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.
Please stop harassing these women.
Well, it's like
a dog-eat-dog show out there, you know?
People want people on their buses,
and they'll do anything, sometimes, to, you know, provoke you.
I'm being very gentlemanly.
I do apologise, I am trying to speak to you,
but this guy keeps interrupting.
There's a gold rush on the streets of Belfast.
That's our eighth bus going out now, full - top and bottom.
Bring it on.
I could sell snow to the Eskimo, sand to the Arabs,
and fries to us boys, not a problem.
Last year, well over two million people visited Northern Ireland.
This is where I'm looking forward to seeing something about the Titanic.
Some wanted to see the sights.
It's a fairly impressive city, isn't it?
-It's very impressive.
Some came to soak up the TV stardust.
That's the father's names...
And some were returning to a place they haven't seen in a lifetime.
Oh, my goodness, I AM home, aren't I?
This is the inside story of Northern Ireland's Bus Wars.
From the tourists who come here...
I've been to some of the other wonders of the world -
it definitely ranks right up there, it was fantastic.
-The clutch is out of it.
..to the parts of the business that nobody else gets to see.
The way the tours are run in Belfast at the moment, it's really a war.
Welcome to Bus Wars.
Nicky, what the hell way have you got this?
Take this arm out.
Some mechanic you are, Nicky!
Right, that's you now. That's it.
-Nicky and I probably have a love/hate relationship.
Some days it goes well, some days it doesn't.
We're looking for a manual, six-speed Volvo gearbox.
Did you check ALL those ones there, Nicky?
I just like scrap, and getting bits you need, and you want bits,
you know what I mean?
Some of the buses are old and you can't get the bits no more, know what I mean?
And you see something, you say, "See, look at that there,
"we've been looking for that." And you can get it, know what I mean?
It's like kids going in a sweet shop, isn't it?
I just like going to the scrapyards. That makes my day.
Great, heaven. If we could only find the box, we'll be all right.
Know what I mean?
We're not having any luck here.
MUSIC: Steptoe And Son Theme
That's one of my old buses, sitting ready for the scrap.
It's a bit sad when you see them like that.
I'd prefer them to be out on the road.
There's something there...
This one got past us.
Obviously a cat's been living on it for a while.
You come out of these scrapyards,
you're just black with dirt and muck and... Oh, terrible
but...you've got this van full of stuff that you just can't buy
any more. So it's very, very satisfying, yeah.
Looks familiar to me.
Well, if the clutch fits, that's the starters. Right?
You understand? That's the push, that's what it is.
-That doesn't matter.
-What happened there?
Well, I've pushed the clutch forward.
That looks good to me.
-I've made a decision,
I think we'll go for it.
It's not in the bus yet, it's not working, but it's a good chance,
a good opportunity.
So we may as well take it. I'm going to go and pay the man now.
This is the hard bit, isn't it?
These days, Benn Allen runs budget coach tours of the north coast,
but four years ago he ran a city centre open-top bus company.
Back then, it was a tough and aggressive industry.
Benn was even convicted of disorderly behaviour after an argument on the street,
and he says he was often on the receiving end, too.
I've been attacked in broad daylight at half nine in the morning on my
own bus. There's been windows broken... Just complete madness.
But Benn's biggest problem was his frequent run-ins with the authorities.
Got a few fines for running extra tours,
but the fines are only about 200 quid,
and that would be maybe for running, like, 30 extra tours,
so it was well worth it. So I just went into court, took the fine,
laughed it off.
Eventually, he was spending more time in courtrooms than on buses,
so four years ago Benn decided to sell his business,
to concentrate on private coach tours of the Giant's Causeway.
I thought it was a good idea really to get out of town for a couple of years,
let things cool down and sort things out.
So that's why I approached the owners of Titanic and City Tours.
Every day, Benn sees his old buses driving around Belfast.
Now, he wants them back.
Looks great, doesn't it?
This would be one of my favourites,
and as you can see it's still in great nick,
and that's what I'd really like to have back myself,
and me run them in the town. I sort of miss it.
We must walk about nine miles a day.
I know. You walk about six of them in and out of the toilet.
You have to be erm...
-No point being shy in this job.
Just drink your water, man.
No, I need to...
Alfie and Owen both used to work for Benn.
Alfie isn't ONE of the best in the town, he's THE best in the town,
He could do the work of, easily, six men.
It was great, because he was on our side.
'Alfie's a very passionate person within the bus tours.'
I told you, there's only one sheriff in this town!
He's very dedicated to this job.
I think he actually takes leaflets home and papers his walls with them.
If you buy a ticket for this,
then you get the Giant's Causeway for 20 quid.
If you haven't done the city tour, then you have to pay 25.
20 quid means £20.
Yeah, yeah, that's OK.
-He knows what quid means!
That's Belfast talk.
