Written by Jon Auty
BBC1, New Year’s Day 1987 was one of the most joyous days of my life to date. As a fan of the stunt industry you can imagine my excitement, whilst flicking through the Christmas ‘bumper’ edition of the Radio Times, to find this listing. Stunt Challenge had started life in 1982 and was hosted by actor Lewis Collins and racing correspondent Derek Thompson. Six stuntmen competed over various challenges including jousting, handling a car, a high fall etc. for a £1000 prize and the title of Stuntman 1982. Stuntmen competing were Rocky Taylor, Mike Potter, Nick Gillard, Maverick Morgan, Steve James and Cliff Diggins with Alf Joint, Dave Bickers, Martin Grace and Dickie Graydon. The event was won by Rocky Taylor. The following year Stunt Challenge 83’ arrived with a new approach. Each competing stuntman would try to perform the best stunt instead of competing in different disciplines. This proved to be a successful formula and one that would stay with the series. Roy Alon won this year after refusing his car through an articulated lorry. Again the following year six professionals battled it out for victory. My only recollection of that year was Mike Potter falling from a building, on a motorbike, Elaine Ford falling from a helicopter and through a glass roof and Greg Powell rolling an articulated truck and just missing out on serious injury when a van parked at the top of the ramp, being used as a kicker, came right through the windscreen of Greg’s vehicle. Stunt Challenge 85’ saw one of the best shows to date. Nick Wilkinson, Helen Caldwell, Lex Milloy, Dorothy Ford, Graeme Crowther and Greg Powell put on a brilliant show. Nick started things off with some Jet Ski antics, the late Helen Caldwell then took over climbing aboard a moving truck then jumping onto the roof of Dorothy Ford’s Jaguar before she pipe rolled it down the street. Lex Milloy jumped his motorcycle and was jerked from the bike before it hit the ground. Graeme Crowther cannon rolled his Rover and so unpredictable was the result that it ended up in the trees and Greg Powell, standing in for the injured Rocky Taylor, crashed his car through an articulated lorry before turning it over. Dorothy Ford became the first woman to win and the first woman to pipe roll a vehicle. It was a majestic sight. All these shows had been screened on ITV so when Stuntman 86 came along the series had been bought by the BBC. This meant that filming would change location from Millbrook to Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. The BBC had recently started filming Eastenders there. So a new show and channel required a new presenter too. Derek Thompson went on to be a huge part of the massively successful Channel 4 Racing team so a replacement was found in the shape of a Radio 1 DJ Mike Smith. He had been presenting the Breakfast show since May 1986 so he would appeal to a younger audience, but more than that he was a household name after appearing every Saturday night since 1982 with Noel Edmonds as a co-presenter of The Late Late Breakfast Show. His major segment in the show involved the ‘Whirly Wheel’ where a member of the public would be chosen to perform a stunt on the following weeks shows. The show received huge ratings and was must see TV. Sadly in 1986 a member of the public was killed whilst training for the following weeks show and the programme was cancelled. This also meant an end to shows like Stuntman Challenge. So let’s remember how good these shows were and have a closer look at the stunts and behind the scenes work that went into making Stuntman 86.
The show starts with an introduction by host Mike Smith who is trying to explain the work these ‘unsung heroes’ of the entertainment world do…only he’s not doing it as well as could be expected. He’s going very well until he says, “they portray quite violent men on TV, but I can assure you they are all cool, professional…bit thick maybe...” It is at this point that Greg Powell stands up and objects strongly to the director.
Greg pushes Mike across the room and into the wall by the door. Mike tries to reason with him, but that just upsets him so Mike pushes him onto George Cooper and Steve Whyment and makes a run for the door. Our chase is on, as is the scuffle.
Greg runs out of the room and throws the door into Nick Wilkinson’s face. Paul Heasman, who is sitting next to him, laughs so Nick gives him a left hook for his troubles sending him through the door and over the landing. Nick then follows with a playful ‘pratfall’ over bannister!
Meanwhile on the other side of the room Steve Whyment is having an altercation with George Cooper and Graeme Crowther crashes through a skylight causing a small fire.
