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Murdoch could have “media power unheard of in British history”

As the News Corporation takeover of BSkyB hangs in the balance, Joan Bakewell grills Mark Thompson,

I have known Mark Thompson since the mid- 1980s: he was one of a crop of bright young producers and presenters working on BBC2's Newsnight, for which I was the arts correspondent. They were a clever generation and many went on to have important roles in and out of the BBC: Mark Damazer, Mark Urban, Jana Bennett, Gavin Esler. Mark, however, was the one who most consistently put items about the arts in his editions of Newsnight. Whenever he was the producer of the day, he would come to my desk in search of a story, eager to report on the whole spectrum of the arts and their importance in the culture of the country. I was delighted. The arts usually have a rough time when it comes to current affairs, falling off the day's agenda and being dropped at the last minute as heavier news stories break.

Mark was as interested in ideas as events, and remains so. Later, as controller of BBC2, he invited me to make a series of programmes called My Generation. He was prompted by a book called Our Age by Noel Annan, which profiled his generation - the world of Bloomsbury, King's College, Cambridge, and beyond. Again, I was pleased. My series charted the outlook of those of us who grew up during the war and came to inherit the enlightenment agenda that nourished the postwar welfare state. My generation - now in our seventies - still stands by the vision we had of what society should be. A strong and independent BBC was part of that vision. Since then, Mark's path and mine have crossed infrequently but always congenially.
Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell I'll sock it to you right from the start. How many people from the BBC went to Glastonbury this year?
Mark Thompson I've no idea. We can find out.
JB I ask because it must be an annual assessment made by the Daily Mail.
MT If a rigger arrives a week early with a bit of scaffolding, they count that as one person. But there's no hospitality. I enjoy Glastonbury from the comfort of my sofa. (The family was divided - a Beyoncé audience downstairs and my elder son and I watching Queens of the Stone Age upstairs.) In the British press, the BBC sending a few hundred people to the Beijing Olympics was a national scandal. We sent about a tenth of the number sent by NBC, the US broadcaster. We're known internationally for the small numbers of people we send, but in a newspaper 100 sounds like a lot, in the way £7m for taxis does. It depends on the context. We should make sure we're doing these things with as few people as we can and I think we do.
JB People like a story that plays against the BBC.
MT Some newspapers certainly do. Ironically, if you ask the readers of the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Times what they think about the BBC, they are among its strongest supporters. They give the BBC high marks for value for money and the quality of its services and they support the licence fee, so there's no correlation between the attitudes of these readers to the BBC and the editorial line of the papers.
JB There's a parallel with the National Health Service. Everybody loves the NHS but we're living through a time in which it is being deconstructed.
MT You can say that. I couldn't comment.
JB It's as though the large institutions are up for analysis, for criticism.
MT Many British institutions are experiencing a measurable loss in public confidence and support. It's not detectable in public attitudes to the BBC but the papers want you to believe that there's exactly such a loss of support.
JB What about government support?
MT I'll come to that. The BBC is almost unique - the NHS is, too - as an institution that has strong public support. To its critics among the print media, the BBC is a rival with an unfair advantage: public funding. To the public, the BBC is a provider of quality services that are available to everyone; in a time of national austerity, [this] is important. The BBC is more essential in terms of the provision of news than it used to be, because, although there's a multiplicity of sources of news, many of the other historically strong sources are much weaker. Something like 85 per cent of the UK population use the BBC's news every week.
JB But over the horizon comes the new deal with BSkyB and the [government's] decision about Rupert Murdoch's bid to take over the whole of BSkyB. Sky News is to be hived off under a non-executive chairman and some of the board are going to be non-executive for a period of only ten years. This has shifted the landscape for you, hasn't it?
MT Across Europe, we've seen the consolidation of commercial media. A pattern in many European countries is that there is only room for one major pay-television operator. If you are that operator, the amount of cash that's potentially thrown off by the business is colossal. In the UK, you have a pay-TV operator experiencing exactly this. Because of commercial decisions taken ten or 20 years ago, BSkyB is in
an utterly commanding position and will have far more money than the BBC or any other media player in the UK to spend on content.
JB What do you think of that?
