A guy standing beside a Bentley in a quiet residential street in Angel might sound like a potential opening scene for a Richard Curtis-penned flick but instead it was the stage for my first encounter with television presenter Rachael Downie.
As I looked on, wincing as each passing car seemingly got precariously closer to sullying the Continental’s coachwork, I was greeted with a warm “hey, how’re you?” from behind.
It’s strange meeting people after you’ve become familiar with their voice through their broadcasts because it takes a moment or two longer than usual to register that they’re actually talking to you, but that effervescent tone was directed my way.
“Isn’t the car gorgeous” quizzed Rachael rhetorically; as she admired its sculpted flanks and peered inside I took a further sharp intake of breath as another local passed within an inch of the nearside wing.
I suggested we moved it elsewhere before going for a drink and a chat, so after doing the normal thing that Northerners and Southerners do of discussing property prices in our respective areas, I attempted to turn the car around in what seemed to become the narrowest of streets.
It’s a measure of Rachael’s generosity that she didn’t laugh once whilst I performed a 17-point turn between the confines of the Little Angel Theatre’s car park and a skip full of building rubble. I returned the favour by keeping a straight face as we headed off to the local Sainsburys using the as yet unpatented Downie-nav system of arms waving to gesture directions down different streets. One all.
The footballing reference wasn’t lost on Spurs fan Rachael. If you’re familiar with her Twitter timeline you’ll already know that peppering the voiceover and motor sport Tweets are others hashtagging #COYS and celebrating the apparent majesty of Gareth Bale’s footwork. “Weren’t they trying to offload him a few seasons back?” I queried.
“No way,” Rachael quipped, “he’s an amazing player, really good and in the form of his life. I think we’ll struggle to keep hold of him in the summer if he gets a better offer from a big European club.” There was a hint of resignation to the prospect in her voice but by now she was laughing at my attempt to squeeze the Bentley through a narrow car park entrance. 2-1 Downie.
Football remained on the agenda when we sat down for a drink in a nearby pub. “My other half’s been a Spurs fan since he was a boy,” Rachael offers “but I’ve only been one for about six years. As a result, I can feel myself getting worked up when I see people in an Arsenal shirt.” She laughs when I suggest she’d be better off persuading them to start supporting her side as I then explain naming clubs and a few household player names is about as deep as my footballing knowledge goes.
I throw-in a curved ball by asking what she thinks of David Baddiel’s campaign to rid the White Hart Lane stands of the ‘Y’ word. “I think David’s campaign is a brilliant one, really. He’s done so much to use his fame and opportunity to get his voice heard to stamp out anti-Semitism, not just in football. I hear the counter-argument about if the fans use the word it can’t hurt them but the reality is most Spurs fans aren’t Jewish. Perhaps if they had a greater understanding of why it was offensive they’d understand more where David’s coming from. Given the choice, of course I’d prefer not to hear it.”
Rachael’s journey to her current role as a television presenter and voice over artist wasn’t particularly textbook-like in chronology but it nevertheless demonstrates her passion and determination to succeed.
“I’ve been a dancer since I was tiny and whilst I loved it I knew I wanted to do more. I’m chatty and to be honest, a bit nosy too – I love hearing about people, discovering what makes them tick and getting to know them. Everyone is fascinating in some way and I dreamt of a career where I could extract those stories from people.
“So, about 10 years or so ago, a friend was auditioning for one of these interactive gaming channels as a presenter and suggested I had a go too. I’d no presenting experience but I knew that to get a foot in the door, being so frank might not get me the gig. So, I said I’d presented a few shows and I was in – on a sort of reserve presenter list.
“This was great, I thought, because I could watch experts do it and learn from them. Until one night I was the only presenter in and I was straight in front of the camera! It was daunting but I just concentrated on the camera as though it was a person I was having a conversation with – and I loved it.
“From then on I just kept honing my presenting skills and watching what I did played back. I’m my own worst critic and I’m never wholly satisfied with what I’ve done. The day you can sit back and say ‘yeah, I’m at my peak’ is the day you become complacent and stop trying.
“Naturally, some personalities you interview make it really easy for you and are a joy to work with – I’ve interviewed lots of ‘celebrities’ but I think by far the nicest was Drew Barrymore. I think because she’s an A-lister and she knows she doesn’t have to prove anything, she can relax and be herself. It’s not like someone who finds limited fame on a reality TV show and then gets wrapped up in their own hype. She’s a class act.”
From outside, Rachael’s move across to motor sport presenting seems an unlikely one, but there was a sporting link to some of her earlier work which helped. “Formula 1 was always on telly when I was young and like most fans of the sport, Imola had a profound effect on me, making me appreciate the human side of the sport even more.
“I became a sports presenter for a channel that never really got off the ground, covering everything from football to snooker. Snooker’s not a sport that fascinated me particularly, so I worked hard to find angles. Again the human side and the back stories of the players really interested me.”
