Those who have seen TV presenter and motoring journalist Mike Brewer on programmes such as ‘Driven’, ‘Wheeler Dealers’ and ‘Deals on Wheels’ know all about his down-to-earth personality and no-nonsense assessments of the vehicles featuring on his shows.
So maybe it was a bold move by the MOD to react so positively to his bid to produce a series for the Discovery Channel putting front line equipment to the test. Mike said:
I used to sit in the pub and listen to my mate complain about how awful it all was, and I just knew it couldn’t be true.
The MOD too were fed up of the headlines. So when, eighteen months ago, Mike made for Main Building to ask:
Why aren’t you sending out the best stuff?
The best response seemed to be:
We are, why don’t you come and see for yourself?
From there the seeds for the eight-part series, ‘Frontline Battle Machines with Mike Brewer’, were sown:
At first, being a four-by-four fanatic, Mike just talked about Jackal, but it soon became clear that there was a much bigger picture we could tell,” said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Stratford-Wright of Army Public Relations.
There was a mood in the media at the time that we weren’t making any progress with equipment, but we knew we had a good story to tell, and not just from the Army’s perspective.
A list of equipment to be featured on the series was agreed, including machine guns, armoured troop carriers, fighter planes, helicopters, light tanks and guided missiles:
There was a huge amount of goodwill from MOD,” said Liz McIntyre, Discovery Channel’s vice president of factual programming. “They completely understood the need to let us have editorial freedom.
We have never worked with an organisation who wanted to know in such detail what we wanted from them.
Discussing the details led to a unique approach being adopted, thanks to the efforts and imagination of Lieutenant Colonel Paris of the Combat Equipment Branch, responsible for getting access to all the kit:
They gave me the list of what they wanted to see and I told them about new kit coming through. Then I decided that it would be best to tell the story by giving Mike hands-on experience using the kit,” he said.
Up until this light-bulb moment, the idea had been for Mike to just watch the vehicles, which Lt Col Paris felt might be a bit dull:
It seemed to me it would be much more interesting if Mike could talk about his experience with the kit rather than report on someone else’s.
This was an unprecedented suggestion; it has always been etched in stone that civilians are forbidden from operating vehicles and weapons in theatre, which meant Lt Col Paris needed to get two-star clearance to make it happen:
Of course there were issues of health and safety, insurance and risk mitigation to iron out but the two-star military reaction was very on side,” said Lt Col Paris.
It was finally decided that Mike could be allowed the unique privilege of getting hands-on with the kit as long as a fully qualified instructor was on hand at all times.
Before going to Afghanistan the TV crew spent three months filming at the School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering in Bordon, the Royal School of Artillery, the Army Air Corps, the Infantry Trials and Development Unit and and the Defence School of Transport:
We wanted to show the public all that it takes to deliver and sustain fighting power to the front line, from testing through to use in combat,” said Lt Col Paris.
That included everything from training the drivers, the guys who maintain and mend the vehicles, how we get them out to theatre, the logistics, and the infrastructure.
At Bordon, Mike got to help change the axle on a Mastiff. Later he got to do the same thing at Camp Bastion and then at a forward operating base. In this way the viewers get to see the life cycle of a Mastiff. This suited Mike perfectly:
I’m the world’s most inquisitive man. I want to take everything apart. I wanted to know why is a sniper rifle shaped the way it is and why does it take such heavy equipment to move 11 guys from one place to another. I think the programmes explain that really well.
Next came a two-month embed for Mike and a film crew with British troops in Afghanistan. Lt Col Paris accompanied them, recceing the units before the cameras arrived, organising what they could film and what they would be doing, and crucially what, from an operational security point of view, they could not film.
Behind the scenes Lt Col Paris was assisted by an officer from 4th Division to do the costings:
Everything involved in the trip had to be itemised,” said Lt Col Paris. “Bullets, equipment, real estate, personnel, fuel, weapons - the costs had to be captured so that appropriate invoices could be raised against the film company.
Each programme featured three pieces of kit, which were subjected to the acid test ‘is it up to the job in such a ferocious war zone?’ And as far as Mike is concerned the answer is a definite ‘yes’.
In the last programme Mike chose his top eight pieces of kit, and, when asked to reveal his favourite, he talks of the genius of the Jackal:
It’s the Ferrari of the front line that combines bomb-proof technology with an open cockpit, giving it that friendly, smiley face.
But it’s not this example of ‘good old British engineering’, nor is it the Mastiff, which Mike describes as incredible:
If I had a favourite, obviously it’s the soldier, without them nothing else matters, but as for kit it would be the Chinook.
It’s the workhorse, go anywhere, do anything front line vehicle, and there’s no mistaking that twin rotor thump,” he says full of emotion. “It’s a great piece of kit.
It’s not surprising that he’s emotional about this. One episode showed Mike travelling in a Chinook, which landed in a full fire fight to pick up a wounded Afghan soldier.
During the rescue Mike sees the equipment and the troops using it at their professional best:
The soldiers around me are acting so cool, as if they’ve seen it all before,” he said, hunched up inside the helicopter looking terrified.
Despite taking rounds to the fuselage, and the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune, being hit in the face by a ricocheting bullet, the evacuation ends successfully with Mike clearly in awe of what he has just experienced.
Mike’s approach is simple and straightforward. Whether he’s test-driving a scimitar, or firing off rounds from the awesome 50mm cannon, his excitement for the kit and respect for the troops are clear to see:
I never wanted to come across as one of them. It would be patronising of me to turn up in army trousers and do the old ‘hit the deck, incoming, incoming’ routine.
As a fan of gadgets and technology Mike was bowled over by the infectious enthusiasm of the servicemen and women that he met:
They love their stuff, and, through my eyes, they just wanted to show it off to their friends and family and show them what they do for a living, and how good their job is.
And, you’ve got to remember, these guys are trained on specific pieces of kit. So if it’s a Jackal operator, he is Jackal through-and-through, there is nothing you can tell that bloke, he knows as much about it as the engineers who bolted the thing together.
In the final programme, on his way home, Mike vowed that he’d never return, but speaking months later he has had time to reflect:
There’s another story that needs telling now. I think a series about maintaining the front line would be great.
I’d love to spend two months with the Sappers asking questions like how do you change the front axle on a Mastiff? If a Chinook was damaged in a fire fight how would you recover it? Or put a bridge across a culvert?
I’d be very happy to go back and do that.
This article is taken from the December 2010 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.