Pregnant Guppy transport plane

How a Pregnant Guppy got me a career…

The very ordinary photo above of an extraordinary aircraft is to me highly significant. Obviously I didn’t know it at the time, but this picture steered me towards the magnificent career I’ve had for the past 30-plus years.

It was taken at Gatwick Airport on 10th March 1982, four years after I’d discovered photography, when forced to do an O-level in it to ensure I had enough lessons to fill my week in sixth form. My mate Alan Taylor encouraged me behind the camera, as he was doing the O-level, reckoned it would be easy and we would “have a laugh.”

That was in the September – by Christmas that year my parents couldn’t get into their bathroom as I was printing pictures in it and I wasn’t going to be a design draftsman any more (I never really knew why I was going on that career path), I was going to be a photographer. And having made that decision I of course didn’t take the obvious route of going to college to study photography. No, I was fed up with learning so I got a job on the photo and electrical counter of TV & Radio Services, also my home town’s most popular record shop – many stories can be told of that place, but perhaps another time…

An unusual arrival

Anyway, back to 1981. It’s my day off, the phone rings and it’s my dad, who worked for British Airways down the road at Gatwick Airport. “We’ve got a Pregnant Guppy in, you’ve got to come and get some pictures of it,” he says.

Pregnant Guppy three-quarter

This was one big-headed plane…

Being a bit of a plane nerd at the time, I knew all about the Pregnant Guppy. It was a version of the Boeing Stratocruiser airliner, on which the first two thirds of the fuselage had been blown up like a balloon to create a cavernous cargo space. The idea for this ridiculous looking plane was originally NASA’s, for carrying bits of Saturn 5 rockets about, but by this time one was being used by Airbus to carry bits of planes between the various factories. Its regular beat was Manchester so one turning up at Gatwick was very unusual.

On asking dad how I would be able to get to the plane to photograph it, he replied “meet me under the terminal in half an hour.” So having grabbed my camera and charged down the useful footpath that went from our housing estate all the way to the airport, 30 minutes later I was under the terminal (in those days Gatwick only had one…).

Guppy plane fron

From the front this plane was even more dramatic…

Dad duly drew up in one of the huge tugs they used for towing aircraft and told me to hop in. Whereupon we headed for the security gate, he waved a bit of paper at the people in the booth, up went the barrier and suddenly we were airside, I getting a very different view of the airport as we drove down a row of aircraft parked at their standards.

Later I would learn that the bit of paper was an authorisation form claiming that I was on a familiarisation visit prior to joining British Airways Ground Operations! My much-missed dad did sail close to the wind on occasions…

The Guppy was parked at the furthest end of the airport and having dodged taxiing planes while driving over to it, even dad knew it would be pushing his luck to let me out onto the tarmac. So he simply dropped the window of the tug and drove round the Guppy a couple of times while I took pictures.

Gatwick tug

Of course once we had the Guppy pics in the bag dad was happy to let me out to capture the clever things his tug’s cab could do…

Once back home, I wondered what to do with the pics. Then I remembered a new local free newspaper had launched in Reigate, just five miles away, and according to the freelance photographers’ newsletter I subscribed to it paid for pictures – very unusual for a local paper!

Money game

So I printed off a couple of shots and popped them in the post. The paper was called The Independent – the national newspaper was still five years in the future – and when the next issue came out on the following Thursday my pictures were in it. Even better, a week or two later a cheque for £12.50 arrived in the post! Remarkably in today’s money that’s just under £50…

Guppy story

I make the press…

Bouyed by this, I soon found another picture story, a friend of dad’s who had a steam roller, and the Indy used that too. Then I got a phone call from the editor, my first contact with John Woodward, an old-style newsman who later I would consider one of the most formative influences on my career. He asked me if I might be available to carry out commissioned photo jobs on evenings, and of course I didn’t refuse.

So began an enjoyable time of photographing prize givings, awards ceremonies, theatre photo calls – later that year I had my first experience of attending the press night for a play at our local theatre, rushing home, developing the film, running off a print and delivering it to the paper in time to catch the deadline the following day. Piece of cake in today’s digital world, slightly more involved back then…

A year or so later the Indy decided it was established enough to employ a photo-journalist. Of course I applied and had an interview with John that was so positive I basically waited for the letter giving me a start date.