This takes us to the first major stunt in the sequence. George Cooper has been set alight during the fight and now makes his way up to the roof where he falls and sets off a huge explosion which in turn causes George to become engulfed in flames. A full burn through the debris of the explosion ending in another big bang! Now this particular part of the sequence took all day to film. It doesn’t sound a long time, but George was set on fire and then put out half a dozen times during the day which is physically draining. As we can see here the special effects team were on hand to put on the flammable paste to George’s clothing allowing it to burn and the back of his head was covered in protective gel to stop
his skin being burnt. Stunt Coordinator Greg Powell is on hand to make sure all the safety angles are covered before the cameras roll.
After being set alight by the sfx team on the roof, George falls into the mattresses below and is put out. Meanwhile the camera crew have a locked off shot of the roof where George fell from. They add the explosion after. George is all smiles as he goes off to prepare for the second part of his stunt. The full body burn. Many of you will have seen George on screen before in numerous movies and TV appearances, but in 1986 the TV show that every stunt professional was involved in was Dempsey & Makepeace. George appeared in an episode as a bare knuckle boxer who takes on Michael Brandonâ€™s Dempsey.
George also explains how his association with fire has caused one or two injuries in the past. In the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majestyâ€™s Secret Service George played one of the henchmen and was seen leaping from an overturned car during the stock car race
sequence. As it explodes George is caught up in the flames. “I burnt my bottom on that Bond and today I’m exhausted and in pain after this fire job”.
Safe to say that George pulls off a sensational burn and finds his way very well bearing in mind that his visibility isn’t clear due to flames and rippled explosions going off during his walk. Greg Powell had arranged a path through the oil drums so that George knew exactly where he was at all times. He was shadowed by paramedics and fireman just in case he got into difficulty. Luckily he didn’t, but the plot of this chase sequence meant that George had to stay smouldering for the rest of the week…all in a day’s work.
The next stuntman to take part in the sequence is Paul Heasman who at this time was a relative new comer to stunt work having joined the stunt register in 1981. He is to be knocked down by a car. Very dangerous as we all know, but professionally made safe for the film or TV programme the performer is working on.
Paul is playing the role of a Traffic Warden, happily going about his business as a purveyor of doom and gloom, when around the corner comes Mike Smith in a Sierra Cosworth travelling much faster than the average speed limit. Around the car he is putting a ticket on comes a Ford Capri that knocks him down and drives on. Generally this stunt is done one of two ways. With a trampoline or using timing. This is the option Paul has chosen to use and he has plenty of experience being knocked down having performed 5 or 6 knockdowns by the time this show was aired.
Greg Powell helps Paul with his costume and padding before running through his positioning on the bonnet of the car to be driven by Steve Whyment. Timing is everything as Paul has proved on the Michael Caine film Holcroft Covenant where he was knocked down by a car travelling at 20mph. Believe me that is plenty fast enough! As I mentioned Paul was quite new to the stunt business back in 1986, but had appeared on Television and here is an example of his work. Seen here in an episode of Jersey based cop drama Bergerac doubling for the lead John Nettles working alongside the late great British stuntman Bill Weston.
Paul is in place and the director calls action. Steve approaches in the Capri and Paul gets his timing spot on. Getting enough momentum to get up onto the bonnet of the car and continue travelling the length of it allowing him to fall off the back onto the floor. Greg Powell is once again first on the scene to see how Paul is and if he thought it went well. Greg is under the impression that it could have been a little faster, but it worked out very well. Examination of the VT proved conclusively that Paul had indeed nailed this particular gag and Greg was very pleased with the finished shot. Greg is also quick to point out to those watching at home the difference between George Cooper’s fire walk and Paul Heasman’s knockdown. “With George and Nick’s gag’s they were all day at it. Physically drained by the end of the day. The like of Paul’s stunt is a pretty quick process. Put on your padding. Rehearse getting on and off the car. Do the stunt and move on to the next process. So every stage of stunt work is very different”.
I must point this out. In between Paul Heasmanâ€™s car knockdown and the next gag involving stuntman Graeme Crowther the chasing Police car can be seen power sliding around the outside of a building. Itâ€™s an incredible thing to see and the car was driven by stunt coordinator Greg Powell. Greg said himself many years later that it was one of his finest car slides.
This slide links into Graeme Crowther taking over behind the wheel to perform a first of a kind stunt, at the time and in the UK. Stunt Engineer Dave Bickers had fixed a pipe ramp to the front of another car. Graeme drives at the other car which is travelling towards him, driven by Nick Wilkinson, straddles the pipe ramp at 40mph and is thrown through the air. Majestic stuff.