MT We're talking about a concentration of media power in the UK that's unheard of in British history and unheard of anywhere else in Europe. The combination of that kind of power with ownership of a significant part of the newspapers people read, as well as an internet service provider - this is extraordinary power. In the end, it's for the competition authorities . . .
JB Did you press for it to be referred to the competition authorities?
MT Last autumn, I rather famously co-signed a letter saying that the proposal of News Corporation to buy the remaining balance of the shares should be referred to the competition authorities. I also made the case in Edinburgh in the MacTaggart Lecture last year.
JB So what do you make of this settlement?
MT I don't want to say any more. It's unusual for me to want to do anything other than cover these stories in an impartial and objective way. Given the shape of what's happening - the relative decline of other sources of electronic news, the funding security of ITN, the ability of commercial radio to fund news, the difficulty newspapers are having in funding newsgathering - it is going to be more, not less, important that the BBC has sufficient resources to be able universally to deliver high-quality, strictly impartial news to the British public.
JB You've never faced such a big beast, have you?
MT The concentration of media power doesn't have to be a problem. The issue is whether governments and competition authorities look at the environment and continue to look at it.
JB Do you think they'll buy your talent?
MT The BBC historically has had far less money to spend on its services than other players around the world. We remain the biggest and most trusted international news provider in the world, not because we've got more money but because we've got a reputation. It's going to be tougher after last year's Spending Review (SR) settlement, but we do have the resources to deliver outstanding journalism.
JB But they can still buy your talent.
MT For decades, we've seen a steady stream of people who've grown up at the BBC going off to ITV. To some extent, that's the system working - one of the reasons you might want a BBC is as a nursery slope for talent.
JB Would you work for Murdoch?
MT (Laughs) I'm fully, fully engaged doing what I'm doing at the moment.
JB It's not a "no"?
MT I wouldn't regard it as a "yes", either. It's important to look at the shape and balance of our media sector, rather than trying to demonise anyone. I believe that BSkyB, in many ways, has been a positive force. It's good to see somebody else investing in British talent and that, alongside the BBC, you've got Sky Arts. But it's important that everyone realises that Sky Arts is a service for those who already know they like the arts. When we put the Proms on BBC television, we can get, not counting the last night, between ten and 12 million people to sample them. We take the arts and share them with an entire population. We're doing something very different from Sky. There's room for both.
JB The World Service suffered cuts recently. [The BBC has] a new chairman in Chris Patten, who I suspect made representations to government and got some of that rescinded. On the other hand, the World Service will be brought into the BBC's budget. I'm worried. The BBC won't ring-fence that money and there's a risk that the corporation will leach it away.
MT You say that the BBC "won't ring-fence" it, but once it's paid for by the licence fee, I expect to increase the funding of the World Service, not diminish it. I'm sure that increase will last to the end of the present charter period. I don't know how much I can increase it; I'll need to propose this to the BBC Trust.
JB The financing could have stayed with the Foreign Office, couldn't it?
MT It could. But one of the lessons I was beginning to draw last summer from conversations with the government concerning the SR was that the World Service's funding would be safer in the hands of the BBC than in the context of these once-every-three-years SRs.
JB Let's speak about local news. At one point, BBC Oxford News was going to be cut. Then you got a letter from David Cameron . . .
MT I had a nice letter from David Cameron [about this], which I replied to with another nice letter.
JB So there was a charming collusion here between two people who live in Oxford.
MT First, let's pull back a bit. We're in the middle of an open debate inside the BBC about its future. One idea was whether you could merge local radio with Radio 5 Live or reduce local radio in some way. Although local radio is relatively cheap to run, when you run 40 radio stations in England, you have to multiply the cost. The point of local radio is that if it's not local, it's not doing its job. It's reasonable for people to have a debate about merging or shutting local radio but that's not the way forward for the BBC. There's a number of people, particularly older people, for whom local radio is the main or only form of BBC radio they consume.
JB But wasn't it rather strange to get a letter from the Prime Minister about local radio?
MT If you want to pursue it, you must talk to him about it. I've had a number of letters from MPs raising concerns that have been put to them by their constituents about these rumours. The terms of the Prime Minister's letter were those raised by his constituents.
JB Did you write as emollient a letter back to each of those MPs?
MT I've written in similar, even identical terms to other MPs.
