Well-oiled car journalist ROY LANCHESTER recalls a legendary festive party
Well, what a year it has been for those of us in the motoring journalism profession! I don’t think I’ve been to fewer car launches in a year since 2009 when the unfortunate “Roy’s got rabies” rumour blighted my ability to be invited to events, at least until I was able to make (most) PRs accept that I was simply unfamiliar with the so-called Berocca tablets we were given on the SEAT Exeo launch near Warwick and had received poor information about how they were to be consumed. I recall it was a chuckling Tim Horsewater of The Reading Century who set me straight on the correct procedure – i.e. dissolve them in water rather than sucking them like sweets.
No, it has been a poor year for being a car journalist, and for car events generally. Even those launches that did go ahead were sadly in the UK and this was often used as an excuse to make these occasions last only one day with no overnight hotel before and/or after. What joyless affairs these things were, denied the usual relaxed ambience of a hotel bar and restaurant and then bar again in which to talk frankly with media colleagues, car company representatives, and members of the hotel management trade. In many cases, it was barely worth attending, especially since I found myself with fewer outlets this year following the sad closure of Your Guttering and the idiotic decision to drop the motoring page from Large Dog magazine. Still, on the few events that I attended it was pleasant to see some fellow ‘muttering rotters’ such as the ever-jocular Mike Lysbie from North Notts Online who welcomed me onto the Kia Niro refresh event in the car park of a derelict Little Chef near Chepstow with the words, “Uh-oh, don’t let him drink the hand gel!” So refreshing to know humour can prevail, even in the age of an annoying pandemic!
On that note, I was initially concerned that I would be a high risk individual where the pesky Mr Corona was concerned, thanks to my age and additional medical issues including diabetes, drop foot, and spastic colon. However, my lugubrious GP seemed to bat away such concerns during an online consultation earlier in the year, all but implying that Covid would not kill me “when you think about all the other stuff that hasn’t managed it”.
Anyway, I do not want to dwell for too long on the terrible virus, the resultant dearth of car launches, and the awful figures I have been seeing about how much extra I’m now having to spend out of my own pocket on food, drink and dry cleaning. Instead, I want to reflect fondly on other festive periods in less disease-riddled times and that’s the reason why Sniff Petrol agreed to commissioned this article from me (after quite a bit of badgering, I might add!)
I’m particularly reminded of a legendary festive season back in 1994 when I attended the then-annual Rover Group Christmas Ball held at the glittering Santorium House just outside Uttoxeter, a wonderful old stately home that has sadly since closed/burnt down. I attended this event in very much a solo capacity, being as I was ‘between wives’ at this point, and had no trouble with such an arrangement as, in my experience, having a woman in tow for a lavish, no-holds-barred event such as this only cramps your style, what with their constant tutting and insistence on making you carry items of theirs – e.g. lipstick, tampons, slender mint-flavour cigarettes – while nagging away with typical remarks such as ‘you’ve had too much’, ‘he asked you to stop kicking his cello’ and ‘no, it WAS your fault the tree fell over’. These were all things other people’s wives have hissed at me during Christmas events so I can only imagine what one of mine would have said if only they hadn’t divorced me, thank God! My solo status did, however, bring an unusual opportunity which was visited upon me as I checked in to the bar area of The Wiltons, the large country hotel and conference centre some five miles from Santorium House where we would be staying that night, having been shuttled to and from the venue in a large coach-style bus.
“You’re the first here!” I heard a familiar Midlands voice say across the empty bar as I raised a refreshing pint to my lips to quench my thirst after the long drive down from Harrogate. I turned to see Rover Press Relations Manager Ron Comberbont striding across the room in his trademark Tony Pond-style Austin Rover rally jacket.
“Roy, can I tempt you to an early lunch?” Ron continued once he had arrived broadly adjacent to my bar stool. “I’ve got a little proposal for you…”
Well, it was a little early but I wasn’t averse to the idea of a bite to eat. After all, you know what they say about when to eat lunch; “It’s always 12-2pm somewhere!”
Over our subsequent repast Ron made some polite small talk about various work matters such as the BMW takeover of his company and the sales performance of the four-cylinder versus V6 variants of the Rover 800 until he finally cut to the chase.
“Since you’re not escorting a lady tonight, I wondered if you fancied a little extra role in this evening’s festivities?” Ron ventured intriguingly.
“Depends what you’re paying!” I jested (although, seriously, you do have to lay out this sort of thing as soon as someone mentions something like a ‘role’ otherwise they’ll only take the piss).
“It’s not really a paid job, but I’m sure we can make it up to you in other ways!” Ron replied with a twinkle in at least one of his eyes. “What I want to ask you is, would you like to be Father Christmas?”
I cocked a quizzical eyebrow as the PR supremo went on to explain about “trying something new this year” which was supposed to be “nice bit of light-hearted fun” and how “the suit turned up several sizes larger than expected”.
It might have been the pre-lunchtime beer, or the during-lunchtime beer and then wine, but I was in the mood for some light-hearted fun and cheerily said yes!
