Coasting Bus Wars


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Coasting

Documentary series. Benn Allen mounts a rescue mission to the north coast for his stranded passengers, and former soldier Vic Thorn returns to Belfast to take a bus tour.


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City tours, folks. Hop on, hop off.

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Please stop harassing these women.

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Well, it's like

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a dog-eat-dog show out there, you know?

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People want people on their buses,

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and they'll do anything, sometimes, to, you know, provoke you.

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I'm being very gentlemanly.

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I do apologise, I am trying to speak to you,

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but this guy keeps interrupting.

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There's a gold rush on the streets of Belfast.

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That's our eighth bus going out now, full - top and bottom.

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Bring it on.

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I could sell snow to the Eskimo, sand to the Arabs,

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and fries to us boys, not a problem.

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THEY LAUGH

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Last year, well over two million people visited Northern Ireland.

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This is where I'm looking forward to seeing something about the Titanic.

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Some wanted to see the sights.

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It's a fairly impressive city, isn't it?

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-It's very impressive.

-Beautiful.

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Some came to soak up the TV stardust.

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That's the father's names...

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And some were returning to a place they haven't seen in a lifetime.

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Oh, my goodness, I AM home, aren't I?

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This is the inside story of Northern Ireland's Bus Wars.

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THEY CHEER

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From the tourists who come here...

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I've been to some of the other wonders of the world -

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it definitely ranks right up there, it was fantastic.

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-The clutch is out of it.

-BLEEP!

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..to the parts of the business that nobody else gets to see.

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The way the tours are run in Belfast at the moment, it's really a war.

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Welcome to Bus Wars.

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Nicky, what the hell way have you got this?

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Take this arm out.

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Some mechanic you are, Nicky!

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Right, that's you now. That's it.

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-Nicky and I probably have a love/hate relationship.

-HE LAUGHS

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Some days it goes well, some days it doesn't.

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We're looking for a manual, six-speed Volvo gearbox.

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That's automatic...

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Did you check ALL those ones there, Nicky?

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I just like scrap, and getting bits you need, and you want bits,

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you know what I mean?

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What's that...?

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Some of the buses are old and you can't get the bits no more, know what I mean?

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And you see something, you say, "See, look at that there,

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"we've been looking for that." And you can get it, know what I mean?

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This one?

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It's like kids going in a sweet shop, isn't it?

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I just like going to the scrapyards. That makes my day.

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Love 'em.

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Great, heaven. If we could only find the box, we'll be all right.

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Know what I mean?

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We're not having any luck here.

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MUSIC: Steptoe And Son Theme

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That's one of my old buses, sitting ready for the scrap.

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It's a bit sad when you see them like that.

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I'd prefer them to be out on the road.

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There's something there...

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HE GRUNTS

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This one got past us.

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Obviously a cat's been living on it for a while.

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Lovely!

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You come out of these scrapyards,

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you're just black with dirt and muck and... Oh, terrible

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but...you've got this van full of stuff that you just can't buy

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any more. So it's very, very satisfying, yeah.

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Looks familiar to me.

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Well, if the clutch fits, that's the starters. Right?

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You understand? That's the push, that's what it is.

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CLICK

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-That doesn't matter.

-What happened there?

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Well, I've pushed the clutch forward.

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That looks good to me.

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-That fits.

-I've made a decision,

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I think we'll go for it.

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It's not in the bus yet, it's not working, but it's a good chance,

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a good opportunity.

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So we may as well take it. I'm going to go and pay the man now.

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This is the hard bit, isn't it?

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These days, Benn Allen runs budget coach tours of the north coast,

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but four years ago he ran a city centre open-top bus company.

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Back then, it was a tough and aggressive industry.

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Benn was even convicted of disorderly behaviour after an argument on the street,

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and he says he was often on the receiving end, too.

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I've been attacked in broad daylight at half nine in the morning on my

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own bus. There's been windows broken... Just complete madness.

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But Benn's biggest problem was his frequent run-ins with the authorities.

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Got a few fines for running extra tours,

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but the fines are only about 200 quid,

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and that would be maybe for running, like, 30 extra tours,

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so it was well worth it. So I just went into court, took the fine,

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laughed it off.

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Eventually, he was spending more time in courtrooms than on buses,

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so four years ago Benn decided to sell his business,

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to concentrate on private coach tours of the Giant's Causeway.

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I thought it was a good idea really to get out of town for a couple of years,

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let things cool down and sort things out.

