Saturday, December 15, 2012

A final 'unsuitable' role model - Fred Dibnah

Fred was an iconic figure for Brits of my generation, an ordinary bloke improbably catapulted to fame on national TV. 

He was a steeplejack from Lancashire, who made a particular speciality of demolishing Victorian factory chimneys. He complained that he didn't get much of this work, because he was much more expensive than standard demolition by dynamite, but he found a niche for himself because his more old-fashioned method - knocking a hole in the base of the structure and building a huge bonfire in it - could drop a chimney with pinpoint accuracy, and no risk of collateral blast damage if there were other buildings nearby. In very confined spaces where it was not practicable to topple a chimney at all, he would knock them down, as he said, "a brick at once", building a scaffold platform around the the top of the chimney and painstakingly knocking out one layer of bricks after another with a hammer.

It was fascinating to watch him go about this work, partly for the vicarious thrill of being so far above the ground and the spectacular views this afforded. However, what was even more compelling was the absolute mastery of his trade that Fred displayed, and the evident passion that he felt for it. It helped that he was also an intelligent man, deeply knowledgeable about and respectful of the central role his area of the country had played in the Industrial Revolution. And his hobby was restoring vintage steam engines! That alone might have landed him a TV series, even if his day job hadn't involved working at such giddying heights. [His own engine, the beauty below, recently sold at auction for nearly a quarter of a million pounds.]

Fred's almost childlike enthusiasm and his wry wit made him a natural for TV. A brief interview on local news had brought him to the attention of a documentary maker, who made him the subject of a 50-minute-long programme on the BBC in about 1978. That was such a success that a year or two later it was followed up with a six-part series. Others followed. And in his later years, he became a presenter, fronting several series on BBC2 about Britain's industrial history.

He was a bit of a stereotype of the northern working man - more than fond of a pint of beer, speaking with a broad Bolton accent, a flat cap permanently on his head as if welded there (and so impregnated with grime and grease from his beloved steam engine that he once joked it had a dangerously low flash point), he even kept a whippet, I think - but this too was rather engaging, because entirely unaffected. There was never any suspicion that he was playing to the cameras. This rollicking, genial man-child was who he was.

Fred was possibly the most enviable man I've ever seen: supremely self-confident, utterly at ease with himself. His shows were a pure joy to experience, because he so obviously loved his job, and loved his life. That's not something we encounter often enough, on TV or anywhere else.

Here's a clip from a tribute to Fred made after his death a few years ago, including the famous chimney toppling scene from the climax of that first documentary about him.

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