“Best go easy on that stuff, eh?” said Ron at the end of lunch, tapping the glass of whisky I’d just ordered. “Santa’s got work to do later!”
I assured Ron that I would be as professional as Father Christmas as I was at being a motoring journalist and to this day I’m not certain if he really did mutter “Oh no” under his breath as he left. For my part, I finished my post-lunch Scotch and another one then headed back to my room for a large lie down so that I might be refreshed and ready for the evening’s fun and games!
I awoke later with a feeling of excitement, and understandably so. After all, I was about to spend the night catching up with the very cream of British motoring hacks (plus some Rover dealers who’d won competitions and who were, in fairness, certain to be a mixed bag) with the added delight of being an integral and very important part of proceedings with a starring role as Mr Father T. Christmas himself! Ron had briefed me thoroughly on what was required so I knew fully what to expect, notwithstanding certain other variables such as trips to the toilet and my need to avoid Bob Kestrel from The Worksop Journal who was still needlessly peevish about some things I had said about/to his wife on a Suzuki partners’ weekend in North Wales.
The plan was very simple; for the main part of the evening I would proceed exactly as normal, getting on the coach with everyone else and making my way to Santorium House, saying nothing of what I would be up later. I made certain to keep my lips firmly sealed on this matter, not only on the short coach trip but also during the pre-journey liveners in the hotel bar, and at the welcoming drinks when we arrived at our destination for the night. Indeed, I remember being so keen to maintain a James Bond-like secrecy around my ‘double life’ that I was even careful not to ‘blow my cover’ by avoiding use of giveaway words such as ‘ho’.
The evening proceeded at first in a most satisfactory way. Dinner passed largely without incident, although my turkey was a little dry and my tablemate, Graeme Seasons of The Falkirk Herald, was typically humourless when it came to my light-hearted quips regarding his recent stroke.
Once I had dispensed with dessert and cheese and an argument with the waiter about additional cheese, I skipped coffee and slipped into a back room to change into my Father Christmas outfit. Waiting there for me were Ron Comberbont and one of his colleagues whose name I was never clear on but whom I always called Cheryl since she looked like she might be called that.
Slipping off my dinner suit and popping on the Santa outfit was easily done, even considering how full I was, and Ron seemed pleased with the results, noting with admiration how I “filled the suit beautifully”. He then ran me through the plan for my headline turn as the very Father of Christmas which would involve coming onto the stage (currently occupied by after dinner entertainment, comedian Lenny Kenning and then jazz ensemble Four of Four) and giving the crowd a bit of jolly Santa chuckling before reading out Ron’s pre-prepared script which was basically a list of “children” who had been “naughty or nice” (i.e. basically a gimmick for giving out some prizes to the salesmen in the room who’d won prizes for flogging a lot of Metros, etc).
There was then a bit of waiting around, during which I persuaded Cheryl (?) to fetch me a large glass of ‘Santa’s special medicine’, although only after I’d literally had to say, “I mean Bells, the whisky, a Bells whisky, I cannot be more clear than this!” Finally, and mercifully, the jazz troupe then finished parping away and it was, as they say in show business, go time!
I felt that my ‘performance’ as Father Christmas went very well. Sure, the real Santa might not have revealed that the ‘presents’ for the ‘nice’ ‘children’ were Rover-branded watches in fancy wrapping (and Ron admitted he wouldn’t have told me that if he’d known I was going to reveal it on stage) but in general all ran smoothly, notwithstanding the bolshy lady in the front row who rather too audibly shouted ‘for fuck’s sake’ when I jovially called the star salesman from Prentice Rover in Chichester “Jake the peg” just because he had a pronounced limp. Some people need to lighten up. I mean, if I had a pound for every time I’d suffered with gout I’d have a pound that lasted on-and-off for 32 years! Anyway, as an added delight for me, having the microphone in my hand allowed me to go a little ‘off-script’ and make a few light-hearted remarks about some of my media colleagues, most of which elicited a good chuckle or two. Those that didn’t were very much a matter of taste and frankly didn’t demand so much tutting and/or booing. After all, it was hardly my fault that Steve Eagen’s wife left him earlier in the year or that Mike Filey from The Kettering Telegraph had caught Parkinson’s.
Anyway, I felt that most of my festive performance went well and I came off stage in high spirits only to be confronted by Rover head of PR and marketing, Dick Snelling, who greeted me with the words, “Thanks Roy. Don’t call us, we’ll call you”.
“My invoice will be in the post!” I quipped back, fast as a horse.
“Will it?” Snelling sneered. “And will it be attached to those floormats of ours you’ve still got…?”
Dammit, I remember thinking to myself, he’s got me there. You see, some months earlier I had a week with a 420 GSi Tourer press car from which I had removed the floormats, ostensibly because I had got muddy boot prints upon them and was cleaning them in my washing machine when the car was collected, hence their absence when the vehicle arrived back at their press garage.
