Graham Bell & Ed Leigh: Love, Skiing & Val d’Isere

A new series of Channel 4’s The Jump is currently gracing our tellyboxes so we thought you’d like to see the interview we did with Graham Bell and Ed Leigh – about the show as well as wider issues of life, love and ski commentary – for our 2015 magazine again….

…she bent down and I pushed her face into the trifle

…I broke my knee trying to back flip off the stage in Dick’s Tea Bar to impress a girl

It’s 16 years since 8-times British Ski Champion Graham Bell stepped off the racing piste and in front of the camera – but don’t accused him of slowing down. He’s a regular ironman competitor and currently training for 6 marathons in 5 days in the heat of the Moroccan dessert for charity.

Ski Sunday co-presenter Ed Leigh is ploughing his boundless energy into TV projects aimed at inspiring people to take up extreme sports. He still snowboards 8 weeks a year, though these days he saves his best lines for the commentary box. And injury has ruled him out of defending his Air Guitar Champion title…

You both reached high levels in skiing/snowboarding before moving into TV. Do you miss competing?

Graham: Sochi was my fifth Olympics as a reporter and I did five as an athlete, so now I’ve spent almost as much time commentating as I did competing. I didn’t miss it when I quit; I much prefer what I do now. I think I’m a better commentator and reporter than I ever was a ski racer. It’s easy to forget how much hard work and dedication goes into being a professional sportsman and more is required all the time.

Ed: By injuring myself and then looking at the sport from outside as a journalist I was able to enjoy it a lot more. Now my work’s in the mountains, I have an excuse to be here all the time. I’d break my knee again every time.

Graham, you’re filming a second series of The Jump, but last time so many contestants had to quit due to injury you almost ran out before the final. Do you think the show is good for the snowsports industry?

Graham: There was a big difference in skill levels. Some that started at a low level got quite good, and were pushing it quite hard – that could be a reason there were so many injuries. Everyone was taking a lot of risks to get through. Darren Gough didn’t tell anyone about breaking his ribs because he knew they wouldn’t allow him to carry on; it was only when he was knocked out that he went to hospital.

What we asked the celebrities to do wasn’t what you would do on your skiing holiday. However, the show did bring home how dangerous winter sports are unless you’re trained. That’s what makes them so good – the adrenalin and high risk.

Graham Bell Ski Sunday

I hope we made people want to have a go. Fans of Amy Childs (The Only Way Is Essex), who wouldn’t necessarily have considered going skiing, saw her going from complete Ground Zero to being able to do a giant slalom course – and she really enjoyed it. It’s a great advert for the sport. Viewers who wouldn’t have watched otherwise may have watched Sochi off the back of it and even taken it up.

So what were the celebrities really like?

Graham: Steve Redgrave was the most competitive person I’ve ever met. It’s a shame he crashed. He was pernickety; he became the shop steward of the celebrities. Competing at Olympic level you need to know the rules, what you can and can’t do when you’re trying everything you can to win. But we had to make changes due to the weather and circumstances, so we had to put in a Steve Redgrave Clause – that the producers reserved the right to adapt the rules at any time.

Donal MacIntyre was like the crash test dummy. He would throw himself down anything. He had this inner sense that everything would be alright, and lots of the time it wouldn’t be alright! He had no self-preservation instinct at all, which is quite refreshing.

The best pupil was Kimberley Wyatt, the Pussycat Doll. Very enthusiastic, very keen to learn, and easy to coach and instruct. She went from complete beginner through to a pretty good intermediate to advanced skier in 6 weeks.

Sinitta; she was scared most of the time about most things but she didn’t let that fear stop her. I used to tell her that actually makes her the bravest person there. If you’re almost petrified with fear then you conquer that and do it anyway, that deserves much more respect than someone who had no fear in the first place.

Read about the line-up for The Jump 2016

Ed, has your attitude to safety in snowsports changed with age and accidents like Michael Schumacher’s?

Ed: Schumacher was tremendously unlucky. For me, it depends what day it is. I always wear a helmet when I’m riding with my kids but some other days I don’t. Some days I feel reckless, and on those days you learn not to push yourself. Some people could level an accusation of irresponsibility at me as a parent but I have a very high threshold for adrenalin. There are days when I feel it and I’m confident in myself and in the conditions and I think “you know what, I can do it today”.

Ed Leigh Ski Sunday

You were both Sochi Winter Olympics commentators – what was it like to be involved in such a game-changing success story?

Graham: It was great to watch the guys I’ve seen come through – Woodsy [James Woods] I’ve known since a kid jumping at the ski show.

The fact that we did so well at slopestyle has changed the outlook of skiing and snowboarding in the UK. The money coming in from the lottery will make a massive difference to slopestyle and hopefully that programme will increase. We’ve got 4 years to win another medal. It’s pretty brutal, UK sports policy on medals, you have to deliver or the money goes again. The pressure is now even greater and the next Olympics will be the most important.

Ed, how do you feel looking back at the controversy over your “hysterical” commentary on the Jenny Jones final?

