For some people, their interests stem from living close by venues that hold events and they can turn that interest into a passion which lasts their entire lifetime. For others it can be triggered by a photograph in a local paper or a programme on TV. These of course, can only come about by someone willing to share their own passion for something with others, but also being able to get it off the ground and convincing the powers that be in the media and broadcasting world that it is worth their while in doing so.
This would be a lesser task if the topic was of popular interest, but when it is of something which is very much in the minority, this task is a much greater. In a sporting context, Motorsport is the very poor relation to its cousins such as GAA, Rugby, Athletics, Soccer and Horse Racing, to name a few. So it would take someone with great enthusiasm and will to do so. Well luckily for Motorsport fans, one such man was up to the challenge and did so for over forty years, and in doing so set the benchmark very high for others to follow.
I am of course referring to the Alan Tyndall or “Plum” as he is affectionately known. Plum not only brought coverage of all Motorsport disciplines into our homes every Thursday night for twenty three years, with his RPM Motorsport programme derived from his own independent production company, but also every major motorsport event in Ireland prior to its incarnation since the late 1970s. Spanning from International rallying, circuit racing, kart racing to European Rallycross events and anything in between Plum was there behind it all.
Despite his accent, Plum is actually an original “Dub”. Born and rared for the first two years of his life in Drumcondra in Dublin City, but as his father Charles was a Church of Ireland clergyman, it was not long before he was on the move to a new parish, this time on The Mall in Sligo. He was there until the age of twelve and then on to Enniskillen in county Fermangh for his secondary level education.
It was while in Sligo one day when the first spark of Motorsport caught his eye “ I witnessed a cavalcade of Hewison Trophy test trial cars going through the town and as a young kid that was really exciting to me, almost like watching a Grand Prix.”
While most young boys gain their interest in cars from their father, in Plum’s case it was from his mother Alice.
“The car influence unquestionably came from my mother and I think that she was probably the first woman to hold a driving licence in County Longford. She used to drive my her father’s old ‘Bullnose’ Morris Oxford which hadn’t the power to go up steep hills so she would put it into reverse to get up them such was the gearing in the car.”
As there was no YouTube or children’s television stations back when Plum was growing up, children sourced comic books and magazines for entertainment. When out with his mother in Sligo one day to get his latest Beano mag, he spotted a cancelled Autosport magazine of the shelf. The rest as they say is history. Dennis the Menace was made redundant and Autosport was now and still is his weekly magazine of choice.
It was not until he was seventeen that he saw his first race meeting at an Easter Monday meeting in Goodwood in England. The bug had set in by the end of the day and in his minds eye, a racing driver was what he set about becoming. By the early 1970s his one and only car- a 1275 Mini Cooper had gained a roll cage and lost its passenger and rear seats and was not only driven to his architectural job, but was now also driven on the the northern circuits of Kirkistown and Bishopscourt!
While fast, Plum was a tad erratic in the beginning, but with help from his friend Jimmy Ogg, the results started to come- finishing runner-up in the Northern Ireland championship in 1973. By 1973, the Ulster Automobile Club followed the British championship in introducing Production Saloon car racing in Northern Ireland. The Mini was replaced with a Ford Escort Mexico and in 1974, Plum won both the Bishopscourt championship and the Northern Ireland Production Saloon Car Championships.
“ I started racing in a Mini, then got the Ford Escort Mexico and won the championship in that. Then got a Ford Capri for a short time, a wonderful car but I hadn’t the money to run it, but I got a deal to drive a Vauxhall Firenza and won the Irish Championship in that.”
Plum competed all over Ireland both North and South and in the Phoenix Park races in Dublin where he nearly got a Park win only to be twarted by Des Cullen who was a Park specialist at the time. This was the end of his racing career though as the money wasn’t there to compete anymore.
This wasn’t to be the end of his Motorsport career however, at the same time as competing he commentated on other Motorsport events. It was during his time in the commentary box the BBC had heard him and offered him the task of commentating on a number of circuit races at Kirkistown which then led onto rallying with a documentary on the Circuit of Ireland Rally.
“ It wasn’t until the early 1980s when I moved to Dublin to work for a PR agency and got a call from RTE, and they took me on board to cover Grands Prix with Michael O’Carroll that my career really started to take off.”
This break came just at the right time for Plum and for Motorsport coverage in Ireland as the Circuit of Ireland Rally received major sponsorship from the Rothmans cigarette company. “ In the 1980s, the big thing was the Group B cars and Rothmans poured sponsorship money into it. This allowed RTE and UTV to have a joint production which skyrocketed the whole interest in rallying in Ireland.”