It was of utmost importance to me at the time to keep in the good graces of the Rover people as they were now part of BMW and to fall out with them would risk being struck off two launch lists/Christmas hamper delivery rosters. As such, they could not be allowed to know that there had been a flooding situation in my garden making the path to my bin impossibly muddy and that I had countered this by taking the floormats from the 420GSi Tourer and using them as an impromptu pontoon bridge, at least until they had sunk almost completely into the ooze. I was hoping this matter would go unmentioned yet here was Snelling rubbing my face in it, not literally. I had to think fast!
“Ah yes, the floormats,” I replied, bold as brass. “I’ve got them with me back at the hotel, actually. All freshly cleaned and good as new!”
You should have seen Snelling’s face! This wasn’t the answer he was expecting, but unfortunately it wasn’t the answer I was hoping to give either since in many ways – i.e. all of them – it wasn’t true.
Though my work for the evening was done, I declined to change out of the Santa outfit since, firstly, it was a talking point, secondly, it was surprisingly comfortable, and thirdly, I’d done a slightly jazzy fart just before going on stage and definitely needed to visit the toilet for further investigation before handing back any pair of loan trousers, never mind bright red rented ones purporting to belong to Father Christmas.
However, there was another reason for keeping on my St Nick outfit and it was the sheer spaciousness of the outer garments, despite some of Ron’s remarks about “bursting” the seams. You see, upon entering the venue earlier in the evening it had been impossible to ignore several brand-new Rover Group vehicles arranged strategically about the place, one of which was a 420GSi Tourer very similar to the one I had borrowed, mounted on a heavily angled plinth in the grand entrance hall, between the twin symmetrical staircases that swept upwards to the mezzanine style area where welcome drinks had been served. If I could gain access to that car, I reasoned, I might be able to ‘borrow back’ the floor mats, conceal them within my suit, take them back to my room and then triumphantly present them to the cynical PR and marketing supremo the following day, thereby winning that argument and making it technically impossible for him to strike me off the list of people who got invited on international launches!
With my plan formulated, I snuck back into the entrance hall to find with delight it was deserted. This wasn’t a given as back in the ballroom the tiresomely parping jazz twats had come back on stage, though I’m not sure anyone had asked them to, and an exodus would have been understandable. With the coast clear, I eventually managed to surmount the heavily angled podium and found to my delight that the car on display was unlocked. As such I was able to get in and pluck from it the floor mats which I inserted inside my ample Santa coat. I then departed the car and, with a little help from lady gravity, slid head-first back to the floor of the reception from where I could gather myself and return to the festivities.
Shortly afterwards an announcement was made to the effect that the first coach to the hotel would be leaving shortly and I thought it wise to take my concealed bounty back to my room, reckoning that I could then easily return to the bar for a nightcap or several. Boarding the bus with a cheery “ho ho ho” (because I was still dressed as Father Christmas) I settled into one of the seats and soon felt the reassuring motion of the coach setting off only for it to slam on its brakes as we passed the front of the grand old house from where people were now rushing including Dick Snelling, who came tearing over to our coach like a madman. Fearing that he had somehow busted my clever floormat scheme I panicked, dashed to the rear of the bus and attempted to make good my escape through the emergency exit, a plan that was not without problems since the coach was full and reaching the door in a hurry required me to knee Dennis Lessing from The Bude Argus in his highly experienced face. This was a minor concern, however, compared to what happened next as I made my leap for victory from the coach and found myself falling into the darkness which concealed an unexpectedly steep hill. It was down this that I began to roll and, unfortunately, the curled-up Rover 400 floormats wrapped around my torso made me more cylindrical than usual which was, in this context, an extremely unhelpful quality. Down and down I rolled, my somewhat terrifying progress being halted only by Graystairs Lodge, sister venue to Santorium House, at which a wedding was taking place.
Of all the times I have alarmed women in wedding dresses, I would say this was definitely top five. Even so, I felt all the screaming and threats of punching were something of an over-reaction and that more reasonable people would have seen the Christmas spirit in having their reception interrupted by a man in a Santa outfit wrapped in Rover floormats smashing bodily through a set of French doors.
Just when I thought this entire situation could not get worse, my first visitor in hospital the next day was the extremely angry Rover Group PR and marketing boss, Dick Snelling. It was only later I discovered that some of his fury was because the 420GSi on the plinth had been held there only by its handbrake, was not meant to have anyone clambering inside it and, just after I had boarded the coach, had rolled off the stand and across the entrance hall of Santorium House. Fortunately, the person it ran over was a member of venue staff and not someone important. Nonetheless, this awkward situation perhaps partly explained why Snelling simply hissed, “I’ve come for my floor mats, Roy”, grabbed the offending items from beside my hospital bed, and stormed out again.
Still, just six years later BMW decided they had had enough of this nonsense and sold Rover for ten pounds so who had the last laugh there, eh?
Merry Christmas everyone!
Roy Lanchester is motoring correspondent for Amateur Helicopter and founder of the blog Over The Limit with Roy Lanchester.
His book How To Be A Motoring Journalist is still available here
His new novel, Steel Flies, is out soon.