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Imperial gogglebox: TV is one of Britain’s most successful exports

China is obsessed with Sherlock, Iran loves Top Gear and Azerbaijan has its own Anne Robinson. But these shows are worth much more than money, writes James Medd.

The same yet different: Indonesia's Got Talent

If you were looking for an instant guide to Britain’s TV successes, the BT Convention Centre in Liverpool in February this year was the place to be. There, in front of an audience of 725 television executives from around the globe attending BBC Worldwide’s 38th annual showcase, Graham Norton introduced our superstars. There was Top Gear’s presenting trio, Sir David Attenborough, Peter Capaldi emerging from the Tardis, the cast of India’s Strictly Come Dancing and a filmed segment from Benedict Cumberbatch for Sherlock.

This modern-day Roman triumph was an effective demonstration of the corporation’s grip on global viewing habits. When we talk now about success in television, it’s about “territories” – the number of countries airing a programme – and the degree of interest in China, TV’s new frontier. For Sherlock, the BBC’s poster-boy, that’s 200 countries, and obsessive: so obsessive that visiting Britons, including the Prime Minister, are asked when there will be a new adventure for the men the Chinese know as “Curly Fu and Peanut”. And the viewing figures look absurd: for the first episode of the latest series, the download site Youku Tudou says it received 49 million hits.

That’s not even the biggest British success of the moment. Absent from the showcase gala because it’s on ITV1, Downton Abbey runs in America on the venerable but tiny PBS channel; quaintly introduced by Laura Linney in an evening gown, it’s the most watched British import ever, its popularity echoed in 250 territories, including Russia, Korea and Dubai (Chinese viewers have been put at anything up to 100 million).

Who Wants to be a Millionaire USA

The surprise isn’t so much that this is happening with British shows, but with British dramas. We already lead the world in factual television (everyone loves David Attenborough) and “formats”, the light-entertainment or factual show frameworks that can be adapted and reproduced to suit local tastes. In fact, fighting off strong competition from Holland and Israel, we are currently responsible for more than half of the formats in the world, from The X Factor (versions in roughly 45 countries) and Strictly Come Dancing (50) to MasterChef (more than 40) and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? (well over 100 at the last count). Turning on a television anywhere in the world today is likely to provoke an eerie sense of dislocation reminiscent of The Fast Show’s “Scorchio!” sketch. Indonesia’s Got Talent has a cheeky pair performing an Ant and Dec tribute and a judging panel made up of the regulation has-been male pop star, middle-aged impresario, beautiful young female singer and stern matriarch figure, all locally sourced. And anyone missing the mean-spirited quiz show The Weakest Link can find comfort in a home-made YouTube compilation in which a nightmarish stream of glowering Anne Robinson clones from around the world, many of them red-headed for accuracy, introduce their version of the show. France and Azerbaijan go for the schoolmistress peering over her glasses, Israel’s is bald, and Turkey pushes it too far with a leather-clad dominatrix. Only Italy, with a grinning male variety-host type, goes against the grain.

French version of The Weakest Link

That’s not the only old show finding new life overseas, either. Strictly Come Dancing and the shiny new Bake Off were the two most successful formats of 2012 (the last year for which there are figures), but just behind them was What Not to Wear, the fashion makeover show last seen here in 2007. Its eight licences included India, which put together an uptown take on our high-street original, taking Mumbai’s It-girls to the shops with the gracious actress Soha Ali Khan and a dignified male stylist, Aki Narula, in place of the over-opinionated prodders Trinny and Susannah. Not all versions are quite so classy, though. Brazil’s Esquadrão da Moda (“fashion squad”) is a mike-gripping variety show saved by its ludicrously attractive contestants and its ex-model host Isabella Fiorentino. Italy’s fashion credentials take a knock on Ma come ti vesti?! (“What are you wearing?!”), where a man as camp as that title suggests competes with a strident blonde foil and cartoon sound effects.

But way out in front is Top Gear, the alpha male of factual entertainment. With 350 million viewers, it has been so big a brand for so long that it even has a managing director, Adam Waddell. “People forget that Top Gear was a pretty big show throughout the Nineties,” he says. “I remember Jeremy [Clarkson] constantly reminding everyone that it was as big as Baywatch in terms of global audiences, though I don’t know if that was based on fact. ” Until 2007 it wasn’t even trying. “The show was devised by Jeremy and his mate, the executive producer Andy Wilman, and I don’t think world domination was part of the master plan.”

