In dark times, simplicity wins. Complex ideas and solutions become much too much for most of us to bear, so for succour, it's hard to beat delving into something manual, and mechanical. Better yet, is to let someone who actually knows what they're doing do so for your entertainment, and thus the premise of hit Discovery Channel series Wheeler Dealers was born. Motoring writer and former car dealer Mike Brewer would sally forth to buy an old wreck and associated parts, while back in the garage, TV's most unlikely heart-throb would do all the donkey work.
Edd China was that man, the man with the magic hands (characteristically protected by orange latex gloves), and the seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of every sprocket, grommet, and bolt of whatever wannabe classic was being restored that week. It's the kind of TV that shouldn't work – man buys broken car, other man fixes car, car is sold at the end of the show – but it did. Wheeler Dealers became a massive success and China and Brewer worked together for 13 series.
An early project, and one which brought him to the attention of TV producers, was an idea to create a motorised, road-legal, sofa
Come series 14, though, and China was gone – in a much-publicised fall-out with the show’s producers. Gone from our TV screens (other than the inevitable repeats), right when we need him most, when the simple joys of removing recalcitrant bolts, or getting a respray job just right, would prove most comforting.
Well, thankfully not quite gone. Since leaving Wheeler Dealers, China has become a best-selling author. The hardback edition of his autobiography – Grease Junkie – hit the top of the UK sales charts, and now the paperback is being launched.
Never mind that, though, because as we start our chat, China has just reminded me that he was part of Ireland’s greatest cultural contribution to the world – Father Ted.
“It was into the second series by the time I got there,” China explains. “So I was aware, ever so vaguely of it, but I hadn’t really seen. Nobody really knew at that point that it was going to be the massive cult thing that it became.”
Almost accidentally, China tumbled into creating one of the best known images of the series – the battered Rover. "I just turned up, on spec, to see if I could get a job in the movie industry. I was quite keen on the magic of the whole thing, and quite shocked to find just how jaded so many people were. My first job was just messing around with the Rover, the one that was going to be the raffle prize. I spent the next week hammering the hell out of this old car to get the effect, which was really good fun."
Working in special effects, China never got to tread the hallowed turf of Ted. “This was definitely just getting paid to have a laugh, and obviously as the new boy, you’re going to get the rubbish jobs, but equally people aren’t going to bother you too much about your appearance and so on. The downside was that when everyone got to go off to Craggy Island to film, I and a couple of the other guys got left behind to sort out a couple of last things. One was Jack’s wheelchair, which had to move by itself. They tried all sorts of new-fangled ways to make it go but they were breaking chains and motors and stuff. I told them we needed to look at it more simply and just use something like a starter motor. In the end I think they just pulled it with a rope!”
It's not China's only connection to film special effects – his father-in-law (China and his wife, Imogen, work closely together on all his projects) was the stunt director on The Italian Job. "That amazing line from Michael Caine ['You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off'] was a pure ad lib, because they really were expecting only the doors to blow off. My father-in-law decided, as a laugh, to pack way more explosives into the van than they needed, so it was a proper shock."
While we tend to think of him as a mechanic, China’s degree (from London’s South Bank University) is in engineering product design, and that background led him to start looking at cars and mechanical bits and pieces more as canvas than as parts. An early project, and one which brought him to the attention of TV producers, was an idea to create a motorised, road-legal, sofa.
"I always think of the Jurassic Park thing, where the scientists are too busy thinking about whether they could bring dinosaurs back from the dead that they don't stop to think whether they should. That idea that begins with 'this is something we really shouldn't do, but maybe we could, maybe we can', that's really appealing to me.
“I didn’t even think what I might do with the sofa afterwards, I just wanted to see if I could build a car that looks nothing like a car, but which would still comply with all the rules. We’re quite lucky in the UK in that we have a very definite set of rules that governs whether a car is legal or not, but that also means you can argue the toss with the rule-makers. The guys who run that department were just fantastic. They have the rules, but they genuinely want to help keep this sort of stuff on the road. It was really interesting having conversations with them about bits that stick out that might impale a pedestrian, or myself for that matter, and that’s mostly what they’re worried about.”
