In 1978 Fred Dibnah was commissioned to repair the clock tower at Bolton’s Town Hall. His casual attitude, even when suspended from a rickety bosun’s chair high above the ground, caught the attention of the BBC’s local news programme, Look North West. Dibnah’s down-to-earth attitude meant that he was an excellent subject for a one-off documentary broadcast in 1979, Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack. This then led to the seven part series Fred, broadcast in 1982. Both are included on this DVD.
Easily the most famous part of Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack is the moment when he has to run fairly sharpish to avoid being crushed by a chimney which he’d just detonated. His immediate response of “d’you like that?” was a classic television moment and it’s no surprise that it was later used on the opening credits of every episode of Fred.
Both the one-off documentary (which won a BAFTA in 1979) and the series follow a similar path. They show Fred both at work and off-duty (where he’s often to be found tinkering in his shed). Wherever he’s working – up chimneys, church steeples, etc – the pictures are enlivened by Fred’s pre-recorded musings on a variety of topics. Nobody could ever have called him profound, but his thoughts on life and religion have a rugged honesty about them. Fred might have already been something of a celebrity by the time Fred was made (the third episode sees him as a guest of honour at a shop opening) but he still seems to take everything in his stride.
Fred’s all-consuming passion for his steam engine (which he spent more than a decade restoring) is gently suggested as putting something of a strain on his marriage. After all, he seemed to spend more time in the shed with it than he did with his wife and children. There’s also a later scene, which could possibly have been staged for the cameras, showing Fred merrily driving the steam engine very slowly down the road, whilst his wife and children stoically sit on the back! But when you know that Alison, his first wife, let him in 1985 because she felt neglected, it does tend to make you view certain moments in a different way.
With series like these, it’s always interesting to ponder just how much we see is truthful and how much is the way it is just because there were cameras rolling. Certain moments, such as when Fred decides to buy a new engine, do seem a little forced – mainly because the other person in the frame with Fred doesn’t seem as comfortable in front of the camera as he is.
But the public Fred probably wasn’t terribly different from the private Fred and this could be the reason why he was such a hit with the public. Although he made many later series, for me this one is the most compelling. With Deryck Guyler’s unmistakable tones as narrator, Fred is a pleasure from beginning to end. Whether he’s musing about how he feels undressed without his cap or hoping that heaven will be stocked with steam engines, there’s plenty to enjoy. And if Fred’s rough-hewn philosopy doesn’t entertain, then you can simply sit back and enjoy some of the remarkable photograpy as he scales some incredibly high constructions with a highly casual air.
Disc one contains the first four episodes of Fred, whilst disc two has the final three, plus the 1979 Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack. Some sources say that Fred was an eight part series, although since the eighth episode listed by the likes of IMDB (A Disappearing World – not included in this set) was broadcast some six months after the rest of Fred, it’s actually a one-off and not part of the series, hence its non-inclusion here.
Fred is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of May 2016. RRP £24.99.