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So that's why I approached the owners of Titanic and City Tours.

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Every day, Benn sees his old buses driving around Belfast.

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Now, he wants them back.

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Looks great, doesn't it?

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This would be one of my favourites,

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and as you can see it's still in great nick,

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and that's what I'd really like to have back myself,

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and me run them in the town. I sort of miss it.

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We must walk about nine miles a day.

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I know. You walk about six of them in and out of the toilet.

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You have to be erm...

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-Outgoing.

-Outgoing.

-No point being shy in this job.

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Just drink your water, man.

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No, I need to...

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Alfie and Owen both used to work for Benn.

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Alfie isn't ONE of the best in the town, he's THE best in the town,

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always was.

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He could do the work of, easily, six men.

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It was great, because he was on our side.

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THEY LAUGH

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'Alfie's a very passionate person within the bus tours.'

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I told you, there's only one sheriff in this town!

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He's very dedicated to this job.

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I think he actually takes leaflets home and papers his walls with them.

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If you buy a ticket for this,

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then you get the Giant's Causeway for 20 quid.

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If you haven't done the city tour, then you have to pay 25.

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20 quid means £20.

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Yeah, yeah, that's OK.

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-Now...

-He knows what quid means!

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That's Belfast talk.

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He thinks everybody's as stupid as he is.

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I'm from Australia. He's right.

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Thank you, sir, thank you!

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Told you. Alfie, you could learn a thing or two of me, let me tell you.

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Are you as stupid as he is? Apologise for your stupidity.

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No, no, no, my question is, for 20 quid, you have the entry of...

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No, it's £20 - now I'm correcting YOU!

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THEY LAUGH

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Now you're getting the Belfast lingo!

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When Alfie and Owen worked for Benn,

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Allen's Tours was seen as a Protestant company.

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CHEERING

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There's the heat starting now.

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But when Benn wanted to sell,

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the only potential buyers were a group of Catholic businessmen.

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We didn't really care who owned it.

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We just didn't like City Sightseeing,

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and we'd have went to any company that was going up against them.

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Now we're being bought over by...

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-someone from the other side of the community.

-Watch what you say!

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-Martin, how are you?

-All right, how's it going?

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This is Martin Lands - Martin went to school with me,

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we grew up together in the Beechmount area, you know?

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Former boxer Sean Donnelly, along with brothers Gerard and Paddy Rogan,

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run Titanic and City Tours.

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It was a Protestant company, and we were a Catholic company.

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What I did, I got involved, I went into their offices,

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which is on the Sandy Row.

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At the start, all those lads thought,

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"These guys are from the Falls Road, they're going to let us go."

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And Sean showed his hand.

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-What are yous having?

-I think I'm going to go for the Ulster.

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You want an Ulster fry(?)

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I'll have the Ulster fry!

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We'll have three Irish fries!

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THEY LAUGH

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It was near Christmas, and they took us all on, do you know what I mean?

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They kept us in a job right up to Christmas...

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Even though it was costing them money.

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-Look at that!

-No, no, no, no, no, no.

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That's right, only the Brits do that.

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Thank God YOU said that!

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Everybody that starts in our company,

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they're told you hang your politics at the door.

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There's a hook at the door - hang your politics,

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and that's where it stays there. I slag and joke, you know,

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it sounds funny, but at the interviews, when I'm interviewing them I slag them, I say,

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"Lads, do you play the flute this way or that way?"

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laughing, you know? It's all good craic and a good joke.

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Doesn't matter to me what colour they are or what religion they are.

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They're more than welcome. If they do their job good,

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that's what we want. And that's the way it'll stay.

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It's great, Gerard, absolutely great.

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CHATTER AND LAUGHTER

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Break bread, Owen, break bread.

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Yes.

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Across the divide!

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"You take too much there," he says - look!

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First of all, I'll tell you, I'm 51.

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-Wow.

-All right?

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THEY LAUGH

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Oh, we didn't even get a photo!

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Well, you see, you should have been quick.

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-Encore, encore.

-All right, all right, give me a sec.

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Get that leg up.

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THEY WHOOP

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Natalie and Zoe are visiting Belfast for a couple of days, after getting

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last-minute cheap flights.

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It's their first time in Northern Ireland.

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I do want to learn about the culture, I think it's so interesting.

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I love the Irish people as well, like, they are so laid-back and chilled,

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but then they've got that side to them where you wouldn't mess with them as well. So I like the...