Rachael’s skills as an interviewer are obvious even though today she was the interviewee. Unwavering eye contact and a lively, conversational demeanour makes her seem interested in everything that’s been said, putting you immediately at ease and subsequently more open. Her ability to make her subject feel vitally important makes her a talented presenter.
“When I had the call to be a pit lane reporter for Britcar, I was over the moon but immediately wondered whether I’d be accepted as a new girl in what’s a close knit community. But it was actually that closeness that made me feel welcome.
“Everyone is so friendly and because it’s nearer the grass roots of the sport, there’s an openness and honesty about the whole show. You see the guys working on a car in the pits and when it blasts past on the next lap the car’s shaking like mad as the driver wrings its neck. And of course the smells are what make it feel even more special – as exciting as motor sport is on TV you can’t replicate the scent of high octane race fuel and hot tyres and brakes. Conveying the sheer drama and excitement of being there into my broadcasts is a challenge I love rising to.”
Embracing social media is something Rachael’s been keen to do a lot more of recently as more people become familiar with her work. “You’re not going to moan about all the Spurs stuff again are you?” she asks.
“Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found the motor sport coverage much more interesting…”
“Well (laughing), there is that too but I’m fascinated with how Twitter can be used as an extension of what I’m doing. And it’s so lovely when people send you a message saying how highly they rate my work or if they’ve enjoyed something I’ve done. And although it sometimes takes me a little while, I always try to reply to everyone who’s taken the time to write to me.
“You know (still laughing), I still have the very first piece of fan mail I was sent?”
“I can understand that,” I reply, “it must be great to receive something like that.”
“It is – it was lovely and very touching. Someone’s gone out of their way to do that for me and it’s an appreciation I don’t lose sight of.”
In spite of being regularly surrounded by fast, expensive cars Rachael’s passion for glam metal doesn’t translate into what she appreciates on the road. “No, apart from the Bentley (more laughing), flashy, expensive cars just don’t really do it for me.
“Out on the track you can see them being pushed to the limit but a Ferrari can’t be much fun just popping to the supermarket for the shopping, can it? Well, unless you enjoy being looked at.
“We’ve got an Audi at the minute but until a few years ago we relied on public transport to get around London. A car does make it easier though, especially to escape the capital at weekends.
“When I’m driving around though, the cars that really pull on the nostalgic strings of my heart are classic Minis and Volkswagen campers. We had a gold Mini when I was growing up and I love the simplicity and compactness of it.
“I’ve only been camping once in my late teens and vowed never to do it again but doing it in a camper van must be different. Plus they’re definitely cooler than most modern vans.”
Two hours, a strawberry smoothie and a Coke in the busy pub passed quickly, so we headed back to the car to find a quiet street for a few photos. I was still keen to know more about what Rachael thought were important qualities for young, would-be presenters to break into the industry. After all, she’s not gone about things in a typical way so she must know what works.
“Three important things? Hmmm, definitely the hours. It’s easy to think that a presenter’s job isn’t time consuming because they might only be in front of the camera for a few minutes. But that’s to ignore any edits, multiple takes, scripting and researching. Plus there might be voiceover tracks to lay in post-production. So be prepared to be working long hours – early starts and late nights are common.
“Whenever you’re at an audition or you’re online, network as much as possible. Twitter’s a great way of making contacts but remember it’s a shop window for yourself so be conscious of how you’re coming across on there. People want to see and read about what you’re up to in an engaging way – frequent spelling mistakes and rudeness don’t inspire confidence. That’s true in any industry of course.
“And look for role models but never copy them. Successful presenters carve their own niche but look at what people who do the job well are good at. You can learn so much every time you watch TV.
“Oh and fourth, gain the respect of your peers. Nothing beats the satisfaction of getting praise for a job you’ve earned on merit and because of the hard background work you’ve put into it. I don’t begrudge people who find success after doing a glamour shoot and going on a wannabe celebrity show, but it’s not me. I’d find no pleasure in being gifted a job like that. Respect satisfies me.
“Can I have a fifth? Be passionate and take every opportunity you can that you feel suits your goals.”
“That’s six,” I suggest.
“Yeah, but they’re a good six!” 3-1 and a victory to the home side.
As my time draws to a close we find a quiet square nearby to take the final pictures. Roof down and with Rachael in the driver’s seat of the Bentley, I prepare to close the shutter, only for progress to be curtailed by a local resident.
The elderly chap is more interested in Rachael than the Continental and quickly decides I’m the hired snapper she’s employed who’s now impatiently tapping his foot waiting for the old guy to finish seeing if he’s still got it. Judging by the fact it took him over five minutes to leave and get in his apartment, I suspect Britcar will have a new viewer this year.
Follow Rachael’s career developments on Twitter as the motor sport season progresses. Just try and filter out all the Spurs ones.
All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2013