Interview: Chris Moran
Ed Leigh is perhaps the most famous snowboarder in Britain right now, with a high profile slot presenting BBC One’s Ski Sunday. He’s also a damned fine rider and used to edit this very publication. While White Lines' Roots interviews are normally reserved for the true elites in terms of snowboarding prowess (witness Terje Haakonsen's interview in January), we felt Ed had carved enough of an individual path to warrant a full round up of this talented and creative individual. Plus he promised to buy us a few pints of Guinness if we gave him one and as everyone knows - we've got arms of rubber when it comes to a night down the boozer. Damn - I've ruined another serious intro haven't I?
For any Snowboarders out there, who've been living on a desert island for the last few years, tell us about who you are and where you’ve come from.
What I'm basically saying is: write your own intro. I suppose most people would know you as the Ski Sunday presenter, but I wonder how many would know that you used to be a Pro Snowboarder and then edited White Lines for god knows how many years too?
You missed out World Indoor British Big Air Champion!
Yeah that's true actually, when most people think of Ed Leigh they think - 'Isn't he the guy who won the Milton Keynes indoor big air title in 2001?'
(Laughing) No. It was about 2002-2003. Erm... OK, a potted history: I got sponsored in 1993 by Noah's Ark, then progressed to Burton in about '96. I blew up both my knees in an attempt to impress them in late '97-'98 (laughs) and then because I'd done a few trips and done some writing, I started with White Lines in 1999 and that turned into the editorship of the mag in the same year. I thought the knee operation at the time had ended my career, but it was actually the beginning. Because with hindsight I can say that I was a very mediocre snowboarder and the White Lines job effectively opened up a lot of doors - I started going to a lot of contests, and while I was there I'd get asked to MC them, which led into more and more MC-ing, which led into TV.
Why would anyone ask you to MC their contest? That might be a leap of faith for people who don't know you?
(Laughing) I suffer from a condition commonly known as 'a lack of mouth filter'. I've realised recently that that could be construed as extreme rudeness, almost verging on tourette’s syndrome in its worst incarnations.
I think its definitely a form of tourette’s, but you've kind of lassoed it under control, although the picture I have of you is one of holding on to the thing while it takes you whereever it wants to go.
That's pretty realistic! The only problem I've got is that I've got some sort of a social conscience and even though I can't stop it or control it, I can see its consequences and how it affects people. Saying 'cant' at the most inopportune moments and then looking around to see how people have reacted. I can't help it, but now I understand it and I've actually started apologizing now.
So how did that merge into TV?
There were two distinct opportunities that I remember. I'd been MCing Board X for two years and they were trying to get some TV back-up to cover what was at the time a very successful event. So they got Bob Callway, the guy who'd directed RAD to come and produce the show, and he basically came out and handed me a load of exact scripts and tried to make me memorise them which I realised instantly I wasn't going to any good at. But at the time I thought 'wahoo! TV, I'm in. It's started'. Immediately afterwards, even though I was still doing White Lines, I sat back and basically waited for the phone to start ringing. (Laughs) Which it obviously never did. That must have been about 1999. Then the next opportunity came about on July the 4th 2002 - I remember it vividly. I went to a friend's birthday party and there was a TV producer named Gareth Rees there and he set me on the track with a show called Surfing Summer. It was an incredibly random meeting. I used that first job to blag my then girlfriend but now my wife onto the first job I had, so out of one chance meeting I got my career and my wife. But having said that, I worked for three years doing various intermittent TV work, and then I filmed a pilot show with Christian Stevenson and waited for that to get the green light, and when it did, within three months I had an agent and - even possibly to this day - the best paid TV job I've ever done!
What was that?
It was called CNX. Ted Turner's youth channel. He'd got the Cartoon Network and CNN and mixed them together in the middle, and we fronted the channel pretty much. That was like an apprenticeship or a university course in TV and it wasn't to do with freesports either, it was like - 'right, you and Christian go and play Playstation for three days and then we'll film you in an apartment for an afternoon talking about.'
I remember seeing a clip where you were lying on the floor, thrashing around talking absolute drivel with a red bike light in your eye and basically ruining Christian's link... And that seemed to be the channel's ident or something?
(Laughs) It was amazing! They embraced the mouth filter whole-heartedly.
And did that give you a good schooling in front of the camera?
Oh yeah. For anyone there's a massive cusp that you've got to get through and you can only do it by spending six months where it's two days a week in front of the camera. And it's really hard to have your personality coming across as your camera personality. Obviously someone like Dale Winton doesn't have his real personality coming across. Des Lynham does - he's pretty good.
