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Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion

Francis Welch


Today Formula 1 motor racing is one of the most popular and lucrative sports in the world, watched by millions and attracting huge sponsorship and television deals.

But when Grand Prix racing originally developed its own World Championship in 1950 it was a different era all together. This is what we wanted to explore when we started making Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion.

Juan Fangio drives the race of his life in the 1957 German Grand Prix

The brief for the series was very explicit - to make five films which drew exclusively on the BBC's own archive to show what the world of F1 was like before the contemporary era.

The first challenge was to mine the BBC archive, and we soon found that many of these films were in a very poor condition and hadn't been viewed for decades. At the same time as the World Championships started, the BBC was also entering a new phase of broadcasting.

It became clear that there was a wealth of fascinating material, not just of Grand Prix races but of all aspects of motoring and at a time when Britain as a society was changing rapidly.

The Mini Cooper gives ordinary drivers the chance to connect with motor racing

One of the stars of the first episode wasn't a driver, but the BBC’s own motoring correspondent, former Spitfire fighter pilot Raymond Baxter.

I felt strongly that the series should be made without any narrator and that characters like Baxter would tell their own story in their own words.

There were two major influences for this style: the recent cinema documentary about Ayrton Senna and the BBC's own The Rock'n'Roll Years.

I felt the archive could talk directly to you, the audience, and we would use only short captions where necessary. I wanted you to be totally immersed in the world of the archive.

Some of the archive is shocking - I will never forget watching the footage of British driver David Purley trying in vain to save Roger Williamson from his burning car at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1973. And then learning that he himself had died in a flying accident a decade later, after retiring from motor racing.

With the exception of making documentaries about World War II, I don’t think I have ever worked on a series where so many of the main characters died.

The contemporary era is relatively safe, indeed no driver has been killed on the track since Senna in 1994, but in the 1950s and 1960s several drivers a year were killed, including many of the world champions we feature like Mike Hawthorn and Jim Clark.

Jack Brabham wins the Formula 1 World Championship in 'spectacular' fashion

But the footage also revealed a lost world of charming and eccentric characters who injected great humour into broadcasting. Many of them featured in Wheelbase, the BBC's first motoring programme and the forerunner of Top Gear.

The Wheelbase presenters helped cement the sport's glamorous appeal with numerous reports from the south of France where its presenters reported from the Monte Carlo Rally and Monaco Grand Prix, but also took in the local vineyards and restaurants.

Through the 1960s and 1970s they covered international races from across Europe, South America and Africa and in the days before many Britons holidayed abroad, these reports offered a glimpse of the exotic.

Wheelbase reports from Monte Carlo: 'The most glamorous rally in the world'

To help us present this old material in a fresh and stylish way we worked with the graphic design house, BDH. We edited the films at their studio and incorporated their graphics as we cut the material. They created the opening title sequence and the whole graphic look of the series.

As much of the film was mute (the sound had been lost many years ago) we also plundered the BBC's radio archive for material from interviews and race commentaries.

I wanted music to be a driving force and we put together a soundtrack from the period, consisting not only of pop hits of the day by artists like Little Richard and Link Wray but from film scores by composers like John Barry.

We wanted to use the BBC archive to take the audience into a disappeared world before Formula 1 became the big business it is today.

‘It was an incredible event because you had to pass about 500 or 600 people’

Everyone who worked on the series has their favourite piece of archive – and although it's a tough call I would probably choose the footage of Stirling Moss winning the 1955 Mille Miglia - it perfectly captures what the series is about - the excitement and glamour of a British driver racing to victory through the beautiful and unspoilt countryside of what was then far-off, impossibly sexy Italy.

Francis Welch is the producer of episodes onethree and four of Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion.

Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion continues on Mondays at 8.30pm on BBC Four. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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