I live on the coast. I can hear French radio on the car stereo. Ferries leave for France every day. The fishermen here are related, way back in time, to families from Normandy and Spain. We’re nearer to France here than we are to Westminster … yet my town voted for Brexit, by a large majority. The same goes for other towns all along the edge of England, for people living by the side of the Channel. I was fascinated by that and wanted to explore what was going on, in real life, way beyond the headlines and the B-word balls up. I do believe, in general, in the words of the late MP Jo Cox:
“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
I wondered if that was true here and now, in this fraught and divisive moment. And I was lucky, even blessed, that the perceptive Mohit Bakaya at Radio 4 was prepared to commission radio on this theme.
So I got together with my partner in radio, the producer Jonathan Mayo, and we devised a two-part documentary that would take us walking through Calais first then Dover, talking and listening to people who live, love, work and play beside and on the stretch of sea that the French call La Manche and that can seem like a bridge on a beautiful clear day, but is almost as often a barrier.
The model was the programme we had done for Radio 4 called The Walk: For Richer, For Poorer, walking through Kensington meeting the very rich and those who were struggling.
The Walk: Across The Water was floated, if you will forgive me, in the Autumn, just as the first reports began to come through of migrants trying to cross the Channel in small boats, having been told by people traffickers that they should try to get here before Brexit closed the doors for good. Men, women and children nearly died in the attempt, but they were rescued by the admirable servants of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the Border Force, the ferries or the fishing fleet. Even as we were researching the programmes, the Home Secretary Sajid David sent more boats to the Channel and declared the migration a national emergency.
I went across to Calais in early January for a research trip with my son Joshua, who has good French. We went to the top of the Calais lighthouse on a terrifyingly windy day, saw the White Cliffs of Dover and met Sebastien, the guide, who turned out to be a fan of Doctor Who and as a cosplay enthusiast who dressed up as David Tennant’s Doctor. On the way back I got terrible toothache as the result of an infection under a tooth on the lower left side of my mouth, which screamed to be taken out. I didn’t dare do that though, for fear that having it removed would make me sound like Daffy Duck right in the middle of making two radio programmes that were increasingly coming to mean a lot to me, personally. I waited until after they were made before having the tooth out, which meant suffering the pain for a couple of months. It’s gone now, which is a relief.
Anyway, I returned to Calais with Jonathan later in January and we met up with Sophie Tritz, a French journalist who turned out to be a brilliant fixer and great company. You can listen to the results here, but let me just say that the love story between Beatrice and her partner is extraordinary. So are the jaw-dropping, hardline things the Deputy Mayor of Calais says about migrants. Dover proved equally full of surprises. If you’d like to read more about either programme, I wrote a piece about Calais for the i newspaper and another about Dover here. The Walk: Across The Water was made by TBI Media on behalf of the BBC, with excellent sound work by Andy Partington. Thanks for your interest. I’ll post some photos of the trip below.