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Yeah, the Irish people are so cool. And they just want to get a bevvy,

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-so it's like, that's what we're here for.

-Why not?

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By the way, if you're wondering what the H and the W means at the very top,

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that means hello and welcome to Belfast.

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It also means Harry and William.

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Remember Harry and William? Who are they?

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-Princes.

-That's right, well done.

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-Yes! We're so smart.

-And so many people believe that these two cranes are named after them two as well.

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-Hey, we were so the only ones that got that answer right.

-Mm.

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To the left of the bus, you'll see the structure that spans

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the river at this point. That's the Lagan tidal barrier weir.

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The Lagan has one of the highest...

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Not everyone who takes a bus tour is new to Belfast.

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My name is Victor Thorn,

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and I was a British soldier here in Belfast back in the '70s.

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Here I am on a bus,

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driving around through Belfast, when back in those days, of course,

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I would have either been in an armoured personnel carrier,

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or I would have been on the back of a Land Rover holding a rifle.

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I joined the British Army when I was 19 years of age.

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Within a very short time, I found myself in Northern Ireland, in 1971,

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with 2 Para.

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When we started popping off out to tour the city,

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no real uncomfortable feeling whatsoever.

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However, once the fatalities started...

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..that's when you realise this is a real situation, you know, and perhaps,

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you know, the risk is far greater than I assumed it to be.

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The prime interest for me will be West Belfast,

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because that's where I spent a lot of my time, obviously,

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and to actually go back to that and see how it's changed will be, I think,

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to some degree, quite cathartic.

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39 years was when I left here as a soldier, back in 1977.

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I did have a couple of my old military buddies

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say to me before I left, "You be careful."

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Vic Thorn has gotten off the bus at the Falls Road.

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He's on his way to meet someone who grew up in this area,

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just as he was serving in the Parachute Regiment.

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He doesn't know quite what kind of reception he's going to get.

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Back at Allen's Tours, Benn has had some bad news.

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Can you get into the car park, or down the hill or anything?

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-She won't move.

-She won't move at all?

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Here, Francie, I'll tell you what it is, I have a bus here,

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in Ballycastle there, but she won't go up the hill.

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I put a new clutch in it there a couple of weeks back

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and it's started to slip. I was wondering, would you have a bus there?

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You could take them down to the rope bridge first, until I get down to adjust this clutch up.

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All right, let's go.

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HE GROANS

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What's up?

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Just browned off.

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You get out of bed, it's a normal day, and you say wait a minute,

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you've got to go into work, and that's where it changes.

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Yeah, you just go with them, we'll see you at the rope bridge.

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Just leave the bus there, Benn.

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That's it. Mucked up.

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-INTERVIEWER:

-Whose fault is it?

-Benn's.

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It has to be his. No-one else.

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There she is.

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Benn has organised for the passengers to be taken on to the next stop.

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Now he needs Nicky to get his bus back on the road.

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Phwoah! That smells pretty bad.

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It definitely was slipping, even. He was right there.

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BELL DINGS

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Benn?

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What you want to do, I just want you to put it in top gear and stall it, if it will.

0:15:120:15:15

What's the pedal like?

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MUSIC: Steptoe And Son Theme

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Whilst Nicky gets to work,

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Benn has to deliver the replacement bus to his passengers.

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If there's a chance of that bus moving, Nicky'll get it to move.

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He doesn't like getting tow trucks in.

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So, we'll find out maybe by the time I get back down there.

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Benn's plan for this summer had been to earn enough cash from his Causeway Tours

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to start up once again as an open-top tour bus company in Belfast.

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-It's like a wedding!

-I know it is!

0:15:590:16:03

What he DOESN'T know, is that his archrivals may be about to beat him to it.

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My jaws just won't go any further!

0:16:070:16:09

THEY LAUGH

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See the way Caroline is? That's perfect. That's good.

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Follow my lead. You know?

0:16:140:16:17

Caroline and Rodney McComb have just taken delivery of a new bus.

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This coach was £100,000.

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It's a lot of money for us to invest,

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and there really is a lot of pressure on us then to make it work

0:16:330:16:36

and make a new product come in and sell really, really well for us.

0:16:360:16:40

Their competitors don't know it yet,

0:16:400:16:43

but Caroline and Rodney's plan is to start a city tour with their new

0:16:430:16:47

convertible bus, where rain or shine, they'll be able to make money...