Ma Come Ti Vesti?!, Italy's equivalent of What Not to Wear

The strangest thing about the popularity of Top Gear is that, against the world’s preference for home-made TV, most countries prefer the original. As a rule, foreign channels try an original British show and if it finds an audience then they make their own version. But although the actor who dubs Clarkson in Iran is a national celebrity on the back of it, no one wants to see him, it seems. “We’ve made local versions in Russia, Australia, the US, China, Korea,” Waddell says. “It’s worked really well in some, less well in others. Most countries have just taken the UK show with subtitles or dubbing. In Australia, where the British show has a strong following, the local format was always seen as secondary to the main show.”

The Korean version, launched two years ago, has even produced a spin-off men’s fashion line: “Yes, would you believe it? Their market wanted that rather than fan merchandise. The presenters are younger and more glamorous than the UK team – not that that’s very hard. But then we never go out and say, ‘Who’s going to be Jeremy, who’s going to be Richard and who’s going to be James?’ ” But a look at TG Korea shows a trio of male presenters who, though clearly more familiar with hairdressing and 21st-century dress, have just the same bantering rivalry as the originals, with an older one firmly in the Clarkson sarcastic-prefect mould and the other two playing the Kindly Uncle and Little Bear.

China's version of Strictly Come Dancing

All of which suggests that Top Gear’s appeal is not just in the format or universal subject matter but also in the personalities. Waddell certainly thinks so: “It’s the sense of self-deprecation that comes through,” he says – “they celebrate failure as much as success, and that is quite a British virtue, I think.” There’s a similar tone to another recent BBC export success, the comedy drama The Wrong Mans, in which James Corden and Mathew Baynton bumble boyishly through a murder plot like Hugh Grant’s less handsome cousins. Nor is it such a long way from the sitcoms that have been touring the world in dubbed versions for decades now: Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances, ’Allo ’Allo (50 countries – but not picked up in Germany until 2008, for some reason) and As Time Goes By (in Finland, Vanha suola janottaa, meaning “when old salt makes you thirsty”). We British do like to laugh at ourselves, and all that.

Equally, we have long been doing good but quiet global business with the kind of Sunday-evening whodunnit that takes place in a soothingly nostalgic Agatha Christie dreamworld of late summer and pretty houses, from the actual Poirot and Miss Marple serials to Inspector Morse and Silent Witness. One of these, Midsomer Murders, is a sleeper hit of phenomenal proportions, shown in 225 territories, picking up fans in Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and the American indie-rock icon Kim Deal (also keen on Foyle’s War, as she confessed in an interview with this writer). Midsomer Murders celebrated its 100th episode in February with a joint Danish production that cast our own obsession with Scandi drama in an interesting light. And Finland, according to a recent straw poll of TV buyers from around the world, has a particular fondness for Heartbeat, the Sixties-set Yorkshire bobby Sunday-nighter from ITV.

The Russian Life on Mars

Factor in more recent export successes, such as Call the Midwife and Mr Selfridge (adventures in Victorian shopkeeping), both watched in more than 150 countries, or even tales of the eccentric gentleman traveller Doctor Who, bringing peace and fair play to the universe, and there’s a distinct feeling of trading on past glories, harking back to a time when we ruled the world and dictated its culture. There was outrage in December when China’s Global Times described us as “just an old European country apt for travel and study” – but our TV’s emphasis on heritage does sell us as a historical theme park. Even if not set in the past, many shows feel as if they might be: for all its shiny London-as-New York surface, Sherlock still relies on that classical English framework. Two UK/US co-productions in the works, the Channel 4/PBS Indian Summers and the BBC/HBO A Casual Vacancy, won’t change matters. One is set in the days of the Raj; the other is based on J K Rowling’s novel about a parish council controversy.