Clearly, the prospect of driving around on a sofa was no impediment to a man who spent his university and early working life commuting in a roofless, windscreen-less beach buggy with only flying goggles for protection. A man who, using an old double-decker bus, built himself an ultimate camper van, rather than renting some grotty flat during his studies.
All that spannering, and the slow but steady build up of mechanical knowledge brought China to our screens, where those 13 seasons of Wheeler Dealers set him up as a two-metre tall, walking and talking Haynes manual with a shock of greying hair and those ever-present gloves. Given that we now need such gentle entertainment more than ever, what does he think of the current state of motoring programmes on the telly?
“Well, originally, it was a bit of a leap for the channel [the series first aired in 2003 on Discovery Real Time] which had a knitting show at the time, too. I think what was interesting was the honesty about the show, and the lack of a competition element.”
That is perhaps the crucial point about those early episodes – there was no threat, no element of chasing something. Okay, sure, the idea was always to sell the car on at a profit (famously without accounting for the near-priceless hours of labour that China was putting in) but there was none of the bombast, or the constant search for peril that characterises Wheeler Dealers’ more recent rivals.
“I think by the time we came to series 13, there were 37 other car shows out there, but none of them were showing the detail of the work, showing the transformation. And I think the reason for that is because it’s expensive, and it’s difficult to actually cover that work. You need to spend a lot of time to get all the shots. We tried to be really professional about that, to make it feel as if you were actually there in the garage, and we’d go back and film everything four times, so that we could show it all properly, with proper lighting, and no cameras or sound equipment in shot. And I think that gave us something unique, and our fans something unique. It’s almost as if I became their mate around the corner who fixes cars, you know?” he says.
He’s not wrong: China’s laid-back, calm, trouble-shooting persona became for many like a form of automotive ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). Education with a side-order of soothing. Apparently, the series drew in many viewers, especially younger viewers, with autism, and it’s not hard to see why. You didn’t need to understand the minutiae of how a brake calliper works, or which way round an exhaust flange fits, to appreciate the simple pleasure of watching an expert at work. Intricate manual labour, even by proxy, has a curiously relaxing quality to it.
“I think people want to learn,” says China. “We had quite a high percentage of female viewers too, which I think was to do with empowerment. By which I mean that if you’ve got to take your own car into the workshop or the garage, a lot of people are intimidated by that, and are worried that they’re going to be hoodwinked. But if you have even a bit of knowledge, you feel like you can stand your ground a little more, and I think people appreciated that.”
Certainly, watching the reruns, Wheeler Dealers is at once far more relaxing and satisfying than the more excitable imitators which have since sprung up. China’s calm ministrations with spanners and WD-40 are less bombast, more balm.
What next, then for TV’s favourite Mr Fixit?
"I'm very lucky, in that I kind of get to do what I want, and make what I want. We have a YouTube channel, and so the plan is to do more with that. And some of the more whimsical things, we want to get around to doing. For instance, I want to set a land speed record in the electric ice-cream van that we built some years ago. I've spoken to Guinness World Records about it and they've stipulated that we have to go faster than 70mph, we have to have the stickers advertising the prices of the ice-creams, and we have to have the chimes going. Oh, and we have to actually serve ice-cream before and after each run. I've picked out Benny Hill's Yackety Sax, and Ride of the Valkyries for the chimes, depending on what kind of mood we're in."
He also has plans to try and track down a vintage Bentley, once owned by an uncle, in which he was, as a child, driven at more than 100mph. A sort of closing of the petrol-head ring, but the car is in the US, so just as with the ice-cream van speed record, that will have to wait until the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and we're all allowed out again.
Hopefully it won’t be long before China’s orange-clad hands will once again be soothing us, with spanners, through our screens. Now, more than ever, we need to know that someone is out there, fixing things.
Grease Junkie: A Book of Moving Parts, by Edd China, is published this week in paperback by Virgin Books.