The pipe roll has taken the humble car crash to new heights. In 1985 Dorothy Ford became the first British female to pipe roll a car. This is a new twist on that premise. Attaching the pipe to the front of the oncoming Volvo means that timing is of the essence. Nick Wilkinson has to drive straight and true and make no adjustments to his speed or direction at all. He also has his head pushed as far to the right as it will go. In the final few frames during the impact between the two vehicles Nick’s head can be seen leaning out of the driver’s window. This is in case the roof of the Volvo is ripped off in the crash. Luckily it isn’t, but nevertheless it’s an extraordinary thing to see and it’s beautifully executed.
Shot from the reverse angle you can see Nick Wilkinson driving the Volvo preparing for the impact. The pipe ramp is mounted on little wheels allowing it to run freely. Graeme hits the pipe perfectly and the car is thrown over to its right hand side.
Graeme gives the thumbs up as the car comes to a stop and the team rush in to see if he’s okay and to start his removal from the car. Mike Smith gets in to find out how this incredible stunt felt from Graeme’s point of view. Greg Powell helps remove his helmet and Mike Smith asks him what he remembers of the impact. “I saw the road upside down then it coupled and rolled once or twice? I’ll wait and see the VT” On viewing the tape Graeme would have seen a brilliant execution of the pipe roll. Invented for the movie 1941, the pipe ramp has been a stable part of the action since the early eighties. The pipe ramp as we know it today was invented by stuntman Gary Baxley after he saw a special effects guy making one on the back lot of Universal. The pipe was something that had been used in many westerns to turn over covered wagons so Gary then came up with an idea for a kicker on the end and the car movie stunt pipe was born.
Top Left: Graeme is assisted off with his helmet by stunt coordinator Greg Powell while the late Terry Forrestal looks on in the background. Top Middle: Mike Smith gets a few words from Graeme about the experience of flipping the car over. Top Right: The vehicle effects crew attach the pipe to the front of the vehicle. Bottom Left: The Volvo was used as it was a rear engine vehicle allowing plenty of room in the front to attach the pipe. Bottom Right: Dave Bickers heads up the vehicle crew.
Steve Whyment’s up next and boy does he go off with a bang. The idea is simple, a bike crashes into a parked car. The rider flies off the bike and goes through a shop window. In practice it’s much more complicated.
The shop window that Steve will crash through has been created by the lads at the BBC. Nothing is real, even the cakes in the window are made of plaster. The glass is ‘sugarglass’ which smashes like real glass only without the danger element. The car is parked in such a way that if the bike hits the wheel arch area of the Capri, Steve will fly through the window. It’s also useful to point out that Steve must go through the window; he can’t just slide over the bonnet and stick his leg through. The shot requires momentum and he’s going to get it.
Motorcycle Stunt Rider Eddie Kidd is on hand to give Steve a few pointers. Eddie, as a rule, tries not to fall off on purpose. Steve has pegs on the side of the bike to allow him a bit more lift over the handlebars on impact. He is fully padded, but doesn’t want to take any chances.
Steve explains that if he got a chance to do the bike job again he would make a few changes like trying to look straight ahead instead of down where he was to impact the car. Often what happens is that if you look down your body tends to follow that direction as we see here. Steve’s body seemed to flop down and his hands touched the windowsill. He would like to have come through much straighter, but it was a very fine job.
Now stunt coordinator Greg Powell steps up and yet again he gets the big ‘gags’. In years past he’s rolled two articulated Lorries and jumped a Jaguar through another one. This year the gloves were off and he was offered a cannon roll. The cannon roll is a very exciting way of turning over a vehicle. Two cannons are placed at either end of the coach, nitrogen rams build up pressure and as soon as Greg pushes the button the cannons are fired into the ground causing the coach to roll. Easy right? Well not exactly. A roll cage has to be put in place and the drivers cab must be packed out to prevent him having his head thrown about violently during the stunt. Vehicle Stunt Engineer, Dave Bikers stands next to one of the cannons in this next picture. You can see the size of them and the amount of support the coach now has.
Cannon rolls weren’t used very often in the UK at the time. If a car was to roll it would be a hidden ramp or a pipe, but the stunt community in the US had been using them for years so it was time to follow suit.
Also interesting to note is that many members of Dave Bikers team were hunting around the drains and sewers of Elstree Studios during the shoot. When asked what they were up to they said that they needed to find a hole at least 6ft deep so the coach could drive over it and the cannon could be loaded from below. Obvious when you think about it really. The cannon roll was first used in the 1974 John Wayne movie ‘McQ’ and was performed by stuntman Glenn Wilder.