So you studied how to be on camera?
The best way of describing it is - I didn't study anyone but I knew what I liked. Right, you know when you're snowboarding and you do something right and it feels just right, and you know. And sometimes you'll do something and you know it's not quite right but you know it looked good, and then you'll do something you know looks horrible? It's exactly the same with presenting. You can do it and you'll be like - that's good, I'm happy with that, you can use that - or you'll say, that's horrible, I'm not happy with that, I can do that better. Snowboarding definitely taught me that.
That's funny. I've heard a similar thing from other people. Lesley McKenna told me that from Ski Racing she used to take the racing line with the supermarket trolley, or get as close to the post as she was getting off the bus.
Oh I have the same problem! I've been doing a lot of riding with Ski Sunday, and then I'll get in a hire car and I'll want to trash it down the mountain. It's really hard not to take a freeriding mentality to your car!
How do you feel about the new breed of presenters. I think you operate in the same sort of Venn diagram as people like Colin Murray, Russell Brand etc..
I would never put myself in the same category as them - well maybe Colin Murray, but someone like Russell Brand I appreciate the fact that he's a really clever comedian. I've always had the joy that if I'm commentating, and I get on top of a vert ramp, I can try and be funny, and if it doesn't work I can just revert back to talking about skating. So doing my job I can have a little foray and if it doesn't work, I've got something to fall back on. I couldn't do stand up - that's a really, really hard thing to do. I'd love to give it a go but I'm not clever enough (laughs).
Yeah but suddenly you’re everywhere Ed, and I used those people because the ascendancy of your career seems similar to theirs. Do you notice things like that? Do you wake up and think – I’m making it?!
It's strange bringing it all back to snowboarding but it's what I know best. You look in the magazines and suddenly there's a load of new names in that year, but they didn't just appear from nowhere. Like Peetu Piirionen is an interesting one. An 18 year-old Finnish kid, he's already won the BEO slopestyle twice, he's been slogging away for about five or six years, then one year he's everywhere. On the magazine covers, being interviewed, winning everything and people think he’s come out of nowhere. It's the same with what I'm doing. One year a few producers, or commissioners say - 'I like that guy, I want him on my show fronting it.’ And when it happens it tends to really blow up. It could happen to me.
Don't you think that's already happened? I think from most of the snowboarding community's perspective, having you do the commentary at the Turin Olympics was brilliant. You did a genuinely amazing job and it was funny to see someone who was obviously a snowboarder being taken seriously. Seeing Claire Balding and Hazel Irvine genuinely stumped when it cut to the studio after you'd been ranting on about how Hannah Teter was the Tiramisu of snowboarding, and listing her ingredients as she rode down the pipe. I felt sorry for them – like, how are they going to follow that? So how did all that come about? Why on Earth did they let you loose on the BBC?
(Laughs). A producer named Johnny Brambly was the lynch pin to all that. He spoke to Graham Bell and said, 'who do we need?', and Graham had heard my radio show on Erring! With Christian Stevenson, and so they got me. Working for the BBC was a bit of a shock at first, especially after working for so many independent, small production companies. I walked in there on my first day in a bright stripy jumper and I got so many sideways glances. You're kind of blowing dust off people and it's really odd. I felt very out of place.
What on Earth did they think of you? How did Claire Balding and Hazel Irvine take to you?
Well you meet them all and they're really, really nice. It’s an interesting one. You can imagine someone like Claire Balding who's come from horse riding, trying to get her head around snowboarding. She's fitted with all the stereotypes that I would be if I started talking about... bowls,I suppose. It's a lot to try and show them that a sport is about something - when all of the jokes they want to tell are total stereotypes. After the men's final I was really cowed by the atmosphere and it was really hard to sit in the commentary box with just me and a producer, and as soon as I started to wind myself up, or the mouth started to look like the lasso was coming off, she'd just be making throat slitting gestures across the booth at me. Like 'Stop now! Stop now!’
You must have ignored her by the time of the girls final? That was a stream of utter rubbish, funny as it was.
By the time I got back from the men's final, the ice had broken somewhat. Instantly they said yeah, that was good. So that gave me the confidence to go into the women's final and to do some experimenting.
Did you get the throat slit signs?
Yeah but I just ignored them and thought 'Hurrraagghh (mimes pushing away binding ropes) push on through! Must make it!'. Yeah... compared to every other job I've ever done it was proper work.