It was a completely new way of covering an event and certainly a different level of rally coverage with five daily programmes of the rally going out during the Easter period.
It was unique in a way and the only other broadcaster doing something similar was the BBC with the RAC rally at the time. So how did it come about ?
“ The genius behind that was Michael O’Carroll, he had seen the RAC rally been done by the BBC but reckoned that he could do it better!, which is a fair statement with the resources that we had compared to that of the BBC.” He got the Rothmans money and then the RTE and UTV agreement, and put it altogether.”
This was the pre digital and internet era of course, so there was no computer editing software or wifi access to send the action to the studio in Dublin for the nightly report, so how did they do it?
“There were two teams, George Hamilton was the presenter, Gary Gillespie was the UTV reporter and I was the RTE reporter. We worked in booths beside the each other and I would edit the script and do the voice over for one stage and Gary would do the same for another, we put it together and built it up like a patchwork quilt. The deadlines were so tight and I remember twice running down the corridor with the second tape in hand just as the first was ending, for the changeover!”
Like the Group B Supercars of that era all good things must come to an end, and the days of five day rallies were numbered and so too was the big sponsorship from Rothmans. While still commentating for RTE on circuit races at the time an idea came along for Plum to go it alone. This started by covering the Internationals but grew into a new level of coverage on all types of Motorsport in Ireland in the following years.
“When the money from Rothmans died down, an opportunity came up to carry on covering rallies here in Ireland so I setup my own production company and that led on to the RPM Motorsport programme which continued for twenty three years!”
Plum has been fortunate to have been right in the middle of the golden eras of both rallying and racing and has met, interviewed and had the odd tipple at prize givings with all the greats down through the years, so what were his favourite events?
“ There are so many but in rallying definitely the Donegal International Rally has to be it, I love it and the county as well. In racing, I loved the Phoenix Park and I would love to see it back again.”
As his RPM Motorsport programme grew in popularity over the years, he caught all the up and coming stars making their way through the ranks in their respective fields. This became harder the higher they got up the ladder due to media rights, but it also allowed him to bring his programme abroad.
Out of all the RPM programmes that were made, one of the standout episodes was the teams first trip to cover the Barbados rally. Plum was contacted after a brief meeting by chance in Mondello Park by Andrew Phillips from Barbados who ran rallies over there. As he tells this story to me the grin on Plums face begins to get bigger and bigger as the memories of the trips come to mind.
“ Oh they were fun fun years! Andrew called me and said in his Barabados accent “I want you to bring a shit-hot driver in a shit-hot car to Barabados to whop da locals. Oh, an by da way, da driver must have no preference for drinking milk!” Plum contacted Kenny McKinstry and set the ball in motion for what was to be a memorable trip for all concerned for years to come.
With all that he has seen and covered what does he make of the sport now and what needs to be done?
“ The insurance problems is huge, which causes problems for spectators to watch and also film crews to get close which you need to do at rallies. I think socially too the whole thing has changed. People don’t have the time now to go to rallies and stay for prizegivings etc, and are under pressure to be at home, work or elsewhere. In terms of racing, sadly everybody jumps straight to the England now, we used to have a great training ground here and if you could win here, as competition was fierce, you could be competitive anywhere. I also think not having the same classes both North and South is a big mistake. What can be done? To try and have the same classes over here as in England or Europe would help.”
While motorsport became popular year after year during the 1990s and 2000s, the money to put a motosports programme on the air started to dry up. The “Celtic Tiger” era was over, sponsors went elsewhere, clubs didn’t have the money to give to promote their events due to entries being down and the TV companies stopped their funding which signalled the end to the famous and long lasting programme.
Plum’s RPM show was made in a fun but professional way, which at the time stood out from other motorsport programmes- and still does to this day. It is sad to see it gone and I know the motorsport community would dearly love to have it back again but unless the money and the support from the TV stations on this island can be found it looks very unlikely. Motorsport fans can still of course still get their hands on RPM’s programmes from the RPM website and Plums new autobiography Keep The Revs Up will keep you entertained throughout the current off season.
I personally believe that without the likes of Plum and also Michael O’Carroll in the early years, Motorsport wouldn’t have gone on to be as big in Ireland. I’m sure it still would have been there, but you just have to look over the recent years and without consistent coverage, the sports popularity has taken a massive hit with young people compared to say even ten years ago. Every other sport in the country has risen in popularity and in television coverage but Motorsport has been left behind. The sport needs a Plum Tyndall to make programmes like RPM again and to showcase the sport. When or if it will happen remains to be seen, but I am glad I have collected his DVDs and hope he keeps making new ones, so thank you Plum for capturing the best of our sport.
Plum Tyndall’s new Book, Keep The Revs Up is available HERE