Years of working with emergency-service crews on the BBC series 999 gave Tiggi Trethowan a unique insight into the world that many firefighters deal with day in, day out. Now living in the West Country with her guide dog, Jackie, here Tiggi reminisces about her time on the show and offers a few tips for anyone finding themselves in front of a camera.
I worked as Assistant Director on 999 for its entire run between 1992 and 2003; it was considered a pioneering programme at the time. Presented by former newsreader Michael Buerk, we reconstructed real-life rescues and featured safety advice so the public could avoid these situations in the first place. Never before had so much screen time been devoted to the everyday work of the UK’s emergency services. Previously, the only way you’d have known how brilliant they are would have been if you were unfortunate enough to need their help.
It was my job to do things like book stuntmen, arrange for witnesses to appear on camera, and liaise with the firefighters, paramedics, police officers, coast guard and mountain rescuers who’d been involved with each particular incident.
While we travelled all over the UK, I remember spending a lot of time at the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, where they have a stretch of mock motorway. It was perfect for safely re-enacting pile-ups without the worry of live traffic. There was also a plentiful supply of mangled cars to use in the accidents, fresh from being cut up by fire crews practising their extrication skills. Finding such a real-looking location and props so easily was a set designer’s dream!
Road Traffic Accidents (as they were called at the time) featured regularly on the show, but of course it’s the more unusual incidents that stand out. We once reconstructed an accident where a boy had impaled himself on some railings, at the very top of his neck, after falling from his bike. I needed to find something that viewers could believe was a child’s head – a large piece of pork made a great stand-in. We also used a watermelon for sound effects in some shots, and I remember there was gallons of fake blood.
Between the fake blood and some very clever camera angles and editing, it was very convincing. I was impressed by how seriously the fire crew cutting the railings were taking this absurd situation. Somewhere out there, there are firefighters who can say they once spent an afternoon rescuing a shoulder of pork! Thankfully, like all the casualties we featured, the boy made a full recovery.
Sometimes, the emergency-service crews would get on with their job so quickly and professionally that our director would have to ask them to ramp up the drama just a tiny bit – you know, to help build suspense for the viewer who doesn’t deal with these things all the time. This led one firefighter at a rescue to keep repeating ‘We’re doomed! We’re doomed!’ in a fashion that Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would have been proud of. Needless to say, most of that had to be edited out, as we just couldn’t use it!
So, if you’re ever asked to take part in a reconstruction for the small screen, may I offer the following advice… Just do exactly what you’d do as if the situation were real. Don’t ever feel like you have to do anything special, or different, just because a camera is being pointed at you. The production company has asked you to be there precisely because of your particular skills and expertise and, most of the time, they will let you get on with your job – even if it is rescuing a piece of meat! They may give you some practical direction occasionally, but that will be because of things like camera angles.
One thing to be prepared for is being asked to do the same thing over and over, while they film you from different angles. If you need a break from this, never hesitate to speak up, they’ll be only too happy to take five. The same applies if you see something on set that doesn’t quite look right, i.e. it goes against your training or what would happen in the real world. Unless it’s for a fictional programme where there’s an element of suspending your disbelief (because, of course, cars always explode in a massive fireball every time there’s a crash), you should absolutely point out what’s wrong. Again, you’re there because of your abilities and knowledge, and you’ll be thanked for saving them from all sorts of hassle from viewers later on.
Before 999, I’d worked in theatre and television my whole life. I started in telly as an Assistant Stage Manager at London Weekend Television, working with some of the biggest names of the ’80s including Bruce Forsyth, Cannon and Ball, and Jeremy Beadle. Then I became Unit Manager at Yorkshire television, on programmes like Emmerdale Farm (as it was then!) and in the newsroom.
From there, I worked freelance on 999 before joining Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls. I scouted for locations and found extreme things for Bear to do – abseiling down waterfalls, jumping from aircraft and lots of free climbing.
I then joined the Antiques Roadshow as a freelance Events Manager. In the winter, I’d be somewhere like Ecuador or Costa Rica with Bear and then in the summer, I’d don my pearls for the Roadshow. Let me tell you, the Roadshow was more challenging!
I started losing my sight around 2007. I have a very rare form of glaucoma where the sight in my right eye went completely within two weeks. What remains in my left eye, we’ve been fighting to keep. In 2017 work became untenable, and I jumped before I was pushed. So that was my income gone, and having a big mortgage I faced bankruptcy very quickly.
I pushed family and friends away because I was embarrassed. The only person who kept me going – who kept me alive really – was my accountant, who would phone me every morning to get me out of bed. I called a debt advice line and spoke to someone who took the shame out of it and, believe it or not, made me see the funny side. He took the fear away and helped me turn it around.
Bit by bit, with some counselling and antidepressants, I managed to get back on my feet. In December 2017, I applied to the charity Guide Dogs and was lucky enough to be matched quite quickly with a lovely black Labrador called Jackie. She’s just turned five now and she’s completely changed my life. She gives me my confidence, she’s a signal to others that I have sight loss, and she’s my best friend who goes everywhere with me. She’s strong and fearless, and she looks after me.
The training with Jackie was so wonderful, especially meeting other people with sight loss. You have to put in an enormous amount of effort, and it’s absolutely a partnership. Suddenly you’ve got a whole new raison d’être, which is what Jackie is to me.
I was told Jackie was named in memory of someone who must have been very much loved. Guide Dogs has a scheme where, if you raise a certain amount of money, you can choose a name for a guide dog who will one day go on to help someone like me. I’ll never meet the person who named Jackie, but I’ll be forever grateful to them.
For more information, go to www.guidedogs.org.uk/nap