JB You've got a new chairman, a strong character, who is taking an interest in the World Service and the pay scales in the BBC. A lot of people would agree that flak has come the way of the BBC because of management salaries. That's undeniable, people have got it in for you. There's a paradox: those who are paid high salaries are often in high-risk jobs, so the salaries are a compensation for that risk - but BBC jobs are for life, with good pensions.
MT Have you looked at actuarial tables for BBC directors general in terms of high-risk jobs?
JB They go on to better things, perhaps.
MT Give me an example. (Laughs)
JB Where did Greg [Dyke] go?
MT Yeah. Just mull over that. William Haley became editor of the Times when he left the job in 1952. That's it. (Laughs)
JB The point, Mark, is that it's done the BBC a lot of damage. The press and the public have taken against the idea that there are "fat cats".
MT It's clearly controversial. Each year, we ask people whether, over the course of the year, their opinion of the BBC has gone up or down. What percentage of the UK population would you say cites senior pay as the reason for why their opinion of the BBC went down last year?
JB A lot of people won't know [about it].
MT It's about 1.5 per cent of people.
JB Including [the crime writer and Conservative peer] P D James.
MT Most people in broadcasting understand that if you compare pay at the BBC with other broadcasting pay, it's much lower. Compared to other public bodies, it's very high. The BBC is a big institution and requires management. We've already committed to reducing the number of senior managers. When I became director general in 2004, there were about 700 senior managers - there are just below 500 now. Two hundred have gone already. You will see in the coming weeks a further, significant planned fall in the numbers of senior managers.
JB And pay?
MT Pay has come down significantly. We were the first - or one of the first - public bodies to freeze pay. I've never taken a bonus in this
job. Long before bonuses became contentious, I was waiving my bonus. We've frozen bonuses for all jobs; we've had a pay freeze for these jobs; we've removed pension supplements for senior managers. I think you will go on seeing a period of reform, but if the BBC cuts itself off from the way in which people in the rest of the media are paid . . . it's not a healthy way to run a great broadcaster. We are beginning to see executives leaving the BBC for jobs where they are being paid double or more. Once they move, it becomes very hard to come back.
JB The parallel is not with the commercial sector; it is with other public institutions.
MT All of our competition for the people we want to get is with other broadcasters.
JB You can take in managers from other industries, at private and public institutions.
MT Most of our external appointments are from the private, not public, sector. Other public bodies - local councils, even cultural institutions - aren't offering people the skills and experiences we need. The big area of growth in recent years has been the digital space, which is almost entirely in the private sector. We're having to recruit internationally and pay is in a different order. The BBC is trying to straddle the reality of finding people with what the public expects of public-sector pay. You will see more movement in the months to come.
JB In terms of management and cutting down?
MT Yes. I think we've now got the smallest top management board the BBC has ever had. I would hope that we will get to a point where the population of senior managers at the BBC is at or below 1 per cent of the staff.
JB Let's move on. Post-Hutton, post-Jonathan Ross, there's a sense that the BBC has grown timid and the fire in the belly has died.
MT Did you see the Panorama on care homes?
JB Yes, and I made a Panorama, too [on care for the elderly]. I'm aware that there are exceptions, but there's a sense that creative risk-taking has been constrained. I know this because we all have to fill in these compliance forms.
MT There are several different issues here. One is whether we've got the courage to do brilliant, cutting-edge comedy and great investigative journalism. I think we do. There were things that not every New Statesman reader will think were right - for example, recognising that we should have members of the British National Party on Question Time. We are about to broadcast a three-part documentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. I can't see any evidence that, in our output, we are any less . . .
JB I'll give you the evidence.
MT No, hang on. We did, in the light of the Russell Brand show and the trouble with compe­titions, put in place more explicit methods of compliance: forms to fill in, programmes to be listened to by more than one person. Why? Because we've had some really quite bad slip-ups, which demonstrated that the existing systems of compliance weren't being properly conducted. Have we got to the point where we should look at those systems and say, "Can we simplify them?" Yes. It's very easy rhetorically to turn this into: "The BBC has lost its nerve."
JB I'm talking about me. I'm having my vocabulary checked and modulated.
MT I'm amazed anyone's got the nerve . . . I'm the editor-in-chief. I can give you permission. What won't they let you say? Swear words?
