I end up walking past the camera before finishing my lines. Alan Whicker has nothing to fear.

The next day I have improved by two per cent. We are in the City of London, making an episode on the anti-capitalist riots. I walk through crowds of commuters delivering an in-depth analysis of how these riots would inspire such literary tracts as Naomi Campbell's "No Logo". Everyone has it "in the can" and I am now king of the one-takes. Then John the other producer says "That was brilliant James, almost perfect, but it was Naomi Klein not Naomi Campbell that wrote 'No Logo'." I realise there is no escaping my own creative poverty. Everything is taped.

We jump in a van and visit Bedford, Bradford, Belfast, Derry, Oldham, Strangeways and Armley. It feels like being in a band. Glenn is noticing the sociological similarities between many of the riots; I am noticing how many bacon sandwiches I am eating. The sound men have novelty T-shirts; Ian, the Weller fan sound man has political slogans on his shirt; Martin the techno-geek soundman has nerd slogans on his. Ian steadies my cocky generalisations about the rioters by pointing out which demonstration has trade union support. Matt the driver mercilessly mocks my inability. Tim the brilliant South African camera king is laden down by the chunkiest jewellery I have ever seen on a white man - he looks like they've covered him in magnets and made him run through Hatton Garden. Lara the researcher is ever armed with her intolerant scowl and endless supply of green tea. And Glenn, the main producer, has to dampen my suggestions we liven up the show by chucking petrol bombs at police vans. He realises he is dealing with a child in a man's wages.

We visit rioters, policemen, eyewitnesses and locations. In Bradford things turn a little paranoid. Three smart young Asian lads are telling us there's no racial tension in the area when a bloke walks by and shouts: "Fuck off you white bastards." Earlier in the day we witness a woman in a burka being thrown from a moving car. Tim stops a police car and points out the woman in the street. The copper just drives off.

We film in the rubble of a burnt-out pub. Oh the sad, mindless chaos of a raging mob, who in their right mind would petrol-bomb a pub? One minute I am quoting Gustav Le Bon, the next Howard Marks is telling me about a decapitation he witnessed over breakfast in an American prison riot. Fascinating stuff. The work isn't difficult but is strangely draining, especially for the crew who have to watch me fucking up all the links.

TV gets more glamorous when I am whisked to a soundstage in west London to meet Scott the series trailer director. He's recreated a scene from a Faithless video using super expensive camera equipment, a police Alsatian and 12 petrol bombs. I sit in the middle of it and recite three lines. I have my expensive Kilgour suit on. The series trailer looks amazing, two Irish lads keep pouring a tray of broken sugar-glass onto my head. It hurts. By now I imagine I am a method actor. A special catapult fires a brick at a mirror, and misses. In the end Scott throws the brick that brings the glass down onto my head. I am being paid to have people throw bricks at me - there could be a big market in this.

I Predict A Riot, Tuesdays 10pm, Bravo

Comments