He thinks everybody's as stupid as he is.
I'm from Australia. He's right.
Thank you, sir, thank you!
Told you. Alfie, you could learn a thing or two of me, let me tell you.
Are you as stupid as he is? Apologise for your stupidity.
No, no, no, my question is, for 20 quid, you have the entry of...
No, it's £20 - now I'm correcting YOU!
Now you're getting the Belfast lingo!
When Alfie and Owen worked for Benn,
Allen's Tours was seen as a Protestant company.
There's the heat starting now.
But when Benn wanted to sell,
the only potential buyers were a group of Catholic businessmen.
We didn't really care who owned it.
We just didn't like City Sightseeing,
and we'd have went to any company that was going up against them.
Now we're being bought over by...
-someone from the other side of the community.
-Watch what you say!
-Martin, how are you?
-All right, how's it going?
This is Martin Lands - Martin went to school with me,
we grew up together in the Beechmount area, you know?
Former boxer Sean Donnelly, along with brothers Gerard and Paddy Rogan,
run Titanic and City Tours.
It was a Protestant company, and we were a Catholic company.
What I did, I got involved, I went into their offices,
which is on the Sandy Row.
At the start, all those lads thought,
"These guys are from the Falls Road, they're going to let us go."
And Sean showed his hand.
-What are yous having?
-I think I'm going to go for the Ulster.
You want an Ulster fry(?)
I'll have the Ulster fry!
We'll have three Irish fries!
It was near Christmas, and they took us all on, do you know what I mean?
They kept us in a job right up to Christmas...
Even though it was costing them money.
-Look at that!
-No, no, no, no, no, no.
That's right, only the Brits do that.
Thank God YOU said that!
Everybody that starts in our company,
they're told you hang your politics at the door.
There's a hook at the door - hang your politics,
and that's where it stays there. I slag and joke, you know,
it sounds funny, but at the interviews, when I'm interviewing them I slag them, I say,
"Lads, do you play the flute this way or that way?"
laughing, you know? It's all good craic and a good joke.
Doesn't matter to me what colour they are or what religion they are.
They're more than welcome. If they do their job good,
that's what we want. And that's the way it'll stay.
It's great, Gerard, absolutely great.
CHATTER AND LAUGHTER
Break bread, Owen, break bread.
Across the divide!
"You take too much there," he says - look!
First of all, I'll tell you, I'm 51.
Oh, we didn't even get a photo!
Well, you see, you should have been quick.
-All right, all right, give me a sec.
Get that leg up.
Natalie and Zoe are visiting Belfast for a couple of days, after getting
last-minute cheap flights.
It's their first time in Northern Ireland.
I do want to learn about the culture, I think it's so interesting.
I love the Irish people as well, like, they are so laid-back and chilled,
but then they've got that side to them where you wouldn't mess with them as well. So I like the...
Yeah, the Irish people are so cool. And they just want to get a bevvy,
-so it's like, that's what we're here for.
By the way, if you're wondering what the H and the W means at the very top,
that means hello and welcome to Belfast.
It also means Harry and William.
Remember Harry and William? Who are they?
-That's right, well done.
-Yes! We're so smart.
-And so many people believe that these two cranes are named after them two as well.
-Hey, we were so the only ones that got that answer right.
To the left of the bus, you'll see the structure that spans
the river at this point. That's the Lagan tidal barrier weir.
The Lagan has one of the highest...
Not everyone who takes a bus tour is new to Belfast.
My name is Victor Thorn,
and I was a British soldier here in Belfast back in the '70s.
Here I am on a bus,
driving around through Belfast, when back in those days, of course,
I would have either been in an armoured personnel carrier,
or I would have been on the back of a Land Rover holding a rifle.
I joined the British Army when I was 19 years of age.
Within a very short time, I found myself in Northern Ireland, in 1971,
with 2 Para.
When we started popping off out to tour the city,
no real uncomfortable feeling whatsoever.
However, once the fatalities started...
..that's when you realise this is a real situation, you know, and perhaps,
you know, the risk is far greater than I assumed it to be.
The prime interest for me will be West Belfast,
because that's where I spent a lot of my time, obviously,
and to actually go back to that and see how it's changed will be, I think,
to some degree, quite cathartic.
39 years was when I left here as a soldier, back in 1977.
I did have a couple of my old military buddies
say to me before I left, "You be careful."
Vic Thorn has gotten off the bus at the Falls Road.
He's on his way to meet someone who grew up in this area,
just as he was serving in the Parachute Regiment.
He doesn't know quite what kind of reception he's going to get.
Back at Allen's Tours, Benn has had some bad news.
Can you get into the car park, or down the hill or anything?
-She won't move.
-She won't move at all?
Here, Francie, I'll tell you what it is, I have a bus here,
in Ballycastle there, but she won't go up the hill.
