Vet, mechanic, car nut, TV star and Carole Nash policyholder Mark Evans explains how a vet came to present the hugely popular “…Is Born” workshop series that is now shown all over the world, and shares his views on automotive telly.
“When I look back at the conception and birth of my workshop TV series, the way it all happened was a bit bizarre. I’d done quite a lot of television (in front of and behind camera) up to the point that we started out with A Car Is Born, but they were mostly animal and natural history programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. I was producing a show for Animal Planet and went into a meeting to talk about it and overheard another group of people talking about how they were going to commission a car show because they thought it would be cool to film someone building a car, a kit car. So I paused my meeting and went over to the other team “I’ve always wanted to do that” I said. Their response…“But you’re a vet, you do animal shows.”
This was true but I told them I’d always wanted to build a car and that I’d been brought up in a workshop. Out of politeness, I am sure, they invited me to pitch for the programme. So me and a mate sat down and thought, ‘Let’s have a crack at this.’ To be honest, we didn’t think we had any chance of winning the pitch, so didn’t put a lot of thought or planning into it — we only had a couple of days — and neither of us had made this kind of series before.
Importantly, neither of us had built a kit car, either! It was all done pretty much on the back of my mate’s fag packet, but we pitched and, amazingly, we won the contract. It was then that panic set in! “How the hell are we going to do this?!”
The very ‘organic’, laid back style of the shows started because, to be frank, we were paid so little money to make the series. And it was a one-off fee — no repeat fees. Which is a shame given the shows have been aired almost non-stop all over the world ever since!
We decided there was only one way we to tackle it — no script, no voice-over, get the crew involved, shoot as little as possible (to cut down on editing costs ), work closely with the company who made the kit and, most importantly, enjoy it. Have a laugh. Don’t forget how lucky we are to have the opportunity to do this. We did (laugh) and we didn’t (forget). We were like kids in a chocolate factory.
Given the unorthodox and slightly anarchic way we filmed the series, there were moments when we thought it might rate as possibly the worst car show in history. But, much to our genuine surprise, it worked and immediately became a cult hit for Discovery. In 2004, Discovery told us it was their most successful lifestyle format, internationally.
Not sure if that was true, but we’ve dined out on it ever since! Viewers told us it had a real energy and authenticity. It may look like it was thrown together but, in fact, we had to be incredibly organised. We filmed the entire 15-part series in something like 18 days, but over about six months. Even to this day, colleagues in TV can’t believe we did it for the money.
<A Car is Born: the AC Cobra Replica build fascinated viewers over 15 episodes>
So that’s how it all started. And, because it went down well, we never really changed our filming approach. If it ain’t broke…and all that. I get loads of feedback from viewers all over the world and there’s a recurring theme. Viewers seem to like the fact that I am an amateur enthusiast, just like them, and not a professional mechanic or restorer.
And that makes the shows, and the projects, accessible. “I know I will never restore an MG, but I now feel that I have,” is very typical feedback. I’m constantly amazed how many folks say they use the shows to help them through their own workshop projects. And that feels REALLY good. It makes me smile.
Over the 24 years I have been working in television, I have fronted hundreds of shows covering a wide range of interests — animals, science, house and garden makeovers, history even. But, when I’m out and about, it’s the workshop projects that everyone stops me to talk about. When I’m travelling with my current Channel 4 team, it makes them laugh, but also irritates them a little! One day, I was coming back from filming at Jersey Zoo and the security guy at the airport held up other passengers to talk about my Bonneville and Harley. A tad embarrassing!
Over recent years, there’s been a resurgence of classic car restoration shows on TV — mostly on the digital channels. But there’s a big difference. We got 15 programmes to cover one build or restoration. But, broadcasters now want self-contained films that tell the whole story in less than an hour. And that means viewers don’t get the detail we tried to offer.
And, judging by the comments I receive online, lots of viewers miss the nuts, bolts and nerdiness that defined “Is Born”. But, if the raft of new classic car programmes encourage people to cherish and celebrate the fantastic old vehicles that have had such a big impact on society and our lives, then that’s brilliant.
I enjoy watching them (well, some of them!) but actually, for me, and I’m sure for a lot of other enthusiasts, it’s like “I just want to see how you did that!” I think that’s where we offered something different. And, it’s why we haven’t made any new series since 2007.
But, I am hatching a plan…