‘I wish Simon had survived’: BBC reporter on the attack that killed Irish cameraman

TV review: Frank Gardner on the trauma of the life-changing injury he suffered in the shooting that killed Simon Cumbers

 

“I wish we hadn’t gone on that trip,” says BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner early in Being Frank : The Frank Gardner Story (BBC Two, Thursday). “And I wish Simon had survived more than anything.”

Simon Cumbers was a BBC news cameraman from Navan who died in a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia in June 2004. He and Gardner had gone to the As-Suwaidi district of Riyadh, an area known for harbouring Al Qaeda sympathisers. As they were preparing to film, gunmen jumped from a van and opened fire. Cumbers (36) died at the scene; Gardner crawled a short distance, but the attackers caught up and riddled him with bullets.

Gardner was left with spinal injures that mean he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. In Being Frank, he reflected on the ambush and where he is at personally and professionally today.

Simon Cumbers who was shot dead in Saudi Arabia in June 2004
Simon Cumbers who was shot dead in Saudi Arabia in June 2004

It’s a fascinating look at life with disability and Gardner is honest about the challenges and also about the failure of his marriage of 22 years. But there isn’t a huge amount of emotion on display: Gardner, educated at Marlborough College and a former second lieutenant in the Royal Green Jackets, is the British stiff upper lip personified. Circumstances have conspired to deal him an unfavourable hand. He’s just getting on with it.

There are interviews with other individuals living with spinal injury and determined to achieve all that they can. And yet, as the documentary goes along, it becomes, rather oddly, less about the difficulties of negotiating a high-flying career in a wheelchair – Gardner is still one of the BBC’s top reporters – and more a rumination on growing old.

Gardner is 59 now and, as he says, has grown apart from his wife, Amanda Pearson. She was the driving force in his battle to regain his health after the attack. But now he has a new girlfriend, weather presenter Elizabeth Rizzini. As he faces into his sixties, he is also processing a growing sense of his mortality.

Rizzini thinks he’s “devastatingly handsome”. He, however, frets about the ageing process and whether it will exacerbate his disabilities. It’s always a novelty to see someone speak frankly about the onset of old age. And yet there are limits as to how fascinating a BBC reporter in his late middle years is going to be. Being Frank could have done with more about the other wheelchair users – and perhaps a little more about Simon Cumbers, too.

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