I put a new clutch in it there a couple of weeks back
and it's started to slip. I was wondering, would you have a bus there?
You could take them down to the rope bridge first, until I get down to adjust this clutch up.
All right, let's go.
Just browned off.
You get out of bed, it's a normal day, and you say wait a minute,
you've got to go into work, and that's where it changes.
Yeah, you just go with them, we'll see you at the rope bridge.
Just leave the bus there, Benn.
That's it. Mucked up.
-Whose fault is it?
It has to be his. No-one else.
There she is.
Benn has organised for the passengers to be taken on to the next stop.
Now he needs Nicky to get his bus back on the road.
Phwoah! That smells pretty bad.
It definitely was slipping, even. He was right there.
What you want to do, I just want you to put it in top gear and stall it, if it will.
What's the pedal like?
MUSIC: Steptoe And Son Theme
Whilst Nicky gets to work,
Benn has to deliver the replacement bus to his passengers.
If there's a chance of that bus moving, Nicky'll get it to move.
He doesn't like getting tow trucks in.
So, we'll find out maybe by the time I get back down there.
Benn's plan for this summer had been to earn enough cash from his Causeway Tours
to start up once again as an open-top tour bus company in Belfast.
-It's like a wedding!
-I know it is!
What he DOESN'T know, is that his archrivals may be about to beat him to it.
My jaws just won't go any further!
See the way Caroline is? That's perfect. That's good.
Follow my lead. You know?
Caroline and Rodney McComb have just taken delivery of a new bus.
This coach was £100,000.
It's a lot of money for us to invest,
and there really is a lot of pressure on us then to make it work
and make a new product come in and sell really, really well for us.
Their competitors don't know it yet,
but Caroline and Rodney's plan is to start a city tour with their new
convertible bus, where rain or shine, they'll be able to make money...
..potentially taking on the two big city centre companies at their own game.
If it goes the way I think it IS going to go, well,
there might be another one or two brought in.
Do you want to come around here, Rodney, and we'll look at this here?
But that's only part of the plan.
This is definitely the main advertising space, this here.
McComb's want to take the battle for customers off the streets, and into
the more genteel surroundings of Victoria Square Shopping Centre.
Oh, this is definitely the McComb's alternative to street staff.
This is just how we do it.
You know, we always try to go that extra step and that wee bit
higher-end, so for us this is a mile apart from that
so it's great.
We went and had a gorgeous sandwich,
and a scone.
-Do you think the customers are bothered?
No, they seem happy enough.
What the tourists of Northern Ireland want is a really good tour
to see our scenery, to see our lovely country.
They're not actually here for a bus show.
MUSIC: Goji Berry Sunset by Jealous Of The Birds
# Your name fizzes on my tongue
# Oh, your name
# It fizzes on my tongue
# Damn that name... #
It's time to put Nicky's handiwork to the test.
-The clutch is out of it.
What is it? What's happened?
She's just burning out.
She's just burning out.
We should have got it back down here, we shouldn't have gone up the hill.
OK. Jump in, we'll try it.
The bus is finished.
-There's not a lot left in it, Nicky.
-No, burnt out.
For now, Benn and Nicky are going nowhere.
Check out the building on your left-hand side now. It belongs to
Queen's University. It just recently opened.
It's a brand-new building.
-And what's it made out of?
Glass, there you go. What does that say about, you know...
-There's no bombs.
-That's it, no more bombs.
And no more shooting on our streets.
Former soldier Vic Thorn remembers a very different Belfast.
He's got off the bus just off the Falls Road, beside his old barracks.
It was quite, quite interesting to still see there was a link...
..to that time, and just to suddenly, without any real effort,
be able to imagine once more driving through those gates,
back out through those gates, looking at the roofs,
looking at the windows, ever ready...
And then you have St Peter's Cathedral here.
-And of course, I'm sure you remember this particular building.
Ah, the Divis Flats. Of course, yes.
Vic has come to meet the director of Titanic and City Tours,
who grew up in this area whilst Vic was in the Army.
I remember patrolling in the Divis Flats back in the early '70s, and
you would get washing machines, TVs, whatever, thrown out at you.
I didn't live in the flats, so I didn't throw any of the washing machines at you!
-But yeah, you'll see your whole take on it's changed.
-But it's totally different,
because in those days it was very much a very grey, foreboding building.
His take on standing out on the Falls Road,
and remembering about washing machines and TVs...
I never threw anything out the window.
And I told him that. But you could see his mind ticking over.
What were you doing at that time?
In '72, I was about 14.
-14 years of age.
-Ooh! 14 years of age.
So I was sort of a very quiet lad.
-You probably wouldn't have...
-Do you know,
I really have an issue with that. I'm not sure I believe that.
But maybe we met somewhere along the way.
In less friendly circumstances, Victor.