Thanks but no…

Instead I got an apologetic letter from John, and unlike most rejection letters it actually sounded sincere. They’d employed another applicant who had previous newspaper experience, and in such a small team as was at the Indy that was understandable. “I hope we can still use you in the future,” John added; “but obviously now we have our own photographer that will be less likely…”

I wasn’t having that. I think the new photographer was called Jane Wilson – I started working out the jobs she was likely to be going on, and I found other jobs and sent them in on spec. I also had my entire family and friends keeping an ear open for stories, which I also sent in.

Inde front page

Tree plantings, plaque unveilings, I photographed all the big events…

Within months I was effectively Jane’s deputy – whenever she went on holiday I had a very busy couple of weeks! And then one day another letter came from John; “Jane Wilson has today submitted her notice and will be leaving in two weeks. If you still want to join us please get in touch with me as soon as possible…”

So in May 1985, my media career began as a photo journalist at the soon to be Reigate Post & Independent (the national newspaper was on its way…). Not a photographer – though that was my prime role, as the team was so small I was expected to muck in on everything. Just how small I realised in the first week when the chief reporter went on holiday and the paper was basically put together by John and myself…

By now the Indy was part of a major regional publisher, the Croydon Advertiser Group. Because I could clearly write, John decided I needed some qualifications and put me on the in-house NCTJ training scheme. Over the next few years I worked under six chief reporters – like any local paper the Indy was basically a staging post for ambitious young journos on their way to something bigger and better.

When the sixth chief reporter resigned John called me into his office and asked me to apply for her job. Instead of following a career path as a photographer, my career turned in a slightly different direction as a journalist. And the rest, as they say…

Reigate Independent front page

As the credit shows, we did it all on the Indy…

Birmingham Superprix

Streetwise racing in Brum and the south of France

Dipping into one’s long-neglected photo archive it’s amazing what comes to the surface. This time it was a picture reminding me that in my 30-year-plus career, I’ve only ever been to three meetings on street circuits – and two of them were in Birmingham…

Birmingham Superprix 1986

Racing cars, traffic lights and 40mph signs – this was the Birmingham Superprix…

Run between 1986 and 1990, the Birmingham Superprix was something very different on the UK racing calendar and when the debut 1986 event was announced this young motorsports photographer knew he had to be there. At the time all the racing I had experienced had been at Brands Hatch and a brief visit to Lydden.

Having held a media pass for Brands Hatch circuits for just three seasons and not having a permanent outlet I knew I wouldn’t get a pass for Birmingham, which was an international event topped by a round of the FIA Formula 3000 Championship (for younger racing types, F3000 was then to F1 what GP2 is today – the final rung of the ladder to Grand Prix racing). So me and my mate John Newton went as punters on a grand day out.

Birmingham Superprix 1986, crossing

“Oi, you can’t park on the zig-zags…”

Arriving at a race circuit by Inter City train was novel, especially this was only my second time in Birmingham and the previous visit took me only as far as the NEC to see Genesis in 1983. John and I made our way to the circuit wondering what to expect – our only experience of street circuits was watching Monaco and US tracks such as Long Beach on the TV.

Well, Birmingham was no Monaco! The circuit was based largely around a dual carriageway, the cars charging down one side, around a roundabout and up the other side. It then dived through some tight roads hemmed in by towering offices and housing, bringing the cars back to the start line, opposite a pit lane in the frontage of a car dealership.

86 Birmingham Superprix, deck chairs

Get the deck chairs out, racing cars are on…”

Walking around, even in the public areas, it was incredible how close you were to the track, the cars powering by just the other side of a debris fence. But if you took too many steps backwards, you risked falling into the pocket-handkerchief-sized garden of a local resident’s council house, and they were hanging out their bedroom window getting a grandstand view of the action. Others were sat in front of their houses in deckchairs – there were tales of marshals being kept supplied with tea from the nearest locals, it was all very British.

F3000, Birmingham Superprix 1986.

