Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take part in Channel 5 TV’s Great Model Railway Challenge? Andrew Brewin, owner of A2B Model Railways of Matlock Bath, Derbyshire, who made it as part of the ‘Titfield Thunderbolts’ team in the 2019 series, shares his experience and tells us about some of the things viewers don’t couldn’t see!
It all started with a Sunday evening drive to Reading, where The Great Model Railway Challenge production crew had booked a hotel, but it was 9pm before the whole crew could gather in the same room.
Team captain Kevin Spurrier, along with Andy Cheers, David Lloyd and myself, we all got together at my A2B shop during a pre-filming in April, and there was also a reunion during a pre-build in Andy’s studio in Glossop.
The youngest and oldest members of the team were joining us for the first time. The Reverend David Stafford had returned from his globe-trotting job aboard a cruise ship, and young Harun, with a leather jacket and trilby hat, significantly reduced the average age.
Behind the warm greetings all around, however, there was a dawning awareness of what we had undertaken!
The 8.30am start to Fawley Hill was preceded by a wet rush hour drive, but heavy rain forced the ‘walk-in’ shots to be postponed, so the initial greeting was filmed , then filmed over and over again, as the presenters tried to impress with their supposedly ad hoc puns, before work could begin. Finally, we were waved to begin – or so we thought!
Part of our layout design required the plinth to be cut so that the dock scene could be created. Andy got to work with his power tools, only to be told to stop making noise while filming took place elsewhere. It became the trend of the day, with constant stops and requests for silence while other shots were filmed, and it became quite frustrating.
Between stops, we moved away laying the remaining track. Only two of the three planks could be touched during pre-construction, so the last parts of the loops at ground level were laid. Several of us got to work installing the various power wires but unfortunately there wasn’t really a plan or direction so the underboard wiring soon looked like a rats nest and would cause problems later. We ran out of yarn and Kevin had to go beg for extra supplies from a rival team. Not a good start!
The original track plan had been altered to include the infamous flyover, or ‘ski jump’ as Steve Flint tagged it, but getting it to sit correctly on a curve caused David Lloyd so much trouble that ‘at the end of the first day, it hadn’t been completed and the track had hardly been tested – which the production team was quick to point out. David looked particularly tired and stressed.
Halfway through the first day, I quit the runway laying crew – it was getting a case of too many cooks – and started the sets. Large sheets of Celux insulation material were cut and glued to the back of the board to resemble the cliffs at the back of our jungle scene. These were cut and carved with a kitchen knife, and done outside in the rain. Fawley Hill staff weren’t too impressed with the mess, which threatened to become a poisonous snack for the local peacock population!
The next job was the construction of the volcano in the center of the helix. This was created from a combination of stacked pieces of polystyrene and screwed-up newspaper balls covered in a plaster bandage, and caught a lot of attention from the film crew who filmed a long “how to” while I was creating it. When dry, it was draped in a generous blanket of hanging basket liner and finished by the end of the first day.
The discussion in the bar the night before had focused on the need to complete the flyover so the trains could be tested and David could come to his senses! Things progressed slowly and in frustration there were crosswords between Kevin and me about the number of people deployed on the project. It wasn’t quite a mutiny, but I was determined to finish the scenic work, so I set about cutting more insulation material to complete the cliff walls.
Harmony was quickly restored and Kevin taught me the finer art of airbrushing, allowing details to be built up. Things now seemed to be progressing and David even completed the flyover. There was a lot of satisfaction when a model locomotive ran successfully on the track and down the grade with no problem.
Our luck seemed to turn – but it didn’t last long!
As on day one, there were more frustrating stops to avoid making background noises while shooting on other layouts, and one of them was airbrushing. The paint managed to dry and harden during the long break, the airbrush stopped working, and the captain had to be taken away from the layout to clean and fix it.
As with the other teams, we then lost another member, young Harun, in the ‘Scratchbuild Challenge’. He looked like a bunny in the headlights when Tim handed him a tambourine, a plastic sword and a steering wheel, but luckily Andy Cheers and I had bounced around a few ideas and he implemented them brilliantly, with the steering wheel becoming a wigwam, with the sword adding bridge parapets to the flyover, and the tambourine being transformed into a septic tank that filled a hole in the center of the plank. The latter was a true work of art, and deservedly, Harun won the competition.
It was another elevator, and we needed every elevator possible.
However, the problems kept coming and a short circuit took half a day to resolve. Everything was checked and rechecked and the wiring was taken apart and redone but nothing seemed to fix it. Suddenly I had one of those horrible realizations. It was my fault! Some of the metal foil protection sheet on the insulation material wouldn’t peel off, and there was a chance that some of it could clog the way in the dead-end tunnel in the middle level. After some quick work with the chainsaw, everything was settled, but not before the cameras flew like bees around a jar of honey. I was so glad it didn’t make it!
Electrical issues meant we headed into the hotel with massive gaps still in the middle of the board. We were so far behind the other teams, an embarrassing result awaited us and the mood was dark.
A few beers at the bar the night before gave us renewed resolve, and starting the last day early made for some frantic work. The painting was cleared of rubbish and Reverend David’s jungle scene was put in place – a work of art that filled a large space. The two Davids set to work finishing the dock area, covering the vacant areas of the panel with a generous blanket of lichen to extend the jungle scene, while I collected the repaired airbrush and finished the cliff, before tackle the army camp scene with Andy Cheers’ stunning pre-built building. This was finished with Metcalfe tarmac sheets and static grass applied from a Gaugemaster puffer bottle.
Things were falling into place, but there was still time for more disasters. First, someone dropped the pre-built Tiger Moth airplane model, leaving Harun in a frantic race to fix it, and then we had problems with the propeller. The model locomotive kept derailing – it was clear that part of the track had expanded from the heat of the lights and warped – but despite lots of tinkering, we weren’t able to get the things consistently before time runs out. All we could do was hope and pray!
We were the last to present to the public and nerves were on edge. It all started well, with the Tiger Moth, patched up and delicate, descending the wire perfectly until it crashed, hitting the lichen in a cloud of talc smoke blown through a tube by David, who was hiding under the board. The judges were impressed and cast admiring glances at Kevin’s beautiful sunken pirate ship as well as the volcano, which smoked generously at the front of the layout.
The N-gauge locomotive navigated the rear of the layout flawlessly before disappearing into a tunnel. The German soldiers were ferried around the layout, safely crossing the flyover and the “ski slope” as a few smug glances were cast in the direction of Steve Flint, who was happy to admit he was wrong!
There is a saying, however, that pride comes before a fall. The British soldiers followed the pattern behind “Lord Nelson” 4-6-0 Sir Francis Drake and stalled! Lack of time had prevented a thorough cleaning of the track, and the two locomotives stalled further, requiring help from the big finger in the sky! Then the ‘Jinty’ came out of the tunnel and began the descent of the propeller. The many whispered prayers went unanswered and the locomotive derailed – twice – before stalling as it made its way to the platform to complete the display.
We didn’t have to wait for the results to know we hadn’t won! The winners were worthy and we were happy to congratulate them and wish them good luck for the rest of the competition. The irony was that the layout worked perfectly for the rest of the day and we were left with an idea of what could have been.
And now ? The layout was dismantled after the heat, but there are plans to build a new one for display purposes. With the team being so far apart, it will be a challenge, but we hope to achieve it. We’ve all become good friends, we know each other’s skills and think we could do better next time – and we’d love to have another chance at the show!
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