I worked for the mobile network, Cellnet, for about 12 years. It was in the early days of the industry and it was the best of times. I don’t remember too many bad times. Most of the craziest people I’ve ever met were in the mobile business; some of the greatest people I’ve known were also involved and many of them remain my friends to this day. But one of the real characters was a guy called Bill Hunter, known affectionately as ‘Blunter’ as that was exactly how he’d answer the phone. He was a real one-off and they threw away the mould after Bill. He passed away sadly several years ago but his memory makes me smile to this day.
The tales about Bill are legendary and I could write a book about him. But one memory I have of him and a particular day at Brands Hatch makes me both sweat and chuckle with equal force. We were heavily involved in sponsoring a Formula 3 team at the time, our principal driver was Paul Warwick a really great driving talent who tragically later lost his life on the track just before he achieved his ambition to break into F1. He was a terrific lad.
We were always trying to find new applications and PR angles for this revolutionary mobile communications. Somebody in the company suggested that cellular technology could help medics at an accident scene or with a heart attack situation, transmit essential data on the victim/patient to the medical team at the hospital before and during the ambulance journey. The thought was that this could save precious diagnosis time and possibly even assist in saving lives. Anyway to prove it we were going to wire up sensors to measure Paul’s heartrate as he drove around Brands Hatch. The expectation was that his pulse would quicken when he attacked the difficult corners and if we could transmit the data via cellular links to some remotely-sited oscilloscopes at the circuit offices, it would effectively demonstrate the power of the technology to help in life-saving scenarios.
We had a kind of technical unit in the company, headed up by a little guy who once delivered the biggest log I’ve ever seen in a public toilet, but that’s a whole other story. His team were tasked with coming up with the technological fixes to deliver the showcase trial. All seemed to go well in test-lab conditions so we fixed a date for the trial, hired Brands Hatch and invited the media to attend. We got lots of interest especially from the medical press and on the day a TV crew turned up too. This was quite a coup for us and our MD who was to be interviewed later was very pleased at the prospect of his less than pretty face making the news features. He’d already called his wife to tell her the exciting news. This had to go well.
Bill’s role in the company was as technical support to the sales and marketing team. He was also responsible for all the staff mobiles and the model you got depended firstly on your status of course and then on how much Bill liked or disliked you. Upset Bill and you’d end up with a transportable fitted in your car. This was about the size of a car battery and about as good looking. I found out quickly that a few beers and 3 packets of fags would go a long way to cementing a life-long friendship with Bill. Boy could he smoke. He was old school – army I think, something like the Royal Engineers. He could turn his hand to fixing/rigging anything. He was actually pretty put out not to be involved in the delivery of the fix for the F3 heart monitor trial and over the weeks leading up to it never stopped moaning about the inability of the other team to deliver a working solution. Of course no-one listenned to him as it was just Bill doing his grumpy f*cker routine.
Come the day of the trial Bill showed up (he wasn’t specifically supposed to be there but he knew better than to miss this) in his personal version of the Pope-mo-bile; a winnebago thing kitted out in every conceivable bit of technology, including an awful lot of non-mobile stuff. He called it something like the Data and Technology Support Unit, and of course he hated it if we refered to it as Datsun 1. This was Thunderbird 6 to Bill. I swear this bloody vehicle saw more action over the years than anything Russell Brand drives around in. And of course it stank of cigarette smoke and God knows what else. But Bill loved it and many’s the time he turned up on behalf of International Rescue, including this day as it happened.
We’d asked Dr Jonathan Palmer, who’d been involved in F1 after completing his medical degree to act as our host and presenter for the day. His background was perfect for this event and he was genuinely interested in the implications for advancing medical techniques and practice. JP was doing more and more work for us around this time and I’m sure he realised too that a good performance from him would prove beneficial in the long run, especially if he could assist our MD to get interviewed on the box.
So everything was set, our MD was briefed in, JP was briefed in and had already suggested hosting the equipment and the watching journo’s in the Control Tower which straddled the main straight in those days. It was a good idea and one of many suggestions we’d get from JP over the years. Everyone was having coffee, JP was doing a fine job as host, as Paul got wired up before getting into his F3 car. One final test in the garage before sending Paul out. All was working fine till the engine was revved up. Then it became clear that the engine effect was drowning out the signal in some way. Big log shrugged his shoulders and said the technology was fine but they needed something like a suppressor for it to work effectively. Fine I said go and buy one somewhere but that enigmatic smile spread across his face as he announced that this wasn’t a crappy car radio you know; he’d need another 2 weeks to develop one. WHAT? You little prick. I contemplated punching his lights out but realised that whilst it would make me feel better, it wouldn’t help the situation with all those journalists and tv guys and my MD waiting upstairs for some ground-breaking action.
I left the garage with my good friend C who was head of PR at the time and asked him how it would look if we postponed the event. He reckoned wisely that the journalists would be ok but we’d struggle to get most of them back for a second attempt, but we could kiss the TV good-bye. It was a quiet news day and we wouldn’t get that lucky again. But the real problem for me would be the MD, who had now called most of his family, friends and fellow Board members about his impending TV debut. That would be a career-defining conversation. Thanks C.