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..potentially taking on the two big city centre companies at their own game.

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If it goes the way I think it IS going to go, well,

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there might be another one or two brought in.

0:17:020:17:05

Do you want to come around here, Rodney, and we'll look at this here?

0:17:050:17:08

But that's only part of the plan.

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This is definitely the main advertising space, this here.

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McComb's want to take the battle for customers off the streets, and into

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the more genteel surroundings of Victoria Square Shopping Centre.

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Oh, this is definitely the McComb's alternative to street staff.

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This is just how we do it.

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You know, we always try to go that extra step and that wee bit

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higher-end, so for us this is a mile apart from that

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so it's great.

0:17:370:17:38

We went and had a gorgeous sandwich,

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and a scone.

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-INTERVIEWER:

-Do you think the customers are bothered?

0:17:540:17:58

No, they seem happy enough.

0:17:580:18:01

What the tourists of Northern Ireland want is a really good tour

0:18:080:18:11

to see our scenery, to see our lovely country.

0:18:110:18:14

They're not actually here for a bus show.

0:18:140:18:16

MUSIC: Goji Berry Sunset by Jealous Of The Birds

0:18:160:18:18

# Your name fizzes on my tongue

0:18:180:18:24

# Oh, your name

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# It fizzes on my tongue

0:18:300:18:32

# Damn that name... #

0:18:340:18:36

It's time to put Nicky's handiwork to the test.

0:18:400:18:44

-The clutch is out of it.

-BLEEP

-me!

0:18:470:18:50

What is it? What's happened?

0:18:550:18:56

She's just burning out.

0:18:560:18:58

She's just burning out.

0:19:020:19:04

We should have got it back down here, we shouldn't have gone up the hill.

0:19:060:19:10

OK. Jump in, we'll try it.

0:19:180:19:21

The bus is finished.

0:19:230:19:25

-There's not a lot left in it, Nicky.

-No, burnt out.

0:19:290:19:32

For now, Benn and Nicky are going nowhere.

0:19:350:19:39

Check out the building on your left-hand side now. It belongs to

0:19:430:19:46

Queen's University. It just recently opened.

0:19:460:19:49

It's a brand-new building.

0:19:490:19:51

-And what's it made out of?

-Glass?

0:19:510:19:53

Glass, there you go. What does that say about, you know...

0:19:530:19:55

-There's no bombs.

-That's it, no more bombs.

0:19:550:19:58

And no more shooting on our streets.

0:19:580:20:00

Former soldier Vic Thorn remembers a very different Belfast.

0:20:070:20:11

He's got off the bus just off the Falls Road, beside his old barracks.

0:20:140:20:19

It was quite, quite interesting to still see there was a link...

0:20:220:20:26

..to that time, and just to suddenly, without any real effort,

0:20:270:20:33

be able to imagine once more driving through those gates,

0:20:330:20:37

back out through those gates, looking at the roofs,

0:20:370:20:40

looking at the windows, ever ready...

0:20:400:20:42

And then you have St Peter's Cathedral here.

0:20:460:20:48

-Yes.

-And of course, I'm sure you remember this particular building.

0:20:480:20:51

Ah, the Divis Flats. Of course, yes.

0:20:510:20:54

Yes. God!

0:20:540:20:55

Vic has come to meet the director of Titanic and City Tours,

0:20:570:21:00

Gerard Rogan,

0:21:000:21:01

who grew up in this area whilst Vic was in the Army.

0:21:010:21:05

I remember patrolling in the Divis Flats back in the early '70s, and

0:21:050:21:11

you would get washing machines, TVs, whatever, thrown out at you.

0:21:110:21:16

I didn't live in the flats, so I didn't throw any of the washing machines at you!

0:21:160:21:20

THEY LAUGH

0:21:200:21:22

-But yeah, you'll see your whole take on it's changed.

-But it's totally different,

0:21:220:21:25

because in those days it was very much a very grey, foreboding building.

0:21:250:21:30

His take on standing out on the Falls Road,

0:21:320:21:36

and remembering about washing machines and TVs...

0:21:360:21:38

I never threw anything out the window.

0:21:380:21:41

And I told him that. But you could see his mind ticking over.

0:21:410:21:44

What were you doing at that time?

0:21:440:21:46

In '72, I was about 14.

0:21:460:21:48

-14 years of age.

-Ooh! 14 years of age.