So, Ski Sunday. Did that come from the Olympics?
Well the really interesting thing is that while they got incredible viewing figures for the time of day it was shown, the real success came from the interactive. People were using the red button to watch the qualifiers and that's when they realised that people were searching out the snowboarding. So that's when they thought, 'right, we've got someone who's good with the snowboarding, lets put this in Ski Sunday.’ It was actually quite late. They started rumbling about it in July, and then it was sort of August before it was confirmed.
So do you have quite a lot of control over what’s in the shows?
At the start of the season we had a production meeting and it became really evident there that they pretty much wanted to give me the reins from the snowboard side of it. Which contests we should be doing, who we should be talking to and so on.
So whose idea was the skier verses snowboarder friendly rivalry?
The interesting thing is that the way the BBC is set up, you've got an executive producer and then 8 or 9 producers below them, so I think in one of the production meetings it was just one of those ideas that everyone thought would work. But it's not as stereotyped as that, there were a couple of episodes where it was that, but now it’s turning into doing other things like snowgolf or ice hockey or driving on the snow.
It seems like it's going down the Top Gear route where the programme is more about the personalities in it messing around?
Yup. Well the idea is in the pipeline that we'll make it more like the modern version of Top Gear. No one seems to be presenting freesports in any other way to the public than as sports, whereas in actual fact, for 99 percent of the people who do them, they're more like lifestyles than sports. And although they're interesting, things like contests aren't really as watchable as the lifestyle part of it could be. Just like with cars. You'd rather watch a show like Top Gear than you would a Formula 1 race. And exactly the same thing should exist for skiing and snowboarding. And the BBC are thinking along those lines.
Talking of Top Gear, did you see the rant that Jeremy Clarkson had about Ski Sunday in the Sunday Times a couple of weekends ago? It was a proper dissing!
It was a full dissing. But as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I was actually quite honoured to be abused by Clarkson.
How do you get on with Graham Bell? Is he pretty cool?
He is actually! He's a really nice bloke. He'll probably read this. I think there are probably a lot of older riders in the UK who will never really forgive the old skiing guard for how they treated us in the past, but there's a lot of water passed under the bridge. It was a real wake up call for me. And you've got to give it to him. I do - he sorted me out with the BBC, and I've got a lot of respect for those downhill runs. I've been down one of them now and you cannot front on that. It's pretty full on.
How about the people you're interviewing? Have you got any snowboard idols still left to meet?
Er yeah.... but to be straight up honest I sort of met a lot of them already. When I was MC-ing events Terje asked me to commentate at the Arctic Challenge, and that was a bit of a big one. I mean that was huge, and then you go to somewhere like that and you meet a lot of the boys. The only one I never really got through to was Jamie Lynn. That's one of my aims. If we get the lifestyle one I'd like to go and spend some time with Jamie Lynn.
What about at the BBC, have you come across any celebrity culture there? Or do you get the fame thing yourself?
Erm, a little. I wouldn’t class myself as famous. I get the odd request for an autograph in resorts, and sometimes when I get on the plane I see people tap their friends. But I've got the great advantage that people don't really know my name, so they can't come up and say hello! (laughs) I've seen the level of fame that other people have and to be honest, it's frightening. When you see what Shaun White has to live with, you just think - 'it's not worth it.' I couldn't live like he does, and I wouldn't swap what I've got for what he's got even if the talent came with it. As for meeting the other BBC people. I went to the Sports Personality of the Year awards, and that was quite an eye- opener. Just to see that people know who you are was quite nice. I was introduced to Sue Barker and started to introduce myself, and she said "I know who you are Ed!", and then told me I'd be up on the stage with her by next year. That was quite funny.
I've got one last question. In this issue we're doing a piece on the AIM series, and how it's changed British Snowboarding, and I know you were involved with its inception. How do you feel about it now?
Oh I'm really proud of it. Me, Spencer Claridge and Stu Brass sat in a room and came up with that idea. I came up with the name, and between us we came up with the concept that the riders needed somewhere to go from the small, dryslope scenes, all the way up to the Brits and European competitions beyond. And at the base level, the UK competitions were good but there was little cohesiveness and the scene needed more than just volunteer-led contests. It needed privatising and professionalizing. Which is what we did and I'm really, really proud of it. It's done a phenomenal job. People like Jamie Nicholls have come through and I think he's going to be the first major super-pro from the UK.