I was thinking I needed a fag, condemned man and all that. Bill! Datsun 1 was parked up just a bit further along the pits straight. I ran up, went in and could just make out Bill through the haze of fag-smoke. I told him how Big log had f*cked up and hadn’t tested the unit in a live situation, and now I was about to be crucified. He laughed a lot and told me at least 3 times that I should have let him handle the project. Yeh, yeh that’s all very well and good Bill but is there anything we could do to retrieve the situation, I asked him pitifully. He lit another fag, didn’t offer me one deliberately I thought, and said he might be able to set up a short range radio link which could act as the transmission element from car to Control Tower. You can do that, now? He reckoned it’d take him half an hour to rig something up and a further 15 minutes to test it out. Could I stall them for 45 minutes or so? If Bill got me off the hook on this one I promised to name all my male grandchildren after him (which I failed to deliver). I called C over and told him the news. C went white. You can’t do that Paul – the transmission link is supposed to be over the Cellnet network; that’s what makes it newsworthy for the company. I realised this of course but I was desperate. I argued with C that the network would deliver the results but it would take another 2 weeks to prove it, plus all the other technology gathering the data was ours plus (and this was the killer argument in my mind) we’d not actually say the words that this was delivered today over the Cellnet network. We’d need to brief JP, amend the press releases (your job C) and give our MD a set of words for him to use in the interview which C had to get him to deliver without deviation. He would be happy at that as he was useless going off the cuff. We could do this C providing Blunter steps up in his International Rescue outfit. All I have to do is buy us 45 minutes. I’ll blame the car and the weather conditions saying we’ll need to get the tyres changed or something Grand Prix-ish. Our brilliant motorsport consultant J said he’d come upstairs with me and support me with some gobbledygook. C said something like ‘on your head be it’ and smiled faintly as off he went to check all was ok inside Thunderbird 6 and to amend 30 press releases.
J and I went up the tower, broke the news about the weather and tyres and temperamental racing drivers etc. Got a few laughs and some more coffees ordered and briefed JP with as much of the news as we could share with him without making him culpable too if all went wrong. Whether he guessed the extent of the problem or not I don’t know but he performed like a trooper that afternoon.
Eventually we heard the noise of the engine revving up again, made our excuses and went off to the pits to check on the situation. There was still time to postpone things (and my mobile comms career) if Bill hadn’t been able to work his magic. But God bless him he had rigged something up which worked. Paul was wired up, the engine was running and we could detect his heartrate on a small monitor. I asked how much of the technology was ours, he gave me a big wink and a smile, told me that it was far too complicated to explain to a marketing dufus like me and suggested we got the car out there and the demo going before his temporary fix gave way. Just give us 15 minutes Bill. He told me how many beers and packets of fags I now owed him. I’d have to rob a bank but it would be worth it I hoped.
The only problem Bill said was that to receive the signal from the car he’d need to train an antenna onto the car as it lapped around the Indy circuit and also have a feedwire connected up to the oscilloscopes. For f*cks sake Bill how are we going to do that without 20 journalists kind of noticing you wiring some thing up. Then inspiration hit. If we brought them down here in the garage for them to see Bill’s fix in action in a static situation, it would buy Bill 15 minutes to do his wiring up. So J went and asked them all to follow him down to the garage and meet Paul all wired up and sitting in the car etc. They were all very happy chatting away with JP showing them the heartbeat traces on the oscilloscopes and monitors and all that. Paul would rev the car to creat lots of noise as I looked out of the garage doors to see Bill clambouring on top of the Control Tower with 100′ of wire, attempting to dangle it through an open window. Please Lord don’t let Bill slip now.
10 minutes later, just as the natives were getting restless I see Bill on top of the Control tower, aerial in hand giving me the thumbs up signal. Here we go! C and I led the guys back up the tower – I nudged C on the way and nodded towards Bill who was lying flat on the roof to avoid being spotted. C just rolled his eyes and mouthed something like ‘if this doesn’t work you c….’ but the car shot out of the garage and down the pit lane and onto the track, drowning out all sound.
For the next half hour, JP performed like Murray Walker on speed. He was waving his arms, pointing at the various scopes and monitors and shouting enthusiastically as he described the various changes in the heartrate trace as Paul accelerated along the straights and braked for the bends and curves. Paddock bend was where the trace went off the scale too. It was terribly exciting as JP shouted out the various speeds that Paul would be achieving, what gear he’d be in, the G -forces on his body and so on. His shouty delivery was praised by them as they all appreciated he was mimicking Murray at his finest. Heaven forbid it had anything to do with muffling the sound of Bill’s footsteps who was on the roof above the heads clutching an antenna in the pouring rain as he tracked the car round the track.
The day went without a hitch from that point on. The journo’s loved the demo and gave us generous coverage. The MD had his interview, stuck to C’s script beautifully and he had a snatch in his voice and a little tear in his eye as he thanked us later following his tv interview. All the publications came out after Big log had sorted the suppressor problem. Nobody on the day said anything to the media guys that wasn’t accurate or true. I think some of them may have assumed a few facts but that was not our intent of course.
C, J, and I took Bill out for a monster beer once everyone had gone. He slept in Thunderbird 3 that night, happy to know he’d saved the world again and my bacon of course. Blunter, you beauty. What a guy.