Baby You Can Drive My Car: Catching Up With 56Up Cabbie Tony Walker

September 30, 2013

British television maven Deborah Gilbert writes Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora, THIRTEEN’s blog about Downton Abbey and other British television programs. She interviewed Tony Walker, who is featured in 56Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s ongoing documentary film series following up with the same group of Brits every seven years since the 1960s. The POV series will feature 56Up, which airs on THIRTEEN Monday, Oct. 14 at 10pm. Watch a preview.

Imagine what it must be like to be an ordinary person and yet have your whole life documented on film – and not just film as in your family home movies, but film as in a documentary series that has riveted your nation since you were too young to even understand what it meant. Every triumph, every failure, good times and bad haircuts, embarrassing questions and youthful growing pains are all immortalized and looking back at you across the years – every seven years to be exact, when Great Britain (and much of the world) sits down in front of the telly to check in on you. Tony Walker has lived this unique experience since 1964, when he was first chosen to participate in what was then called 7Up.

The simplicity of the series’ concept and the innocent earnestness with which Tony and all the other children answered the personal questions about their lives and dreams made for a TV sensation. To watch it, it seems like this documentary series could not have been cast more perfectly. For some viewers the Up Series is soap-like entertainment, and for others it is the stuff of serious anthropological study. People often talk about PBS’s An American Family as the first reality show, but the kids of 7Up had the Loud family beat by almost ten years. And while some of the other Up Series participants have voiced some mixed feelings about being a subject of such attention, Tony seems to revel in it. How would it make you feel to be a participant in something like this over the course of your life? I’ve been thinking about this myself; thinking about where I was in my life at those same seven year markers, when a film crew would have turned up with questions demanding of reflection. Sometimes I would have wanted them there and sometimes I would have wanted to run a mile!

I first met Tony about 7 years ago (funnily enough) at an event here in New York. At the time, I hadn’t actually heard of the Up Series, or him, but as a massive fan of the British drama EastEnders (Wednesday nights at 10PM on WLIW), I am always very interested to meet anyone born within the sound of Bow Bells, and Tony had been an extra on EastEnders to boot! We mostly chatted about that, and the EastEnders newsletter I publish, as well as his adventures in his cab. As a London cabbie, it seems like just about everyone who is anyone has been in his cab – he has a laundry list! He is a very funny and charming raconteur and it was fun listening to all his stories in that Cockney voice. When I had to say goodbye he said to me, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you, please let me know.” As I’ve come to learn, that’s Tony. How many people do you meet who say something like that to a virtual stranger? He is incredibly generous of spirit, and since he offered, I asked if he would write a few bits for the newsletter about picking up various Eastenders actors in his cab (he’s had most of them, one of the funniest stories being when he picked up Patsy Palmer while driving around delivering Valentine’s Day roses). He did write those bits, and we started referring to him as ‘Our Favorite London Cabbie’, and subsequently several of my readers have hired Tony to give them the grand tour when they’ve been in London and have all had a smashing good time.

Over the past seven years we have kept in touch. We met up again when he and his lovely wife Debbie, also a London cabbie were visiting New York and we EastEnders fans used the occasion to throw a big brunch in his honor. And this past March, when I was finally able to get past my fear of flying and get on a plane to London (for the first time!), on my list of things to do was take a ride in Tony’s cab. I did, and I wrote about it in my Dispatch From the Downton Abbey Diaspora column here. I highly recommend to anyone visiting Old Blighty that you hire Tony to drive you around London! He is an amazing tour guide of his hometown, as well as a lovely bloke, and last week he sat down to answer a few questions for us:

Deborah: Do you have any memory of the first filming when you were 7 years old?

Tony: Yes, I do. I remember being asked to go up to my house which, I’m not saying I was ashamed, but it was a very deprived time and I was embarrassed that they would come up to even see my house, let alone to film. I hid under the bed because I so was ashamed of my girlfriend at the time, Michelle, coming up. And they got me out and filmed me and interviewed me in my house, but that wasn’t used. Then on a Saturday morning they took us all to the zoo and it was then that all the kids got together and we all met for the first time. And after the zoo they took us to an adventure playground, and from the adventure playground they took us into a lovely, big, big shed and we had a party and all the records, the Beatles and all the music of the time was playing. It was a fantastic time for kids to just get involved and to mix and mingle with everyone. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Deborah: Do you remember when the film came out; was it on TV or in the theaters?

Tony: It was definitely on TV. It was on The World in Action, and I can still remember a young kid called Danny Sullivan, as I came out my house, he shouted at me, “Tony! Tony! I saw you on the telly last night! I saw you on the telly last night!” It was a big thing then, and I didn’t realize. I saw it, of course, but it was just matter of fact to me. But when I went in to school it seemed to become the talk of the whole school and it was, for me, like being the center of attention, and I’ve enhanced that ever since. (laughs)

Deborah: Do you know why you were chosen?