0:21:480:21:51

So I was sort of a very quiet lad.

0:21:510:21:53

-You probably wouldn't have...

-Do you know,

0:21:530:21:55

I really have an issue with that. I'm not sure I believe that.

0:21:550:21:58

But maybe we met somewhere along the way.

0:21:580:22:01

In less friendly circumstances, Victor.

0:22:010:22:03

-THEY LAUGH

-Yeah.

0:22:030:22:06

It was easier for me because I'm standing on home ground.

0:22:060:22:10

But here was a guy who had served with the British Army here,

0:22:100:22:13

in what he probably would have deemed enemy territory.

0:22:130:22:16

Standing on the Falls Road...

0:22:160:22:18

You could see that he was slightly uptight,

0:22:180:22:21

but as we talked and we walked along

0:22:210:22:23

you could see him starting to loosen up and enjoying a bit of craic.

0:22:230:22:27

Well, you wouldn't have seen too much in the vehicles that you were travelling in at the time.

0:22:280:22:32

-No, that's very true.

-Because there was only wee hatches.

0:22:320:22:34

And for me to be on the top of a bus going through Belfast

0:22:340:22:37

is a new experience.

0:22:370:22:39

-And without anybody throwing bricks or bottles at you.

-Exactly!

0:22:390:22:42

Hello. I take it you're on your break, yeah?

0:22:470:22:50

Take it you're on your break.

0:22:500:22:52

Well, where are you?

0:22:540:22:55

Come into work in the morning at nine o'clock,

0:22:550:22:58

and Alfie makes sure you're in cos he rings you.

0:22:580:23:00

Ring, ring, ring - that's all you get from nine o'clock in the morning.

0:23:000:23:03

Hurry up and get up here, will you?

0:23:030:23:06

Right, hurry up.

0:23:060:23:07

I'm the top skiver, without a shadow of a doubt.

0:23:070:23:11

-They call me the Ghost. Cos they never see me.

-Aye.

0:23:110:23:13

THEY LAUGH

0:23:130:23:15

It's a pain in the hole sometimes.

0:23:160:23:19

Some of the boys still have their old bad habits, like going to the toilet for 20 minutes,

0:23:190:23:24

and you're phoning them, and... going to the bookies in their break

0:23:240:23:27

when they're not supposed to be in the bookies on their break.

0:23:270:23:30

You know. Or taking 45 minutes

0:23:300:23:32

and going down to St George's Market to buy crabs.

0:23:320:23:35

HE LAUGHS

0:23:350:23:37

-And lobsters.

-Well, Alfie, I like to live the high life, OK?

0:23:370:23:40

-So just...

-You know.

0:23:400:23:41

Seriously, I'll probably just throw the towel in and say,

0:23:410:23:45

"I can't work with him no more, driving me mad."

0:23:450:23:47

There he's there, look.

0:23:470:23:48

Alfie, what's happening?

0:23:510:23:53

Thank you. City tours?

0:23:530:23:56

City tours today, guys?

0:23:560:23:59

Thank you.

0:23:590:24:00

-Seriously, mate?

-I'm running about here like a headless chicken.

0:24:000:24:03

No, you're not. You were in there, going to the toilet,

0:24:030:24:06

then you come out for five minutes and you're away...

0:24:060:24:08

-Then I disappeared for five minutes.

-Yeah.

-I get 30 minutes for my break.

0:24:080:24:11

So in between that there, I was 15 minutes... I'm due 15 minutes.

0:24:110:24:14

What was your burger this morning at 11 o'clock?

0:24:140:24:16

I'm due 15 minutes to go in there and sit down,

0:24:160:24:18

-but I'm not going to do it.

-What was your burger?

0:24:180:24:20

Because I like it for the company, do know what I mean?

0:24:200:24:22

I'm here to work for the company, so I don't want a break.

0:24:220:24:24

What was your burger this morning at 11 o'clock?

0:24:240:24:26

-That was pre-cooked.

-That was a tea break, was it?

0:24:260:24:28

No, that was pre-cooked and pre-ordered.

0:24:280:24:31

We just have to try and avoid Alfie and stay out of his way,

0:24:310:24:35

but every turn of the corner you take, he seems to be there.

0:24:350:24:40

What Alfie doesn't know won't harm him.

0:24:450:24:48

HE GROANS

0:24:560:24:58

Right, is that us?

0:25:010:25:02

That's us. Oh, look at that.