Three good examples of Greg in the zone. Left: approaching the point of no return Middle: hitting the button Right: impact with the ground There is unpredictability with the cannon roll as Graeme Crowther found out in 1985. He fired the cannon in the middle of the road and the car rolled violently into the trees. Greg is pretty convinced that this won’t be as unpredictable.
“Ladies and gentlemen this is only a brief stop, but if you could come through the front for tea and biscuits please…thank you”. He believes that with a few extra miles an hour and a few hundred extra pounds of pressure in the cannon he could have got the bus onto its roof. Regardless of this it was still very spectacular.
One remaining stuntman chasing our host Mike Smith. Nick Wilkinson in hot pursuit as Mike slides his Sierra Cosworth to a stop and makes a run for a waiting helicopter. Mike jumps in the chopper just as it takes off; Nick catches up but can only get hold of the skid. The helicopter takes off with Nick holding onto the skid and heads towards another exciting stunt.
The chopper speeds up and flies out of the field through a fence, luckily for Nick the fence has been erected by the BBC art department.
The chopper then flies very low and drops Nick onto his backside, still being dragged along by the helicopter. This part of the stunt was the trickiest of all to get right. Constant communication between the pilot and Nick must be maintained at all time. So Nick was issued with a throat mic. This allowed him to tell the pilot how low he was prepared to go. And he went pretty low. The shot where he is actually sat under the skid of the chopper being dragged along the ground Nick can be heard shouting “UP, UP, UP”!
Sparks fly from Nick’s shoes as he is dragged across the ground until he is sat down on the tarmac.
Disorientation kicks in as the chopper flies around and around. Both Nick and Mike experienced this during the filming. For balance purposes Mike was doubled by Greg Powell for the last part of the stunt. Nick, still hanging on for grim death is being kicked continually by Greg who is trying to get him off the skid of the helicopter. At a designated point Greg shouts “Go Nick. Go”! We see Nick Wilkinson drop 30ft into the lake below. Luckily for him the safety boat is on route as soon as he hits the water. Fit and well and ready to fit another day.
The judges are the stuntmen themselves and they get together in Elstree Studios to decide who is Stuntman 86.
All the stuntmen gather with Managing Director of Triton Showers My Peter Dimalo to present the award toâ€Ś
GRAEME CROWTHER – STUNTMAN 86
George Cooper appeared as a stuntman in many blockbusters over the years including On Her Majestyâ€™s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, The Wild Geese, Victor/Victoria, Batman, The Three Musketeers and The Mummy. He died in 2006 at the age of 61.
Paul Heasman has continued a very successful career in the stunt industry. He has performed stunts in Death Wish III, The Living Daylights, Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves, Willow, First Knight, Saving Private Ryan, The World Is Not Enough and Titanic to name but a few.
Graeme Crowther has performed stunts in The Living Daylights, Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Captain America. Was also stunt coordinator on Flashbacks of a Fool, About a Boy and Dungeons & Dragons.
Steve Whyment has now been involved in the stunt business for over 30yrs. His work has included performing stunts and coordinating stunts on productions that include Willow, Batman, Yong Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Waking the Dead, Oliver Twist and Waterloo Road.
Greg Powell is a stuntmen, stunt coordinator and 2 nd Unit Director who has been involved on film and Television for over 40yrs. His credits include The Spy Who Loved Me, Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom, Nightbreed, Red Scorpion, The Wild Geese, Name of the Father, Son of the Pink Panther, All the Harry Potter films, Interview with the Vampire, United 93, Fast and Furious 6.
Nick Wilkinson joined the register in 1976. Since then he has worked on hundreds of productions including The Sweeney, The Professionals, Batman, Bridget Jones Diary, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, The Living Daylights, Spies Like Us, An American Werewolf In London and I Want Candy.
While still broadcasting Mike Smith raced in several British Touring Car Championship races as well, driving a newly homologated Sierra Cosworth in 1987, and then alongside Frank Sytner in 1988 with whom he often clashed in a BMW M3. He also won the Willhire 24 Hour at Snetterton in 1986, driving a Ford Escort RS Turbo. Veteran commentator Murray Walker remarked that Smith "guaranteed action by the bucketload". He married Television presenter Sarah Greene in 1989.