Tony: Yes, I should imagine because I was right at the end of the scale. My Mum and Dad had no money. I was a scruffy kid, a street urchin, a Charles Dickens Artful Dodger type of kid. Plus I was good for a snotty-nose kid; I was good for a one-liner, and I spoke from the top of my head and my heart and I was a fireball, meaning I had a lot of energy. They’d just asked the three wise men, from the [upper] end of the social scale, what their ambitions were and that’s when they got the other end of the scale, myself. It was a parody really to see who would achieve the most in their lives. But as a kid you don’t even think about that because I never knew what it was about then.

Deborah: When you know another 7 year milestone is coming up, do you ever feel any pressure to make sure you have done something or have something to say?

Tony: Never, never, never. I’ve been asked this question many times, and as you can see in 42Up, I was talking about my marriage. It was going through a certain bit of strain at the time, with my indiscretion and what was going on. No, whatever comes along at that particular time, I just show in truth. I don’t try to be a movie star because I know that the cameras are coming. I don’t try to have, say, a beautiful cab so they can see that, or a beautiful house; whatever is there as I’m living my life as normal, in truth, is what happens. It could be a grandchild being born; it could be my daughter being born, any happiness or despair showing a glimpse of what’s happening at the time in the 7 year cycle.

Deborah: When it’s time to watch a new installment, how do you feel about sitting down to watch it?

Tony: I make a plan with myself to watch it once in the projection room with all the other participants, and after that I only watch it on my own. Why I watch it on my own is because my Mum and Dad’s voices and faces are forefront of that program, and they’re in my heart – as well as, now, my kids, and watching them grow up. I’d give my whole world to make my Mum and Dad proud of me, which I did when I became an apprentice jockey. As time goes on you realize that, and how proud my Mum and Dad felt of me becoming a jockey. I remember walking out in the Parade Ring at Kempton Park races and it was the proudest day of my life, to give them something back. I get so sentimental and I get so weepy eyed that I tend not to watch it with anybody else other than myself.

Deborah: Have you ever felt, afterwards, that you’ve been too open or said anything you regret?

Tony: No, because it’s a documentary of my life good or bad. You know, we all might try to say things or try to enhance it or we might say things that put a dampener on things, but at the end of the day I’ve always thought to myself, how would I look upon that? Would I see any cracks or any sort-of mendacity or insincerity in an interview, which I have in pop stars and film actors and politicians and the like. You can see certain cracks. So I thought to myself, there’s no way I would be in that position because people are not silly. Sociologists analyze this. Young school kids use it as a documentation or school lesson, and they grow up with it. New generations come after that. So win or lose, good or bad, I’ve aways told what I would consider to be the truth.

Deborah: Has it created opportunities for you?

Tony: Not really. A few ladies sent me emails saying they named their sons after me because at that time they had a baby. That’s the only thing that’s ever happened to me. But opportunities, as far as casting; when I go on an audition they are aware of it but it’s never given me any leg up. I’ve never, ever had this give me any advantageous enhancement throughout my life. It’s just been there and I wouldn’t want it any other way really because I’m not made like that. If I’m the man for that job I should say I get it on my own merits. I wouldn’t want a leg up anyway.

Deborah: What is the most fun thing that has happened to you because of the series?

Tony: Meeting people all around the world. Going to Australia and going to a cricket match and people asking me for my autograph in front of the cricket team, as well as being involved in the film industry now, when an actor would come up to me and ask me for my autograph. Recently I was in California and I was at the Westfield Shopping Center with my wife Debbie, and a guy came running up to me and was talking to me and said how I changed his life and how I inspired him. And I was talking to his wife in Wisconsin on the telephone, believe it or not, from Westfield Shopping Center in California. These are the type of things that happen, silly as they may seem. No matter what country I go to. And when I pick people up in my taxi now and they recognize me and my voice, because I’ve got a very distinct Cockney voice and they recognize me from my voice as well as my face, and they say to their family, “have a guess who picked me up in my taxi” instead of me, as a cabbie, saying “have a guess who I had in the back of my cab”. So I’ve become quite a celebrity in London. It’s made me a celebrity with worldwide recognition and I’m very proud of that because it shows my character shone through at the end of the day.

Deborah: How often do your cab fares recognize you?