So, are we pandering to others, or pantomiming ourselves? Tim Davie, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, says: “I draw a distinction between Britishness and being absolutely laden with British imagery. We’ve clearly evolved. Our channel in America was originally marketed using what we might call the bowler hat and Big Ben, and what we’re finding is that there’s enormous appeal to a modern British sensibility, defined by our sense of humour, our quirkiness and wit.” Downton Abbey’s executive producer Gareth Neame says he faced this head-on. “We took a very traditional genre that everyone in the world recognises as expressly British but completely rebooted it. We did it as an original work, not a literary adaptation, and with a pace and amount of narrative that is akin to a modern show.” He did much the same with another of his international big sellers, the soapy spy drama Spooks. “My idea with that was to take a perennially popular British genre that has usually been seen in cinema and do it on television,” he says. “It’s Graham Greene, it’s James Bond, it’s John le Carré.”

The Chilean version of The Office

There is also the danger that, unless the shows we send out are so quintessentially British that other countries can’t decode them, they will simply remake them themselves. Having done this with format shows, they are now turning to drama, led by Russia’s take on the time-travel police series Life on Mars. Renamed Dark Side of the Moon (because Pink Floyd beats Bowie there), it takes the 2013 cop Mikhail back to 1979 and Soviet Russia, where his version of the maverick boss Gene Hunt is a by-the-book kind of Party guy and Mikhail is the rule-bender. With a hallucinatory style that may well be modelled on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it looks, if anything, better than the original and is now in its second series.

Luther is to follow, reset in St Petersburg, as is the BBC sitcom My Family. Usually we have rather celebrated America’s inability to reproduce our comedies, citing taste and irony, from the four failed attempts to re-create Fawlty Towers to hapless takes on Dad’s Army and latterly The IT Crowd and The Inbetweeners. Sporadic goes at some of our old-stagers appear elsewhere every now and then: an Indian version of Keeping Up Appearances with a young, nouveau-riche Mumbai wife in place of our genteel suburbanite; takes on Yes, Minister in the 2000s in Turkey, India, Holland (where Sir Humphrey became a woman and her assistant a Moroccan) and then Ukraine. But that may have changed with The Office, seen in its original incarnation in over 90 countries and now in eight remakes. With the exception of the US version, which took on a glorious life of its own, it is remarkable how closely most stick to the David Brent model. His Chilean counterpart does a similar nose-wrinkle, the French version fiddles with his tie in the same manner. Some versions give him a combover and a few dump the mockumentary format, but any question as to why they would make the same show but worse is answered by a look at the viewing figures. Excepting Downton and Top Gear, local versions win every time.

Keeping up Appearances, Indian-style

What might save us is another of our supposed national traits, snobbery. In China, British television is considered a luxury brand in the same way as Burberry or Dunhill, and there is a “chain of disdain” that places it at the top of a status pyramid above American, then Japanese, then Hong Kong, Chinese and Korean. According to the in­ternet company Sohu, “Watching British TV . . . represents intellectual superiority and a breadth of knowledge” – rather as HBO does for us. That has a knock-on effect for their advertising sales, but it is also important for us in terms of cultural or moral influence, or “soft power”.

China’s Global Times may not rate it but it’s an idea the BBC director general, Tony Hall, has championed, as has John McVay, chief executive of Pact, the organisation that represents independent TV production companies. “Everyone goes on about the Olympics,” he says, “but actually that was a bubble. I talk to politicians who want to market London to Brazilians and I say, ‘We’re doing it already, every time they watch Sherlock.’

“You don’t need to spend £2m on a tourism campaign; they’ve been watching our TV for a decade, they’ve been playing our music and they read our books because everyone’s learning English.”

Perhaps, as US television in decades past gradually taught us about American life beyond the Hollywood Hills and the mean streets of New York, ours will introduce the world to an understanding of Britishness that goes deeper than tea and tweed and monuments. It’s still enough of a wild frontier to give room to breakouts such as Misfits, Channel 4’s comedy drama about a multiracial group of attractive young people on community service who gain super powers. Fuddy-duddy old Yes, Minister may have done well but its rather more vicious modern counterpart The Thick of It has now been seen in 150 territories, too. Rev, the BBC’s quietly subversive, decidedly 21st-century vicar sitcom, received a big push at that BBC Worldwide showcase.

As we’ve been reminded in the past few months, it is 20 years since Britpop revived the idea of Swinging London. If this turns out to be television’s version, its influence could be infinitely more far-reaching.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart