The action in France only gives half the picture of how ITV4 pull off Tour coverage. A fortnight later, I head round the back of Ealing Studios to Timeline and the humble temporary home of Vsquared TV. Chances are that if you’ve watched professional cycling on TV in the UK, they produced it.
They have been running British Tour coverage since its first airing, on Channel 4, in 1986. “We were bloody lucky to get a half hour programme out,” managing director Carolyn Viccari recalls. “You had to go with a tape to Jacques, who was usually a bit pissed. And if you missed your slot, you went to the back of the queue. Ah, technology.”
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Every pedal stroke is now automatically timestamped and logged by software for future reference and they have the latest Apple Final Cut Pro kit to keep their production cutting edge. However, the futuristic sits cheek by jowl with the old school: boxes of video tapes are visible in an office corner as everything still has to be recorded on the seemingly-redundant format for the ITV archive.
James Venner is the senior producer in their open-plan London gallery. He chairs the daily production meeting each morning, assigning tasks. During the stage, the team adds graphics and he liaises with director-producer Steve “Doc” Docherty regularly, instructing him on the exact times to take breaks.
Sometimes, they are at the behest of the host broadcasters for images. “The Richie Porte crash in 2017 was bad and they showed it over and over, we had nothing else to cut to,” Viccari says. “And when Chris Froome was in trouble [with a broken spoke], they showed a field drawing of a fish. But on the whole, I’ve no complaints about it. On quiet days when nothing happens, those aerial helicopter shots and chateaux watch are great.”
The day’s pundit, former British champion Kristian House, is soon ready to go live with experienced broadcaster Matt Smith for their soothing lunchtime slot. “Phones on silent, no swearing,” she tells them. Viccari has the clipped tones of a home counties Englishwoman, but it takes a lot to surprise her, even given the Tour’s regular weirdness: “I’m not worried about bare arses [of fans]. We had a Brian Holm ‘fuck’ on a phone interview once. We had to tell ITV+1 to bleep it before it went out on repeat.”
Viccari projects unflappable calm. She irons out any problems behind the scenes on Tour: they might be based round the back of Ealing Studios, but nobody wants their award-nominated coverage to turn into an Ealing comedy. For instance, she hired a 19-seater plane to transport the knackered crew on the race’s penultimate day last year, saving them a drive from Marseille to Paris: “It didn’t cost as much as you might think.”
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Some issues are more unexpected. On the opening day of a recent Tour, lead producer Venner had gallstones and was hospitalised. “We muddled through but a back-up wasn’t there, it took us a long time to get it back off air. But it’s only television,” she says.
As Michael Matthews wins in Romans-sur-Isère, several edit suite rooms dotted round the main gallery are busy with VT editors knocking the highlights into shape. They generally have two hours between the end of the stage and their own finish line. The footage is supplied in four parts: by 7pm, when the show begins on ITV4, they have the first quarter ready.
Segments two and three are done by 7.10. Part four is split into four quarters, the last one received 15 minutes or so before it’s due to run. “We’ve never missed the deadline,” Viccari says. “On occasion, we’ve had to simplify: if there’s a long overrun with the live or if they’re chasing commissaires around. I had no idea what was going on with Froome on Ventoux [in 2016].”
When the highlights have finished, everyone goes home. Well, not quite: a few Vsquared employees have come from the likes of Staffordshire, Spain and New Zealand to work the Tour. After days on end of eleven-hour shifts, their latest finish comes on the final stage. Switching the Champs-Élysées conclusion to sunset might look spectacular on the telly, but spare a thought for the poor production teams: back in Ealing, they aren’t finished till gone 10pm as the podium presentations drag on.
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“Do we have a wrap party? No, just a few beers and pizzas,” Viccari says. “Most want to get back: some have stayed in Premier Inns for weeks.” Ah, the glamorous world of television.
A version of this article was first published in Rouleur 18.5
The Tour on the Telly
Part 1: How ITV capture a moving circus
Part 3: The man in the director’s chair
Part 4: The outsider – Gary Imlach