Tony: Everyday, and I do like it and am very gracious, and I talk about it all the time, to the last nitty gritty subject on the program. The best one, the way I see it, was when I was at Victoria Station, on the taxi rank waiting for a fare and I’m outside my cab reading a paper, the horse racing page – I was a jockey so I love that page. And there were about 30 children, all young girls about 13 to 14 just finishing school, and consequently one of the girls recognized me and I was surrounded by 30 girls all asking for my autograph because about a half hour previous they just started studying the Up series and were writing about certain subjects. And I had three girls writing about me, asking me all these questions and they’re showing me their pieces, what they’d wrote about me, and I’m having a half hour chat with them: The whole classroom, doing a sociology class. There I am waiting, completely innocently, for a taxi fare and now I’m surrounded by 30 girls asking me what I think of the world politics, and babies and marriage, and other kids on the program, and how did you get picked from the beginning of it all – all these lovely questions and answers, and realizing the next day they’re going to be writing about meeting me on the taxi rank, which is only five minutes away from their school. That was a funny coincidence.

Deborah: Do you feel a connection with the others? Do you ever get together with any of the other 7Up subjects in-between the 7 year milestones?

Tony: Well, surprisingly enough, completely randomly I did pick up Lynn, one of the East End girls, in my taxi. And I did pick up John Brisby from Heathrow Airport. He came back from Bulgaria and I was waiting for a fare, and coincidentally it happened to be he was my fare. And I also picked up Neil, the young man who was living up in Scotland at the time, and I took him round my house and we had a lovely cup of tea and a sandwich together, until the children came round and he felt it was time to go. It was fantastic. And I’ve met Michael Apted on various occasions. I was going to get a Starbucks one day and I go in and there’s Michael sitting down having a cup of coffee with a friend. And I also, about two years later, went to use the john in the Anthenia Hotel cause I got caught short, and I go into the hotel and there’s Michael sitting down interviewing an actress, with another colleague, about a film part. I couldn’t believe he was there. Then the cameraman George Jesse Turner; I’m in a barbers one day where I live in Woodford, and as I’m having a haircut George walks by with his son and I jumped out of the hair dressers halfway through my haircut with the towel still wrapped around me, shouting ‘George! George! What are you doing here?’ We’re 20 miles out of London. He said my son lives here, and it turns out his son only lives on the next street from me. I cannot believe that. These are the type of things that happen. It’s brought us all together in a funny sort of way.

Deborah: One of the kids who stands out for me is the little posh boy who said that one of his dreams was to get to see his Daddy.

Tony: That was Bruce the mathematician and let me tell you about him. He came from Oxford and he wanted to see his Dad who was a thousand miles away in South Africa. Bruce, very, lovely, lovely man. He’s married now, he’s got two young boys and plays a lot of cricket and his wife’s a school teacher. But when he moved to the East End of London my Auntie, coincidentally, used to do his washing. When he passed Oxford he came to teach in the East End and coincidentally he taught in my old school, in my old classroom. When he moved in the area, he went in the local laundry and lady working in the laundry was conveniently my Auntie. And my Auntie used to wash all his washing for him, and iron it. He’d come in one week and give her the dirties, come back and pick up the clean wash and drop off the dirties again. It’s funny, coincidences like that. You couldn’t make it up even if you planned it.

Deborah: Do you feel the films have been an accurate picture of you and your life?

Tony: With me? I can only speak on my behalf, it’s a microscope copy of me. As I said before, I wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s no mendacity or any insincerity. What you see is what you get. I’m like a complete diamond plucked from South African diamond mine; I am an original. And I don’t mean it conceitedly, and I don’t mean it big-headedly. I’m just trying to say that as an East End boy, which I am, proud to be a Cockney, proud to be an East London boy, an EastEnder – and I feel that they couldn’t really have gotten a better spokesman for the East End because my passion overrides my whole demeanor of what the East End is and what an EastEnder should be. And I am really a typical EastEnder, no less than anyone else. I am a complete and utter proud EastEnder and Cockney through and through. I epitomize my generation of what an EastEnder is, and how an EastEnder would be portrayed. Whether it’s my voice, my Cockney accent, attitude, things like that; the values and everything epitomizes what an EastEnder should be, and I am that.

Deborah: Is that important to you, to represent?

Tony: Absolutely! It is very, very important. It’s one of the standard bearers of why I go on it, to represent the East End to the best of my ability, to show my generation and how it was; the values we were taught and even the pop stars and fashion at the time, Twiggy, Mary Quant, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, all that era, of how we all began and how character is formulated. Most of all, how much respect is given to other people of the generation that we were born in, so all those values go on for other generations. It’s good yardstick to see where we are today in the world. So I’m very proud with what we have to offer, and I’m very proud on my own behalf, of how I’ve portrayed that form of respectability to other people.

Deborah: To me, one of the interesting aspects of watching how all the lives have unfolded is, it seems that those who started out in more posh circumstances have had seemingly less happy lives over the long haul, or just had a harder time finding happiness, whereas those who started out in lesser circumstances have had happier lives and families. That’s the way it looks to me, I don’t know if that’s true.