0:25:020:25:04

This is definitely the life.

0:25:050:25:06

THEY LAUGH

0:25:060:25:08

Up on the coast, Benn and Nicky are making the best of a bad situation.

0:25:100:25:15

Let's go!

0:25:150:25:16

Benn is no closer to realising his dream.

0:25:200:25:23

But his old rivals are moving up a gear.

0:25:250:25:28

Can you hold the bottom of that?

0:25:290:25:31

Yeah, that's where this goes.

0:25:310:25:35

At Belfast's Victoria Square,

0:25:350:25:37

Caroline and Rodney McComb are about to make a big announcement.

0:25:370:25:42

I'm glad to have something to do now

0:25:420:25:44

to take my mind off it, and this'll put the time in quickly until everybody arrives, so...

0:25:440:25:48

Caroline wants everything to be just right,

0:25:510:25:53

but she's noticed that her rivals' leaflets are on display.

0:25:530:25:58

And I think we'll take all of Sightseeing's literature out and replace it with ours.

0:25:580:26:02

Our leaflets were there yesterday.

0:26:040:26:06

See if you just pull that cage just in there a bit.

0:26:060:26:09

McComb's have been in business for 20 years.

0:26:120:26:15

But now their plan to start a high-end open-top bus tour,

0:26:150:26:19

and sell tickets in Victoria Square,

0:26:190:26:22

could be a game-changer for the industry.

0:26:220:26:25

This is a real step up for us.

0:26:270:26:30

I think everybody's going to be delighted for us and really excited

0:26:300:26:33

that we've decided to expand our business and move into this as well, so, yeah,

0:26:330:26:37

I think we're going to get a great reaction from it.

0:26:370:26:39

Gorgeous.

0:26:400:26:41

That is gorgeous.

0:26:410:26:45

We'll put it up here.

0:26:450:26:47

We've got the people we wanted here.

0:26:470:26:50

We're just having a ball now, yeah.

0:26:500:26:52

-We never stop scheming and planning.

-I know, you're brilliant.

0:26:520:26:56

This is the key. This is the key.

0:26:560:26:58

We have actually committed to what is now going to be -

0:27:000:27:03

you'll see on the board here Belfast Tour Centre...

0:27:030:27:07

We will be starting, from this Wednesday,

0:27:070:27:10

tours of Belfast three times a day, every day.

0:27:100:27:13

-So it is...

-CHEERING

0:27:130:27:17

Caroline's announcement has opened up a new front in the bus wars.

0:27:210:27:26

Look there to your left - we're not able to stop there.

0:27:260:27:28

-Stop, sir!

-Don't worry, we're going to stop on the way coming back, love, don't panic. Don't worry.

0:27:280:27:32

But out on the streets - peace reigns.

0:27:330:27:37

I would say the people are so nice and friendly,

0:27:370:27:39

-and the weather's been obviously amazing...

-People are so helpful, like,

0:27:390:27:43

-and nice.

-Except from that one guy that wouldn't let us on his bike, but apart from him...

0:27:430:27:48

-It's been absolutely fabulous having you.

-Yeah.

0:27:510:27:54

'Gerard totally personified

0:27:540:27:56

'the new attitude that Belfast is all about.'

0:27:560:27:59

He has Catholic employees,

0:27:590:28:02

he has Protestant employees, who all work together very well

0:28:020:28:05

to build a company up.

0:28:050:28:08

That's a microcosm of the city.

0:28:080:28:10

This is how it SHOULD work.

0:28:100:28:12

I almost felt I was home again, for want of a better word,

0:28:140:28:17

which is...quite peculiar.

0:28:170:28:19

It's been a large part of my life -

0:28:200:28:22

Northern Ireland probably helped make me the person I am.

0:28:220:28:25

So, see the IRA, that was illegal, yeah? But not really?

0:28:280:28:31

MUSIC: Then I Met You by The Proclaimers

0:28:310:28:33

# Thought that I'd be happy

0:28:330:28:35

# Gonna be so happy

0:28:350:28:36

# Living life alone and never sharing anything

0:28:360:28:40

# Thought that I was finished

0:28:400:28:42

# Thought that I was complete

0:28:420:28:43

# Thought that I was whole instead of being half of something... #

0:28:430:28:47

Benn Allen mounts a rescue mission to the north coast for his stranded passengers, and former soldier Vic Thorn returns to Belfast to take a bus tour.