Ed: The Olympics was a situation that was out of my control. I was really worried about Jenny winning the medal because we’ve been friends for 20 plus years, she’s close to family and it was the first medal I was close to. I started thinking “oh god, if she medals I don’t know if I’m going to be able to not cry”, which is probably the worst thing you can do as a broadcaster.

Amy Fuller is a really good friend but I knew I wouldn’t be able to control her in the commentary box. She just blazed in with the excitement levels. When the backlash came I was angry – it’s me who takes the flack. The BBC got 300 complaints, but the next day they had 2000 complaints about the fact that they’d apologised. Within 4 days I had 2 more TV series and another on the backburner.

I got some incredible abuse, especially on social media, but many more compliments. As low as it went and as disappointed as I was that people got so upset, I feel we stayed true to the sport and for the majority of people that passion was something they enjoyed.

I probably align my commentary style closest with Murray Walker – shrill, uneducated at times, but passionate.  Commentary style hasn’t changed in 50 or 60 years and there’s an appetite for a different style, especially in action sports. Grans now know what a double grab is because of my commentary and I’m proud of that.

You both have emotional attachments to Val d’Isere – what keeps you coming back? 

Graham: I raced the British championships on the downhill OK course, at age 15 when I first raced the Premiere Neige there. It was the first stop on the World Cup tour and there was so many Brits it was like a home race to start the season.

Val d’Isere has very good lifts, very accessible off piste… there’s just so much of it. You’ve got to take it day by day – Sache to Brev can be the best run ever or a slushy mogully experience, so you’ve got to judge the conditions. But when you get good powder it’s one of the best runs anywhere.

Ed: Val d’Isere has one of the highest tree lines in Europe and my favourite kind of riding is really thick, heavy snowy days. Just getting into the trees and there’s enough snow to cover your tracks – you can go and do the same run again and again and not bump into anyone. The snow kills all the sound and you’re on your own for five or six hours before you have a near miss with a tree – and the moment that happens you think OK the next one will be a hit so I’m going home.

Resorts are transient towns where the bulk of the population changes each year. My Val d’Isere was between 1994 and 1999. In the season that you’re in a resort, that town belongs to you. Now it’s such a different place for me. I watch the kids getting drunk and I laugh because I think I’m going to get first tracks as they won’t be getting up in the morning.

We hear both of you met your wives in Val d’Isere. We assume you wooed them with your sporting prowess and the beautiful surroundings?

Graham: Sarah was a chalet girl and she’d never skied before. I was racing the Premiere Neige. We’d gone a bit early to do some training in Val and we were staying in her chalet, but Sarah had been warned by one of the skiing guides not to talk to us because we weren’t trustworthy. I spent two or three days trying to talk to her, she wasn’t having any of it. I made a last ditch attempt when she served up a trifle for dessert with lots of cream on top. I said the cream smelt off. She got really angry and insisted it was fresh that morning. I told her she should smell it, she bent down and I pushed her face into the trifle. Either she would really hate me or finally start talking to me, and fortunately it was the latter.

Ed: I told my sponsors that I broke my knee doing a cliff drop on my board but I actually broke it trying to back flip off the stage in Dick’s Tea Bar to impress a girl, who’s now my wife. She laughed at me whilst I was holding back the tears with my wallet gripped between my teeth. She said “that was cool I’ll see you around” and went off, and I didn’t see her again for 5 years.

Ed, we believe you went on to much greater stage performance success?

I entered my first Air Guitar Championships because a friend had to do a write-up and asked me to come in case it was really boring. I wore an Evel Knievel outfit I’d made and ended up stripping naked and coming joint first. After that I thought “I’m not sharing the title, next year I’m going to win this.” So I invented an alter ego, built an outfit, strapped a firework to my crotch and won. The next year I thought “oh god I’ve got to do better” and I took 3 months to build a 9ft papier mache phallus rigged up to a fire extinguisher that squirted 3 big jets all over the crowd once I finished “Whole Lotta Love”. My mum was in the audience and was genuinely so proud. After that I broke my clavicles and couldn’t headbang so I had to bow out.

Graham, we hear we might be seeing a lot more of you in Val d’Isere?

I’m about to finish my BASI Level 4, then I will be able to teach in France. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll base myself in Val d’Isere for the winter or the year. I plan to teach and take ski clinics – do a season!

Katie Downs

EDGE Magazine is your guide to a ski holiday, working or living around Tignes, Val d'Isere, Bourg Saint Maurice, Les Arcs, La Plagne, La Rosiere, Peisey Vallandry & Sainte Foy. Our website www.edgemag.net is packed full of useful live information, regularly updated features and interviews with something for everyone...snow-lovers, starter snowboarders, seasoned skiers, serious apres-skiers, seasonaires and locals. Pick up a copy of our magazine from December in loads of places in each resort including bars, restaurants, shops, cafes and airport transfer vans too. For more information and to request a media pack e-mail info@edgemag.net. We'd love to hear from you!

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