I found out that you could work on tour buses through an actor friend and I heard that it paid really well, so, in the summer of 1997, I applied to a tour bus company based in Wimbledon. At the interview, they asked me if I could speak any foreign languages. I could speak Swedish because I'd been studying there and they thought that was really cool. So I did the interview and they offered me a nine-day unpaid trial. We were told that if we passed we'd be taken on. There were 12 of us. We just went round and round the main London route and wrote down and learnt facts and historical details about each area. Then after about four days we were told to give a tour ourselves.
The guy judging it was called Bob. He was an ex-Oxbridge guy who could speak about 12 languages and was a total alcoholic. The tour would stop at pubs here and there, and he'd roll out some story about why we were there so he could get a quick pint in. Often, he'd say: "There are some lovely views around here," and then, as we walked past a pub: "Oh, but I must tell you about this establishment," and in we'd go.
Anyway, after our training period, Bob took each of us aside, outside The Space Café on Buckingham Palace Road, and told us whether we'd got the job. He said to me: "You know, Jason, I'm just not sure you're right for the job." But having worked him out, I knew it was really a provocation for me to say: "No, Bob, I really want the job". So I said: "I don't want to second guess you, Bob, but I really did come on this course to become a tour guide." He immediately said: "That's what I want to hear. That's my boy. You've passed."
So, after nine days' training, I was a fully fledged tour guide. I got paid a daily rate based on three tours of two hours, or four tours of one and a half hours each. Any extra tours got paid at about £20 each. All tips had to be shared with the drivers.
At peak season there were about 60 tour guides from all walks of life, most often washed-up or out-of-work actors. They recruited tour guides through advertising in The Stage newspaper. It was a real scene in the summer. There was a lot of socialising in the pubs around Victoria - that's where the tip money was spent.
The people on the buses were of two kinds - there were the people just over for a few days before going to Paris, and there were the hardcore travellers who needed to kill a few hours. The Londoners were a real pain, they always thought they were giving you correct information, but most of the time they were way off beam. Many of the Indian tourists were extremely rude, they would interrupt you when you were talking to ask irrelevant questions. And the Aussies were really tight, they never tipped. They were your best mate all the way round the trip but would never give you anything when they came off.
Sadly conforming to stereotype, it was always the Americans who asked the stupid questions. When we pulled up outside the Houses of Parliament they would always ask: "Hey Sir, what's that big church?" Or when they saw Big Ben, they were always so disturbed by how dirty it was. Someone once asked: "Why don't they paint it?" There was one American who asked why they built Windsor Castle so close to the airport, wasn't it too loud?
I think the Americans, when they arrive in Britain, believe everything will be in black and white. A few of them were really annoying, but I had this way of dealing with them. I'd say: "You're on the red route. If you prefer to get off and walk the route just hop off and walk on the two red lines on the road. There's also a yellow route which you can follow."
I got a complaint because I told a joke about Michael Jackson. I said that he'd been staying at the Lanesborough Hotel and the reason I knew it was because there'd been hundreds of screaming kids waiting outside. The owner of the bus actually came on my tour, and he thought I was cheeky, so I wasn't asked to do any more shifts. After that I started doing ticket touting for the tours instead, which was great fun. It was very much a game. You could do what the hell you wanted, as long as you didn't get personal. Tell as many lies as you want, but don't get personal.
We'd say things like: "Excuse me Madam, that man is an illegal tout, you shouldn't buy from him," even though we were all in the same position. People are quite fickle, so it was all about who could make the first move. The aim was just to wind up your opposition as much as you could - as soon as you'd wound them up they were destroyed, because you had to be plausible, polite, and trustworthy. After we'd got to them, the opposition would be ranting and raving and nobody in their right mind would give money to a guy like that. The most important quality was to be trustworthy because, let's face it, they were parting with £15 quid for a tour that they could do on the number 25 for 50p.
To wind the competition up - although we pretended we didn't - we'd get personal. We'd remind other touts how they were looking after other people's children, that sort of stuff. There were legendary stories of cups of tea being spiked with laxatives, but generally it was just about one-upmanship. It wasn't done in a nice jokey way, it was all very competitive. It was all about egos and who could walk away with the most money. It's still a really cash-rich industry and people are very aggressive about it.
There were three companies and there was an immense amount of competition - about 40 touts for each company spread across the capital. And there was so much mental disintegration between the companies, rumours and hearsay that were supposed to get to you. You know - which company was going to buy which, who was going bust, all that sort of thing. The people who were doing it were unintelligent and uneducated. It was all about who could get the most money at the end of the day.
Marble Arch was known as "the Front Line" between the ticket touters. There's an imaginary line that divides Speakers' Corner, and there was a No Man's Land in between. It was agreed that we wouldn't venture into their land and they wouldn't venture into ours.
There was a big difference between tour guiding and touting on the street. Being on the street, we were like timeshare salesmen or something - that's what it was akin to. It's all about the big sell. I'd say: "We've got a bus every five minutes, but their buses only come every 10." And if you got lucky there'd be one of your buses coming round the corner, so you could say: "Oh look, there's one of ours, just hop aboard." The main thing was to sell the ticket - bam - straight away. To not give people time to turn it down. To say: "You want two tickets for this trip; you're on the bus." To give them no choice.
We occasionally got involved in a price war with the other buses - if people were going to get on another bus, we'd undercut them. If people were saying: "We're going to get on the bus with a live speaker," I'd just say: "Oh come on he's half dead, he's been doing it for eight years he's just another washed-up actor." One of the buses would always say, "we believe in quality, we don't drop our prices," to which I'd always shout back: "They're going bankrupt , they need the money."
I always let punters speak to the opposition. I'd then say: "Sir, you look like an intelligent person, you like to shop around." I would then extend the truth about the other company and sell the ticket.
It was a great job to do, you could do it with the heaviest of hangovers. It was so good in the summer, everyone was out and about and getting on the bus was the natural thing to do. In the winter it was incredibly demoralising, people were cold and no one wanted do it.
There was this guy called the Rottweiler. He was amazing, I don't know how he did it, you would never buy a used car from the guy, but he managed to sell thousands of bus tickets. He was deadpan and cold. His big thing was to look the customers in the eye, which gave them a mild fright.
There was also this guy called the Captain. He used to wait outside Madame Tussauds and tell the tourists that there was a two-hour queue to get in, but he told them he could get them a combined ticket with our buses that would get them straight in, which was surprisingly true. He'd shout: "Come this way," and people would just walk towards him. He had the good looks of OJ Simpson, and - come to think of it - the menace of OJ Simpson, and people would do what he said. He was called the Captain because he looked pretty natty in his uniform, and he had an authority to him.
With your patter it's all about puns. I always used to say that Soho was so named because it's an old hunting ground, it's like "Tally ho!", and it was a good hunting ground for prostitutes. Or, how it was a good job that Benjamin Hall - the guy who built Big Ben - wasn't called Richard. The stories were based around hearsay and dry, apocryphal stories.
Jason told his story to Sam InglebyReuse content