Tony: Well, there’s two ways I see that; is being happy, rich? It’s being unhappy when you’re rich or very, very happy when you’re poor. Trust me, I could be happy rich and I could be happy poor as well because my characteristics overwhelmingly over-ride any deprivation. I’ve known no different, you see, as a kid. I’ve always been strapped. I’ve always been skint, always no money compared with what other people had. I’ve always been climbing that ladder when other people in the social world have already been born on the second rung from the top. So where it’s been a struggle I wouldn’t have changed that for the world because the education, the people, the sincerity, the greatness of my life has been fulfilled and it’s been added to. The people I’ve met in my taxi have been such a joy for me, I could write books and books and books of the people I’ve met. From a tramp in the street to a judge who gives out sentences every day, or someone from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale, whoever they are I’ve mixed with them all. And the greatest societies, from Americans, Chinese, Australians, all nationalities of the worlds’ cultures, I’ve mixed with them for 33 years driving a London taxi. As you experienced one evening when I took you to the cab shelter and when I took you all around London, that is the hotbed of what life is all about. Now you have got it fresh in your memory sitting in the front of my cab and me talking with the punters, and me just showing you what it’s all about, meeting people. So you know me and I like to feel I shone out to you and it’s what you take back to America so you can say, that’s him. You can say, he’s a cheeky little sod, that’s exactly how he is. If you were the Queen of England or if you were a normal person like we all are, I wouldn’t change for the world.

Deborah: It have to tell you that I told my friend Fran that I was going to be interviewing you and asked her if she’d ever seen the Up series, and she said yes, she is huge fan and she absolutely loves you, and she said “You MUST promise me that you will tell Tony that I think about him and his wife and their children and grandchildren all the time — and that I even pray for them! Promise me that you will tell him that I think he is a fine man and a GREAT husband, dad and granddad.”

Tony: Well, can you give her some other good news, that my daughter just had a baby boy, just born last week, she now has three, and his name is Arthur.

Deborah: Congratulations!

Tony: Thank you very much! And will you give Fran my love and tell her that I will certainly go to church this week and I will say a prayer for her, thanking her for what she has done for me and my family. I will certainly do that for her as well. Please thank her personally and when I get to go to New York I promise I will give her a lovely kiss on the cheek and say what she means to me, as a fan as well as a person who takes time out to say a prayer for my family.

Deborah: Looking back, how does it make you feel to have been a part of the series?

Tony: Very proud. I’m probably one of the most proud participants of that documentary, without question. I know the importance of film. I know the importance of documentary through the letters and emails I get and the inspiration I’ve given other people – and I’m just a humble cabbie. It’s a bigger picture because it’s visual rather than a book. They can see it happening and they can see a character blossoming. People love documentaries but where this is a generational thing, every 7 year cycle, a new generation goes into study, a new generation becomes students, a new generation becomes housewives as well as husbands, everyone is moving up a step every 7 years, and a lot of life is lived in that particular time. They can identify with certain subjects on that program. Whether you’re good, bad or whatever, you can always change. Whether you’re successful or you’re not successful. I wouldn’t say I’m successful financially in any way shape or form but to announce me with my great family that I’ve got, with the great, great wife I’ve got, I’m happy in other ways and I’m successful in that. So it’s not all about financial gain, it’s not all about successful jobs; it’s about being a man first, being a father and most of all being a loving husband towards all your family – and being a granddad which I now am six times over. So I value that more. If I can do it, everyone can do it, because I was born with nothing in my pocket and I achieved everything in my lifetime. It’s fantastic inspiration, and I’m glad I’m in the position because I do ring the bell for the underdog. I do ring the bell for the people who feel that they can’t do it, when I say yes you can. As President Obama said in his presidential campaign, yes you can! And that’s what I would say.

Deborah: Anything else you’d like to say to the people reading this and are going to be watching 56Up on PBS?

Tony: Just emphasize that I go to America quite a lot; New York is, for me, one of the loveliest cities in the whole wide world. I can’t wait to get back to New York to see friends who I’ve met and fans I’ve met and most of all, I can’t wait to come back to America because of the American people. I’ve been overwhelmed with their love and generosity and most of all their lovely warmth that they have given me throughout the series of this film, and I’d just like you know that. Please let them know. I’ve got a family now in the Big Apple without knowing it. These are the tentacles, and how far they reach just from that film. These are the wonderful people I meet, and for me to be a part of it is an absolute pleasure.

So maybe Tony is, as he says, a cheeky little sod, but I’d say another Cockney expression describes him as well, if not better; he’s what they’d call a Diamond Geezer! Catch up with Tony and all the kids when 56Up premiers on POV, October 14.