It was easier for me because I'm standing on home ground.
But here was a guy who had served with the British Army here,
in what he probably would have deemed enemy territory.
Standing on the Falls Road...
You could see that he was slightly uptight,
but as we talked and we walked along
you could see him starting to loosen up and enjoying a bit of craic.
Well, you wouldn't have seen too much in the vehicles that you were travelling in at the time.
-No, that's very true.
-Because there was only wee hatches.
And for me to be on the top of a bus going through Belfast
is a new experience.
-And without anybody throwing bricks or bottles at you.
Hello. I take it you're on your break, yeah?
Take it you're on your break.
Well, where are you?
Come into work in the morning at nine o'clock,
and Alfie makes sure you're in cos he rings you.
Ring, ring, ring - that's all you get from nine o'clock in the morning.
Hurry up and get up here, will you?
Right, hurry up.
I'm the top skiver, without a shadow of a doubt.
-They call me the Ghost. Cos they never see me.
It's a pain in the hole sometimes.
Some of the boys still have their old bad habits, like going to the toilet for 20 minutes,
and you're phoning them, and... going to the bookies in their break
when they're not supposed to be in the bookies on their break.
You know. Or taking 45 minutes
and going down to St George's Market to buy crabs.
-Well, Alfie, I like to live the high life, OK?
Seriously, I'll probably just throw the towel in and say,
"I can't work with him no more, driving me mad."
There he's there, look.
Alfie, what's happening?
Thank you. City tours?
City tours today, guys?
-I'm running about here like a headless chicken.
No, you're not. You were in there, going to the toilet,
then you come out for five minutes and you're away...
-Then I disappeared for five minutes.
-I get 30 minutes for my break.
So in between that there, I was 15 minutes... I'm due 15 minutes.
What was your burger this morning at 11 o'clock?
I'm due 15 minutes to go in there and sit down,
-but I'm not going to do it.
-What was your burger?
Because I like it for the company, do know what I mean?
I'm here to work for the company, so I don't want a break.
What was your burger this morning at 11 o'clock?
-That was pre-cooked.
-That was a tea break, was it?
No, that was pre-cooked and pre-ordered.
We just have to try and avoid Alfie and stay out of his way,
but every turn of the corner you take, he seems to be there.
What Alfie doesn't know won't harm him.
Right, is that us?
That's us. Oh, look at that.
This is definitely the life.
Up on the coast, Benn and Nicky are making the best of a bad situation.
Benn is no closer to realising his dream.
But his old rivals are moving up a gear.
Can you hold the bottom of that?
Yeah, that's where this goes.
At Belfast's Victoria Square,
Caroline and Rodney McComb are about to make a big announcement.
I'm glad to have something to do now
to take my mind off it, and this'll put the time in quickly until everybody arrives, so...
Caroline wants everything to be just right,
but she's noticed that her rivals' leaflets are on display.
And I think we'll take all of Sightseeing's literature out and replace it with ours.
Our leaflets were there yesterday.
See if you just pull that cage just in there a bit.
McComb's have been in business for 20 years.
But now their plan to start a high-end open-top bus tour,
and sell tickets in Victoria Square,
could be a game-changer for the industry.
This is a real step up for us.
I think everybody's going to be delighted for us and really excited
that we've decided to expand our business and move into this as well, so, yeah,
I think we're going to get a great reaction from it.
That is gorgeous.
We'll put it up here.
We've got the people we wanted here.
We're just having a ball now, yeah.
-We never stop scheming and planning.
-I know, you're brilliant.
This is the key. This is the key.
We have actually committed to what is now going to be -
you'll see on the board here Belfast Tour Centre...
We will be starting, from this Wednesday,
tours of Belfast three times a day, every day.
-So it is...
Caroline's announcement has opened up a new front in the bus wars.
Look there to your left - we're not able to stop there.
-Don't worry, we're going to stop on the way coming back, love, don't panic. Don't worry.
But out on the streets - peace reigns.
I would say the people are so nice and friendly,
-and the weather's been obviously amazing...
-People are so helpful, like,
-Except from that one guy that wouldn't let us on his bike, but apart from him...
-It's been absolutely fabulous having you.
'Gerard totally personified
'the new attitude that Belfast is all about.'
He has Catholic employees,
he has Protestant employees, who all work together very well
to build a company up.
That's a microcosm of the city.
This is how it SHOULD work.
I almost felt I was home again, for want of a better word,
which is...quite peculiar.
It's been a large part of my life -
Northern Ireland probably helped make me the person I am.
So, see the IRA, that was illegal, yeah? But not really?
MUSIC: Then I Met You by The Proclaimers
# Thought that I'd be happy
# Gonna be so happy
# Living life alone and never sharing anything
# Thought that I was finished
# Thought that I was complete
# Thought that I was whole instead of being half of something... #
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.