JB It's to do with an attitude that I was expressing towards a public institution. They said, "Perhaps it would be safer to say . . ." Now, when a producer says that . . .
MT The finer points of a line in a script has got nothing to do with . . .
JB It's the end result of a climate of thinking that makes people feel . . .
MT Come, come!
JB I'm telling the truth! I'm on the front line.
MT In drama, comedy and investigative journalism, I think we are braver now than ever.
JB What about the era of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, David Mercer - a whole swath of socially challenging drama?
MT Did you see Five Daughters last year, which we put on BBC1? An incredibly powerful drama about the Ipswich murders. If you listen to and watch what we're up to, we're doing that. The Russell Brand show was identified as a programme that had an editorial risk and nobody bothered to listen to it. You clamp down to make sure something like that doesn't happen again. If you're saying that this can lead to an over-concern about individual phrases - let's look at that. But to try to build that up . . .
JB I wonder if it's a fear of political bias.
MT I think we are more anxious about impartiality now than we have been in the past. One of the things that the public wants us to be is strictly impartial. Impartiality is the reason we had the BNP on Question Time. Sometimes, a concern for impartiality requires quite brave decisions. We don't have the right to exclude any party that has a significant, demonstrative electoral support, up to a certain level. There have been occasions, I believe, in the past, when the BBC has had limitations. For example, I think there were some years when the BBC, like the rest of the UK media, was very reticent about talking about immigration.
JB Why do you think that was?
MT There was an anxiety whether or not you might be playing into a political agenda if you did items about immigration. In the 2010 election campaign, none of the parties was talking about immigration. We believed we should deal with it, because the public - not everyone, but a significant proportion - was saying to us that it was a real issue. We've got a duty, even if issues are sensitive and difficult to get right, to confront what the public want. I don't like the idea of topics that are taboo.
JB What on earth is Thought for the Day doing in the middle of a news magazine?
MT With Radio 4, like all of our services, you've got a shape that has been built up over decades of expectations and usage, which the public likes. Not all of it fits into a sort of PowerPoint slide, with neat divisions of genre. What you've got are living services.
JB This is an eccentric leftover, isn't it?
MT The idea of a moment for reflection in the middle of a topical few hours is interesting.
JB Do you listen?
MT When I can, I do listen. The only people who are anxious about it are people who are anxious, as you are, to make a point about it. There are people for whom it is very symbolic, one way or the other, and that's to be respected and worked through.
JB You're a Catholic, aren't you?
MT The last time I looked, yes.
JB How does your life shape up with your faith and your work?
MT I've worked in broadcasting with people with every combination of belief, non-belief, or ethical value system. Most people bring the whole of themselves in some way to bear, but at the same time my job, as editor-in-chief, is to keep this organisation open to perspectives.
JB I was asking something internal about you. Does your faith find fulfilment at the BBC?
MT I don't think there's a tension between the idea of being Catholic, or an Oxford resident, or a not-very-good amateur pianist, and being editor-in-chief of the BBC. What I try to bring is a sense of the values that I think you need to discharge this job properly - commitment to impartiality, integrity and truthfulness.
JB I present the Radio 3 programme Belief [the format invites individuals to discuss their spiritual world-view] and I mentioned to you once that we were thinking of interviewing a witch and you thought that would be fine.
MT I said that, did I?
JB Then I said - seeing how far we could push the boundaries: "What about a Scientologist?" And you shook your head.
MT If I shook my head, I don't think I meant it. I take Belief to mean what it says on the tin.
JB We also had a conversation some time ago about ageism. I set out the case that the BBC had no older women reading the news and that reinforced a biased attitude towards older women in society. You took the point. A little later, modest changes were made and we now occasionally have older women reading the news. Then Miriam O'Reilly won her case against the BBC for ageism, when she was sacked from Countryfile. A lot of older women rejoiced. Were you surprised by that?
MT I learned a lot about the case as it was taking place. More than that, I think that I and the BBC have learned from and need to go on learning from the verdict. As you know, this was something I was quite concerned about before the O'Reilly case came up. But that case confirmed to me that the BBC is well placed and has a responsibility to do something about it.
JB So it remains on the agenda.
MT Very much so.

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.