June 12

A Museum Road Trip

11057979_10154031840355842_3122813534213886112_oMy Small Son recently went on a road trip of an educational kind – to Dorset and Somerset on the trail of two military museums we’ve been wanting to visit for some time.

On a Friday afternoon we headed along the coast to Dorchester in Dorset where we stayed as guests of Premier Inn in the chain’s new hotel in the Brewery Square development. Last time I visited Dorchester, a few years back, the brewery site was a run-down yet majestic bit of Victorian industrial legacy. I feared it might be bulldozed, but was delighted to find that it has been kept intact and used wisely, as a site for leisure and housing. The old buildings now sit next to modern flats and restaurants and fortunately their scale means the modern buildings don’t overshadow then.

eat-kitchenrestaurant_2We’ve only stayed at a Premier Inn once before and had been very pleasantly surprised. Owners Whitbread really seem to have nailed the budget hotel end of the market. Very speedy check-in (with machines that give you your room key) and clean, crisp and quiet rooms – basically all you need for a quick stopover. The in-house restaurant has a simple menu which will suit most (with plenty of options for children) and the breakfast is both reasonably priced and the quality high (even down to same organic yoghurts we have at home). The staff at the hotel couldn’t have been friendlier and with a car park underneath the building, it couldn’t have been more convenient. We’ll definitely be back – in fact we’ve already booked!

20160402_125112 (Medium)After a hearty breakfast on the Saturday morning we packed up and headed off to our first museum – the Tank Museum at Bovington, which neither of us had been to before – and it didn’t disappoint. The vast museum is home to more than 300 vehicles ranging from Little Willie, the first ever tank to the dreaded German Second War War Tiger tank to the powerful modern Challenger 2.

The museum has six large halls including one with a superb recreation of First World War trenches in 1916, which felt really evocative and poignant. Obviously there are a lot of tanks at Bovington but the museum does a fine job of telling the stories and sharing the experiences of the men who fought and died in these claustrophobic metal boxes. There’s also a clever recreation of a tank factory and the story of tanks in warfare is brought right up to date with a large recreation of a base in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.20160402_130820 (Medium)

There is lots to see so its worth allowing the best part of a day for your visit and we were at the museum until near to closing time – but before we left we went outside and went for a spin around the arena on a modern tracked vehicle which was bouncy, noisy and great fun. Afterwards we headed off on a 40 minute drive to the next stop on our Museum Road Trip – Yeovil in Somerset (and a stay at another Premier Inn).20160402_164108 (Medium)

Every time we go to the West Country via the infamous A303 I make a mental note to visit the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton – and today, finally, was that day. And wow – what a great museum. I was born in Portsmouth and still live quite close so I’ve been to the other National Museums of the Royal Navy (NMRN Portsmouth and Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, Royal Navy Submarine Museum and the Royal Marines Museum). The Fleet Air Arm Museum is the fourth and final – and was well worth the trip.

20160403_102156 (Medium)Like the tank museum, it’s a vast site with four large exhibition halls, more than ninety aircraft and thousands of artefacts. It is Europe’s largest naval aviation museum and tells the story of naval aviation from its origins at the beginning of the 20 century to the modern day. The highlight for us was a superb recreation of an aircraft carrier which enthralled my son and me. In fact. I thought was one of the best museum exhibitions I’d ever seen, and it certainty deserves its award-winning status.20160403_124125 (Medium)

To reach it you board a helicopter and are then “flown” out to the flight desk where you are able to walk amongst aircraft and then watch jets take off and land. You then go on a highly realistic tour below decks and see how the ship operates. Other particular favourite exhibits for us were going on the first British built Concorde, sitting inside a jet and watching a film about the helicopter rescues during a huge flood in Boscastle in Cornwall, where we had stayed recently.20160403_132913 (Medium)

Like the Tank Museum, the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton is well worth a visit. It’s innovative, interesting and well thought out. Both museums are highly recommended.


Notes: Our stay at Premier Inn, Dorchester was courtesy of the hotel and our entrance to the Fleet Air Arm Museum was courtesy of the museum







Category: Reviews, Travel
June 10

A World In One Day at the Eden Project

20160217_123518 (Medium)I’d been to the Eden Project in Cornwall before but it was well worth a second visit. We went on a rainy day and although it was very busy (everyone must have had a the same idea!), it’s such a big site that it coped well with the numbers.20160217_150857 (Medium)

It was a visionary idea to put a centre dedicated to collecting plants from many diverse climates and environments and house them in giant biomes, the Rainforest Biome for tropical plants and one for Mediterranean temperatures.

Built inside a disused clay pit the before and after imagery is quite amazing. You can see how it was done on this time-lapse film below.

In the steamy tropical temperatures (18–35°C ) of the Rainforest Biome you can experience four of the world’s rainforest environments: Tropical Islands, Southeast Asia, West Africa and Tropical South America and see a range of plants including bananas, cocoa and rubber trees.