For the F3000 boys the race was more about staying on the track than challenging rivals…

John and I found a great spot for the racing, sitting close to the top of a grass bank directly opposite that hairpin at the end of the dual carriageway – and then the rains came…

All those who were there remember how the tail-end of Hurricane Charley let rip on Britain that August bank holiday weekend, and it wrecked race day. The deluge was so torrential that John and I kept sliding down the bank on the mud. The F3000 race was stopped halfway through and a result declared and while they tried to run the saloon supports, we were so sodden and dejected we dragged ourselves to the train and home.

Rain-sodden 86 Birmingham Superprix

Conditions too sodden for even the saloons dampened our spirits…

Thankfully, the organisers didn’t let that put them off and a year later the meeting happened again, and this time in glorious weather. I went on my own to this one, still without a press pass, but being at Brands Hatch almost every weekend I had by this time got to know a lot of marshals. During the morning practice sessions my friends on the post just after the start line let me go trackside for a couple of sessions.

Birmingham Superprix 1987 Fiestas

One not very tall armco barrier, and racing cars, going rather quickly…

In all my time as trackside photographer I was never quite as inspired – and yes, mildly scared – as I was then. I was standing almost touching the inside of an armco barrier that only came up to just above my knees, and on the other side was the track – no grass verge or gravel trap, just tarmac, and racing cars going full pelt on it.

I became a huge fan of street circuits that day, and I would be disappointed that commitments elsewhere prevented me going back to the Superprix in any of the three more years it lasted. In fact it would be another 20 years before my next street race, and that was in the south of France.

1987 Birmingham Superprix F3000

F3000 cars make for the airport…

By the time I went to the round of the 2007 World Touring Car Championship at Pau, my trackside days were behind me, in fact I was no longer primarily a photographer but a writer, and at the time writing more about road cars than race cars.

WTCC Pau 2007

Pau – the traditional idea of a street circuit.

In fact it was testing road cars that got me to the meeting – Pau was at that time familiar to us, a favourite launch venue for the German brand’s performance road cars due to good roads in the district, a very nice hotel actually bordering the street circuit, and a proper race track just a few miles outside the city for us to try out the latest BMW M3s and M5s.

So a select few of us road testers with motorsport credentials were invited as guests of BMW to Pau – at the time the brand’s WTCC team was led by Brit Andy Priaulx who would claim his third successive title in 2007. I certainly had the motorsport credentials – on car launches to Pau I never needed a second invitation to show any driving partner who hadn’t visited the city before “where the race circuit goes…”

Priaulx WTCC Pau 2007

Andy Priaulx, the man to beat in 2007.

Now this was much more like a Monaco-style street track – really tight, climbing and descending its way between impressive architecture, and with the kind of weather one gets in a location much closer to the Mediterranean than is Birmingham. The only thing missing was a harbour with bronzed beauties sunbathing on mega-money yachts.

The track itself was everything I expected, especially as the World Touring Cars still climbed over every kerb they could find and constantly grazed the barriers. It was impressive stuff, but the dangers of street tracks were highlighted in no uncertain terms when Augusto Farfus rolled his BMW into a tyre barrier in qualifying, causing my mate Ian Lynas to dive for cover in a way a man of his years really shouldn’t be doing. It was sobering to think that had the Beemer been a foot or so higher it would have missed the barrier and kept on rolling…

Farfus, WTCC Pau 2007

A fellow journo got rather too close for comfort with the Farfus BMW…

We had a great weekend, especially on Saturday evening. The racing went on into the night which encouraged one of my fellow journos to stage an unofficial party in his room – beer, food and a grandstand view from his balcony! And on Sunday Alain Menu, one of my favourite acquaintances from BTCC Super Touring days, won the first race in his Chevrolet.

So yes, I like street circuits, though I don’t get to them very often. I still haven’t seen a race at Monaco, though I’ve walked the circuit and I’ve driven it – in the traffic jams of a typical Monegasque weekday morning… And to be honest, I’d be happy to go back to another Superprix in Brum, especially as now I live in Wales the city is at the other end of a direct rail line…WTCC at Pau, 2007

Pau WTCC, 2007

All photos in this piece by me! Andrew Charman