A (very interesting ) Evening with Henry Cole
Most petrolheads will be familiar with Henry Cole. He’s now a regular figure on television as the director and presenter of Shed & Buried, also Find It, Fix It, Drive It and The Motorbike Show. The latter is apparently the most popular factual show on ITV4. I’m not surprised. Its mix of passion for the subject, expertise and gentle banter is infectious and engaging. Indeed, that’s the style that all of Henry’s shows now reflect. More of that to follow…
I, along with 140 other eager members of the audience, went along to Prescott Hill Climb clubhouse, world famous home of the Bugatti Owners Club, to hear Henry being interviewed by Chris Drewett, one of motorsport’s most well-respected commentators.
Chris knew his stuff as he lined up a series of questions designed to tease out the mixed fortunes of Henry’s colourful past. Not that Henry needed much teasing. About 90 minutes flew by as he regaled us with snippets from a life that has included Eton School (same year as Boris Johnson, apparently), heroin addiction, war news cameraman, maker of TV advertising, movie director and finally TV personality. Throughout all of that, he’s remained a biker, general petrolhead and lover of all things automotive, especially from the 1970s and 80s.
It’s that all-consuming passion that brought him along to support Prescott’s fund-raising and to give his time freely… and four of his books, ‘A Biker’s Life’, as charity raffle prizes.
Without dwelling too much on the negative aspects of his life, Chris asked how he got into heroin. It came from the natural schoolboy fascination of trying forbidden things, until someone at a cannabis session said “here, try this”. All of the resultant addicts subsequently got clean, albeit Henry was the last to do so after much cajoling from a friend and fellow ex-addict. He’s since been gratefully clean for over 30 years. However, his work as a war reporting cameraman was insulated by the drug, leaving him exposed but oblivious to danger that resulted in some brilliant footage. Sadly, that included recording the execution of a soldier during the Russia/Afghanistan war. Another soldier prisoner was offered had he not captured that sickening image at the first attempt.
In a move away from the dark side of reporting, Henry turned his hand to film-making and recruited a then little-known actress called Elizabeth Hurley to feature in a thriller entitled ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. Henry told us “after Ms. Hurley went global following ‘that dress’, the film’s American distributor wanted to take the dark essence out of the film because of her new found fame. Without that dark essence it didn’t have any plot and what was left could’ve been written on the back of a fag packet!” The result was a movie that received a critic’s comment “It took Roman Polanski 6 attempts to make the worst film ever, Henry Cole has done it at the first time of asking”!
After a debate with his TV sponsors, he decided to try his hand at presenting. Apart from needing to be convinced to “simply be yourself”, he hasn’t looked back. His inspired list of TV shows that combine his love of (mainly) motorcycles and restoring old stuff, has gathered a fan base demonstrated by the sell-out event I attended.
Part of his appeal is his determination to play fair. All of the deals done on all of his shows are genuine. They are filmed as they happen. As Henry says, “a fair deal is a good deal”. There are plenty of rip-off shows on TV where conflict and one-upmanship are the attraction. No so here. Every deal is done so that no seller will afterwards grumble about what happened next to the piece of rusty old junk that Henry purchased, restored and re-sold. After all, as Henry said, “we might want to go back and buy some more stuff from them”.
It was during filming of The Motorbike Show in 2013 that Henry met his now great mate and expert fettler, Sam Lovegrove. Henry was enticed to try his hand at a motorcycle land speed record on the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Sam was part of the bike building team. Their joint success in setting a world land speed record for a pre-1955 750cc motorcycle on a Brough Superior, cemented a friendship that is deeper than just a shared love of bikes. That affection shines through in all their subsequent TV shows.
I wasn’t then surprised to learn that in Shed and Buried, Sam doesn’t get to see inside the shed until filming begins. Thus, every comment is recorded as it happens. It also serves to demonstrate Sam’s expertise (“genius”, says Henry) on all things mechanical. Although Henry reckons that Sam loses interest in pretty much most things post-1970!
Henry finished with a plea to all present. “Please get out and use your cars, bikes, whatever. Share with the world your enjoyment. They’re meant to be used and loved, not left in sheds to rot or in museums to gather dust.” Hear hear to that!
Our evening ended with a few questions from the floor and then Henry was the last to leave after the usual round of handshakes, selfies and autographs. I had to insist that Henry let us buy some books from the boot of his car, despite his reticence “because it’s not a book-selling event”.
Regardless, I thought it was a good deal and so that’s fair enough.