For a new BBC series From A To B, documentary stylist and Signs Of The Times creator Nicholas Barker has turned his attention to the motor car. Tom Lappin smoothes the upholstery.
For the last six years Nicholas Barker has been driving around in a moderately unpretentious C reg Volkswagen Polo. and not thinking twice about it. Now he‘s had to question some of his assumptions. after making From A To B: Tales OfModern Motoring. a bound-to-be-controversial series exploring our relationship with our beloved vehicles.
Barker. an eccentric documentary maker to say the least. was the man behind the 1992 series Signs Of The Times. a seductive look at the British taste in interior design by way of voyeuristic. unsettling and undeniably fascinating interviews with assorted citizens. its success as a TV icon was assured when Han)l Enﬁeld deigned to parody it.
‘What normally happens when you see cars on television is a celebration of a love and an obsession. You generally have a sexy soundtrack, fast cutting, a stirring In your lolns, the promise of adventure, an open road ahead and you’re off. In From A To B that doesn’t happen.’
‘Foliowing in its wake is rather terrifying.‘ Barker admits. ‘as expectations are outrageously high. Signs Of The Times was a cult. but when it ﬁrst went out was absolutely cruciﬁed by most critics. it was only when it was repeated that people began to realise what we were up to, and women started to hold Signs Of The Times panics.‘ '
That series. like this, ﬂirted with the dangers of patronising its subjects, inviting viewers to sneer at the pretensions, delusions and foibles of these people. Barker sees his peculiar approach as more revealing of its audience‘s preconceptions than his own. ‘Signs Of The Times was designed as a piece of conceptual television. it was supposed to be a foil for the prejudices of pe0ple watching. The research we did discovered that the majority of households that watched the programme had an argument as a result of it. Nobody could agree on which individuals and which tastes they most derided. The ﬁlms were designed to invite people to laugh at others, but everybody ran the risk that at a certain point in one of the ﬁlms they would be confronted with a version of themselves. The overriding philosophy of that series and From A To B is that we try to ﬁlm a version of ordinariness.‘
From A To B repeats Barker's fascination with
0N FOLLOWING ‘
minutiae. gestures and language to give a colourful and complex picture of our attitudes to the motor car. ‘i drive a rather excellent BMW 735i.‘ gloats one
3 well-fed suburbanite in the last programme of the
series. ‘lt‘s a dark black, fully-loaded. executive
i autobahn express. My wife drives a rather diminutive 3 Fiat Panda. which is best not described.’
‘l‘m always trying to ﬁlm people who represent a particular trend or prejudice but aren’t boring.‘ says Barker. ‘This is the problem. A lot ofthe quintessentially ordinary people are frankly dull. And i always try to avoid the quirky eccentric. who will let the viewer off the hook. The viewer can just say “They are crazy“. So you have to walk that tightrOpe.‘
Once he had gathered his people, Barker took an extraordinarily deﬁned. some might say manipulative. approach to getting them on ﬁlm. Confronting them with their initial interviews. Barker tells his subjects what he wants them to repeat on ﬁlm. The results are ﬁlmed in a stylised. almost ﬁctionalised way. ‘1 do direct real people as if they were thespians,‘ he admits, ‘and with this series i’ve made the act of ﬁlming more explicit. i don‘t claim it’s the objective truth. This is very subjective television portraiture. My people are giving a performance for me on screen.‘
‘The only agenda 1 had was to produce an anti-road movie,’ says Barker. What normally happens when you see cars on television is a celebration of a love and an obsession. You generally have a sexy soundtrack, fast cutting. a stirring in your loins, the promise of adventure. an open road ahead and you're off. in From A To B that doesn‘t happen.‘
The results are part comedy of manners, part poignant social commentary. Barker admits he’s no good at big themes. but the details. the absurdities. the ambitions and the delusions of the British
GES: GRUSHKO O PIE IN THE SKY O CHANNEL HOPPING
‘Ken’s slow. I think it’s his age. When we’re driving on the motorway everybody belts past us and he's chugging along at 55 on the inside Iane.’
motorist uncovered in From A To B are inﬁnitely more revealing than a broader analysis could achieve. Even the ﬁlmmaker became seduced by his subject. ‘l‘ve kind of lost my virginity.‘ he confesses. ‘After making the series I did test drive a powerful BMW. For the first time i knew what all those men were going on about.‘ ’ From A To B: 'liiles ()me/em Motoring begins on BBC2 on Friday [8 Mare/I at 9.30pm. A BBC book (£9. 99) is published to (‘oineiile with the series, and Martin Parr ’s photographsfrom the programmes (‘an be seen in the foyers and toilets at Welcome Break motorway serriee stations.
‘My parents want to keep me wrapped up in cotton ml and they went to protect me. Buying the this car is their my of doing it.’
The List 1 1—24 March 1994 55