In autumn 2005 I went to Nottingham to work as a staff producer on the BBC’s local ‘Inside Out’ programme. My first assignment was to make a short film with someone called Ray Gosling, apparently an elderly ex-TV presenter living in sheltered housing. I’d never heard of him. The film was to be about public art, mainly statues, in the East Midlands of England. It really did seem like the very shortest straw.
I was to meet Ray in a place called the ‘Hard to Find Cafe’ on the Mansfield Road. Hard to find it certainly was, and as I trudged wearily backwards and forwards in the cold drizzle I found myself wondering what on earth I was doing. I couldn’t have guessed that this was to be the beginning of one of the most significant and memorable episodes of my life.
‘You must be that Tracy’, said Ray, ‘from where? Burton! Ah. Just down the road. C of E? Methodist? Thought so. Cuppa tea? Or red wine?’ I was to find out later that this was a fairly standard line of questioning when Ray met a newcomer. He was a surprisingly compact figure huddled in a scruffy old coat and a clean white shirt that was poised for its great escape. Dreamy blue eyes that stared more into an invisible distance than at what was in front of him. An eccentric, for sure.
It was the beginning of an edifying working relationship. No script, no storyboard, just do it by instinct – exactly how I like it. Real people talking about real things. A shared dislike of the pretentious and the uppity. Spotting the significance and value of the unnoticed, the discarded, the forgotten. Wonderful. A kind of television that is long gone and never to return. Ray was a national treasure.
Eventually I came to see that Ray could only be described as a poet. He was no journalist in today’s sense; he was no celebrity, no ego. He was a complete one-off with an uncanny ability to use language in a way that was entirely his own, to see value in all things, to see the divine where it is least expected – all around us. He never failed to put people entirely at ease, to point them in a direction that they would never have expected to go in; many was the time that an interviewee would remark before leaving on how uplifted they felt, how they’d come to see the world from a much more meaningful perspective. Hard to explain: you just had to be there.
On one of our earliest filming days, we were at the Robin Hood statue in Nottingham and were approached by a gang of jeering lads. The cameraman and I instinctively started to make for the off, but not Ray. He just walked straight up to them and stopped them in their tracks some way away from us. After some loud laughing and abuse, the men quietened down and all we could hear was Ray’s gentle patter. Within a couple of minutes, these tough guys were all standing in a line staring up open mouthed at a nearby rooftop, like children. I walked over just as Ray was saying ‘they’re called griffins. Funny things, carved in the roof up there. They say griffins were nowt, never existed. I think summat like that must have done, though…’ I’ll never forget that moment. It was the moment that confirmed what I knew in my heart; that everyone, whoever they are, is not only hugely valuable, but capable of seeing that which is unseen.
We did a sequel about garden gnomes. Ray thought it was the funniest film he’d ever made. I’d found an old stock plastic gnome in a gardening shop in Norfolk and Ray christened it ‘Little Ray with his Rake’. Little Ray made a cameo appearance at the end of the ‘Statues’ film, only to return with a vengeance, along with a menagerie of some of the weirdest garden adornments imaginable. As well as intensely amusing, it was a fascinating journey deep into the human psyche. It can be surprising, as well as somehow re-assuring, to discover the deep sense many people have of the awe and mystery sitting so close to us in our plastic packaged world.
Our final piece was a tour of local cafes, a chance for Ray to celebrate his mis-spent rock’n’roll youth. He was always very keen to talk about that, and wrote a lot about it in his autobiography. He never seems to have written about his conversion to Roman Catholicism, the journey to the Vatican as a teenager and his calling to the priesthood; quite a story and I have no reason to doubt it. It would have suited him, but Ray was far too much of a free spirit for ‘daft ideas’ like that. He had a huge disdain for the establishment and no real interest in his own personal gain. He would happily share his time with anybody. I’m really grateful to be lucky enough to have shared that time, too.
It was the wrong ending. Ray was finally put to shame by telling one story too many on TV. I have little idea of the details and I don’t want to know, but suffice to say that at that point Ray had become an elderly and vulnerable man. Sadly, it wasn’t long before he died.
He will be hugely missed – and I dearly hope that his legacy will be remembered.