The Mediterranean biome takes you through the landscapes of the Mediterranean, South Africa and California and you can see more than 1,000 varieties of plants growing from all over the world including tulips, olive trees and cork trees.

20160217_133549 (Medium)A visit to the Eden Project is a great way to introduce children to the impact man has on the ecology of the planet and serves as a beacon for how we can live more sustainable lives.

      I’d highly recommend it a visit.

My tips:

    • Get there early.
    • Take a packed lunch as the restaurants and cafes get busy.
    • Make sure you remember which parking zone you’re in and which is your nearest bus stop (as we didn’t and we spent ages trying to locate our car!)
20160217_150435 (Medium)








Category: Reviews, Travel
May 9

A tribute to Only Fools and Horses producer Gareth Gwenlan

I was very sad to learn of the death today of Gareth Gwenlan, one of Britain’s most experienced and successful television comedy directors and producers.

Gareth had an extraordinary comedy pedigree. He worked on so many of the top shows of the past four decades like Butterflies, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and To The Manor Born and later, as the BBC’s Head of Comedy, commissioned some our most popular sitcoms including One Foot In The Grave, ‘Allo, ‘Allo, Blackadder, Birds of a Feather and Bread.

He took over as producer of Only Fools and Horses in 1988 and developed a strong partnership and friendship with writer John Sullivan, and went on to produce John’s other BBC work including Heartburn Hotel, The Green Green Grass and Rock & Chips and Roger, Roger.

Brecon-born Gareth loved comedy and once said that he’d “been paid all my life to indulge in my hobby”. He was 79 when he died (although I know most people thought he was about a decade younger) and had been working until very recently. He produced a remake of Yes Prime Minister in 2013 and recently worked on the popular Welsh comedy High Hopes. He received an OBE in 2013 for services to broadcasting.

Taking over as producer of Only Fools and Horses in 1988 from Ray Butt, Gareth (along with new director Tony Dow) worked with John Sullivan on the longer episodes and onwards to the triumphal ratings success that was the Christmas 1996 trilogy which saw record viewing figures of 24.3 million.

However, even before this Gareth had already played a secret key role in the show in a number of ways: In 1981 he’d supported John Sullivan when he was trying to persuade senior BBC executive that the new show should be called Only Fools and Horses (rather than the working title Readies). They’d not heard the expression only fools and horses work before but Gareth, then a producer in the comedy department had and gave John vital support.

And in early 1985, following the death of Lennard Pearce, who played Grandad the previous December, Gareth, by then Head of Comedy, rubber-stamped the casting of then unknown actor Buster Merryfield as Uncle Albert. (In fact at Buster’s audition, Gareth read the part of Rodney, to Ray Butt’s Del while Buster read Grandad’s lines as the character of Albert had yet to be created).

Gareth was good company, astute and a great diplomat. He was enormously helpful to me when I was researching and writing my books The Only Fools and Horses Story and Only Fools and Horses: The Official Inside Story and he told great stories.

Among my favourite was an incident during the filming of Miami Twice: The American Dream in 1991, which required Gareth organisational skills and a good deal of diplomacy to overcome as the production team came up against the all-powerful Teamsters union which came close to derailing the filming.

“I was literally summoned to go down and see the head of the Teamsters’ Union in Miami and, I swear to God, had it not been so serious, I would have thought I was in a bad American B movie,” he recalled.

“I was shown into this very sombre, dark wood panelled office with heavy leather furniture where I found this great fat, balding guy sitting at his desk. He had a real James Cagney-at-his-worst accent and he said: “So what are you doing in my town?” I explained how much money we were spending in the city and that we were employing some sixty local technicians and he said: ‘Yeah, but you ain’t employing any of my members?’ I said that we weren’t because we had owner-driver vehicles and we were told that was fine.

“He said: ‘Well I’m here’s to tell you that it ain’t fine. I want twelve of my drivers on that set tomorrow, otherwise I shut you down.’ I know it sounds like something out of a film but it’s absolutely true.”

In the end Gareth used his diplomatic skills to avoid a union blockade – even though it meant employing three Teamsters drivers that the production didn’t need or even use.

Before becoming a television producer Gareth trained as a teacher and an actor – and he did actually appear in an episode of Only Fools and have some lines. It was the 1993 Christmas special Fatal Extraction and he found himself literally right in the thick of the action in the brilliant riot scene as a policeman on horseback.

Gareth played the cop who broke up the riot temporarily to let Del, Raquel and Damien through in Del’s ‘tasteful’ Capri Ghia, by announcing over the megaphone: “Hold it, hold it, hold it – it’s Del Boy.”

“We couldn’t find an actor who could ride so I did it,” he told me. It meant he had a very clear view of the fake battles going on between drama students, hired to play the rioters, and extras playing the police. “The students were bloody marvellous. They were being real but within the bounds of being safe and no one was even bruised,” he recalled.

Gareth Gwenlan was a truly great producer, whose skills and professionalism helped to give the rest of us some classic comedies to enjoy. My thought are with his family and friends.