"In London, a bike is quicker than a Maserati": how Jeremy Vine dashes from his new TV gig to his Radio 2 show
Radio Times' Michael Hodges hits the streets with the Channel 5 presenter
The studio clock hits 10.30am. Jeremy Vine changes his gold dance shoes for black slip-ons. He leaps up from the bashed-about console at the Channel 5 weekday show that now bears his name, hugs Strictly head judge Shirley Ballas, with whom he’s just danced a foxtrot, shakes hands with the guests – journalist Carole Malone and Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory – then turns to me, mouths “Ready?” and runs for it.
Getting up from the studio audience, I dash after him down the corridors of the ITN building on London’s Gray’s Inn Road, where the show is recorded and where, three weeks ago, he took over what was previously Matthew Wright’s 9.15–11.15am slot, The Wright Stuff.
Vine pre-records the final segment of his TV show, so he has just under half an hour to reach Wogan House in Fitzrovia – BBC radio headquarters – in time for some last-minute preparations for the other show that bears his name. Beginning at 12 noon on Radio 2, it’s two hours of news and current affairs that, with 7.23 million listeners weekly, has a bigger audience, he likes to point out, than Radio 4’s Today. “It’s kind of important we get there on time,” Vine says, as I fall puffing into the lift after him. As the two miles from the ITN studios to Wogan House are near-permanently gridlocked, the only way to get there is on two wheels.
Now, after trial and error – he tried taxis and motorbikes, none of which was quick enough – the Channel 5 team have Vine’s exit down pat. As he hurtles along the corridors, Vine debriefs with the show’s executive producer Liam Hamilton, who has to try to remember everything the two-time Sony award-winning presenter says, as it’s not possible to write anything down at this speed. Vine is now moving pretty much as Craig Revel Horwood described his interpretation of Bobby Darin’s Splish Splash when he was on Strictly in 2015: “like a stork that had been struck by lightning”.
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As we burst into the ITN reception, a waiting assistant hands Vine his foldable bicycle, a swish, brand-new machine, with a waterproof black bag attached to the front. Vine gives me a rapid lesson in unfolding my own (borrowed) foldable bike. I’m slightly panicked now and trap my fingers in the mechanism. Vine, drilled to perfection, has allotted several seconds in his schedule to allow for injured journalists. My finger is removed from the frame.
Hamilton steps onto the pedestrian crossing immediately outside ITN. The traffic stops, Vine mounts his bike and he’s off. I follow, wobbling, along for the ride on the most important bicycle journey in British media. “One more thing,” Vine says to Hamilton, as we pull away into furiously beeping traffic. “My earpiece fell out during the phone-in.”
Much more could have gone wrong with the morning’s show than an earpiece malfunction. Although it’s a success – viewing figures were down to 226,400 under Wright; Vine has already hit 517,000 – things were degenerating into what Vine cheerfully called “general chaos” when I arrived at 6.45am. The show’s director wasn’t there because a tree had fallen across train tracks outside London, Vine had just accidentally drunk caffeinated coffee for the first time in three months, after being obliged to give it up (“I was drinking far, far too much caffeine,” he says), and an assistant producer was delivering bad news: “We can’t find the salsa tape for your dance with Shirley. It’s going to have to be a foxtrot. And I think Shirley is a little nervous about the newspaper review.”
While Vine assured Ballas that she would be great (she was), I discovered that the only men’s loo was locked. A deserted women’s loo nearby was missing a cubicle door, but, after five cups of ITN tea, needs must. I was just past the point of no return when Carole Malone entered. “Don’t worry,” she said. “If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.”
An hour later, live on air, Malone went public and told Vine that she had found me in the ladies’ toilets. “Well,” said Vine, as I cringed on camera, “we did say access all areas.”
The format is unrepentantly tabloid (“Don’t be snooty about tabloid,” Vine says. “It requires great discipline.”) In the 1990s Vine was tipped to be the lead presenter of Newsnight. Does he regret giving that up? “Well I didn’t plan it,” he says. “Life at the BBC has a random quality. I would never have predicted that Jimmy Young would leave his show when he did, that there would be a little crisis and they would have to grab someone who was walking past the building that afternoon – and that would be me.
“Now I think that was a beautiful piece of luck, as radio took me into a mass audience. Much as I love Newsnight, it’s for a very small audience of turbo-charged news consumers. I’m happy where I am.”
Which, right now, is about 20 yards ahead of me. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t keep up with the rangy 53-year-old. I can’t decide if Vine is phenomenally fit or powered by the caffeine he has inadvertently drunk. When he stops at the next red light, Vine begins to wave his arms about. “I signal more than Marcel Marceau,” he says, as I catch up. “You’ll love this stretch. Amazingly, it’s protected cycle way nearly all the way.”
That “nearly” is important. Yesterday, on the same route, a cyclist directly in front of Vine was almost killed by a van driver turning left. Vine, a long-time campaigner for cycle safety, later tweeted a small animation of the incident, but at the time he had words with the driver of the van. “I hope in love rather than in anger,” he says.
“But we were all a bit cross with him.” He stops to show me where the incident happened. “See, a gap in the kerb protecting the cycle lane where a van can just turn in.” He points. “Yes,” I gasp. Glad, simply, to be able to breathe again.
It wasn’t Vine’s first street altercation. On 26 August 2016, 22-year-old motorist Shanique Syrena Pearson took exception to him riding down the middle of a one-way road in west London. She swore at him, he says, tried to grab his bike and made a pistol-ring gesture. When Vine put the video up online, it got nearly 15 million hits. Pearson was found guilty of threatening behaviour. Already serving a suspended sentence, she got nine months in prison.
“I do regret it in a way,” Vine tells me. “But she was being punished, essentially, for 16 previous offences. My case really was the straw that broke the camel’s back and the judge lost patience.” I’m surprised Pearson got close enough to argue with him as, increasingly, the only contact I have with Vine, apart from watching his bottom bob away in the distance, is when we pull up at red lights. After the next halt, we turn into a stretch of one-way street. “Now Michael, come up beside me,” Vine commands in what, I notice, is an increasingly military manner.
“This is where we dominate the road.”
Briefly we ride side by side: anything that wants to get past us will have to go through us – which is how the trouble with Pearson started – then we take a left turn and are beeped at again by black cabs. We’re about halfway at this point. If he were hit by a car, whose insurance policy would cover Vine – the BBC’s (they pay him more than £700,000 a year) or Channel 5’s?
“You know, I’m going to have to check that.” Now we’re in very heavy traffic. I’m frightened. If I were on my own, I’d get off and push for a bit, but Vine weaves through the vans and cabs that threaten to crush him at any moment. We’re not wearing helmets. In my case it’s because I’d borrowed the helmet of a colleague whose head isn’t the same size as mine. Vine isn’t because, he says, he’d “like to start a debate”. The debate I’m worried about is with the wheels of the London bus Vine has just zipped by, but Vine is apparently fearless. Perhaps it’s because he has seen real combat, reporting from the Ethiopian–Eritrean war and the Angolan civil war in his 30s as the BBC’s Africa correspondent. “I don’t like the ‘warfare’ stuff out here,” he says, as the chaos closes around us. “There are a lot of people trying to get to a lot of places and appointments that they’re late for.”
Vine is married to news presenter Rachel Schofield, mother of their two daughters. Doesn’t she worry? “I always say goodbye to my wife in the morning in the manner of a Japanese fighter pilot in 1943. She’s never sure if I’m going to come back. But using a bike in the West End isn’t quite like war reporting yet, people don’t carry rifles. Not telescopic rifles, anyway.” A very narrow gap opens in the traffic. “But this is the good thing about cycling in London,’’ he says, disappearing into the gap. “A bike is quicker than a Maserati!”
There follow five further minutes of desperate chase through central London, in which we negotiate roadworks impinging on cycle paths, parked lorries forcing us out into the stream of oncoming cars and texting pedestrians stepping out into the road. When we arrive at Radio 2, I’m entirely out of puff. Vine, immediately approached by autograph hunters, is completely unruffled. For a brief moment, his bike is untended. I look again at the smart black bag attached to the front and notice a series of blue LED lights running a sequence across the top. And now I understand why I couldn’t keep up with Britain’s speediest popular broadcaster. He’s battery-powered.
Jeremy Vine airs weekdays at 9:15am on Channel 5. Jeremy Vine's radio show starts at 12 noon on Radio 2