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'This has to be the chance of a lifetime. When am I ever going to get the opportunity to pass a world champion?'

An incredible look into life of Plum Tyndall, including his cancer battle and getting the better of Jackie Stewart

The 1997 Ulster Rally was just a few hours away and I was getting ready to leave the office for the City Hall start when Plum Tyndall rang. I was surprised because I knew he should be in a final briefing with his team of cameramen and reporters covering the event for his RPM television programme. But I was stunned by what he called to tell me.

"Sammy, Plum. I have cancer. I need your help." None of the usual banter. Just straight out.

My mouth opened and closed but no words came out. Eventually, I think I said: "What…? What do you need?"

He explained he had been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus the day before and was facing a major operation which might or might not save his life. But he had TV commitments to honour and, typically, he was putting those first.

His team were all ready to go without him that weekend but he needed someone to script the Ulster Rally film and possibly subsequent events. Would I do it?

There was never any question of saying no, even though I had no real idea what it entailed. We've been friends for longer than either of us care to remember and Plum had been a guiding hand when I first became involved in covering motorsport for this newspaper.

With the help of his team, and his son Patrick stepping in as producer, we managed to pull it together and I provided the words to be voiced by reporters Pamela Ballantine and Garry Gillespie for the RPM programme on UTV.

The story of Tyndall's diagnosis and fight to survive the oesophageal cancer is the link which ties together the life and times of one of Irish motorsport's most flamboyant characters, as told in his autobiography 'Keep The Revs Up'.

Boarding school-educated son of the 'Peace Bishop' John Tyndall, sewage plant architect, dyslexic magazine editor, PR pioneer, DJ, production saloon racing champion, grand prix commentator and more but principally the man who put Irish motorsport on television.

A natural raconteur, who was once married to an ex-Lord Mayor's daughter, Tyndall's book is (largely) a light hearted, sometimes ribald, trip from his schooldays in Sligo and Fermanagh to selling cushions to Wimbledon spectators, from going "behind the lines" with an IRA pass in Ballymurphy and the Bogside during the Troubles, from FastTalking at the top of the Kirkistown race circuit tower to the commentary boxes at Monaco, Monza and Spa, from talented cartoonist to television production company owner.

Alan Tyndall is all of these and known by all simply as Plum.

Now "retired" and into his 70s, it is an age Tyndall never thought he would reach when a sore throat and an inability to swallow the BLT sandwiches, on which his television crews survived during filming assignments, led to the devastating cancer diagnosis on the eve of the 1997 Ulster Rally.

He'd gone for an endoscopic examination at the Lagan Valley Hospital and, assuming the sore throat was nothing more than an infection, had told his wife Lynn there was no need to come. He couldn't have been more wrong.

"In 1997 the 'Big C' to the unenlightened still seemed like an almost certain death sentence," he writes. "I knew that certain forms of the dreaded disease were treatable and it was becoming increasingly more possible to at least postpone, if not cure, cancer.

"But what was this oesophagus s***? What is, or where is, your oesophagus?"

He was to learn that is one of the most serious places to get cancer and it would require an urgent and major operation.

So serious, in fact, when he explained to the consultant, Jim McGuigan, he had turned down chemo before having the operation because he was self-employed and needed to get back to work as quickly as possible, the surgeon exploded: "Good god man, don't you realise you only have a one in three chance of survival!?"

Tyndall writes: "I like straight talking but this was right between the eyes."

Devastated, he went home and wrote farewell letters to the family, Lynn, sons Patrick and Christopher, daughter Cathy, and close friends just in case.

But the five-hour operation was a success, thanks to the skill of Mr McGuigan and his team, and on a memorable night some months later, during dinner in a Tallaght hotel, Plum had a group of us falling under the table in hysterics as he recounted the nightmares and hallucinations he experienced during three days in intensive care dosed on morphine.

"I literally went mental on the stuff and why anyone would pay to have these horrific experiences on that drug is beyond me."

Tyndall's painful recovery took time but he returned to work, relieving me of my script-writing duties and going on to produce over 300 programmes for UTV, RTE, TV3, Setanta, Motors TV and more, over a record 23-year period.

Along his journey he has shared TV commentary boxes around Europe with the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart, John Watson, Damon Hill, Keke Rosberg, Murray Walker, who he holds in great regard, and James Hunt, for whom he had little time.

He has interviewed more than a dozen world champions from Ayrton Senna to Niki Lauda, Colin McRae to Sebastien Ogier.

Ferrari-loving Tyndall's escapades are legendary and I have been lucky enough to share a few of them, often on the Circuit of Ireland, but including a notorious trip to Scotland where we were hauled off the Ingleston circuit for being hooligans.

We were supposed to be going to the Scottish Motor Show but while in Glasgow we learned Ford were showcasing their new RS2000 Escorts and 3.1-litre Capris at Ingleston race circuit the next day. It was for the Scottish press but we wrangled an invite.

I had never been to the Edinburgh track and Plum warned me to beware of a tricky left-hander fringed by trees.

Plum writes: "I was just starting to feel at home in the left-hand-drive Escort when I came across an ashen-faced Sammy standing beside his stationary RS2000. He'd spun off at the left-hander after the hairpin - fortunately missing the trees.

"He seemed happier in the passenger seat when we got our hands on one of the Capris even though I was giving it some stick. I had been racing the RE Hamilton Capri that year so I was used to those big coupes.

"After a few laps we came up on the other RS3100 (being driven by three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart).

"I said: 'Sammy, this has to be the chance of a lifetime. When am I ever going to get the chance to pass a current world champion in an identical car on the same race track?'

"'Go for it Plum'," he said.

"We were on the back straight approaching the hairpin and wee Jackie was in flow with the Scottish television crew explaining his smooth driving technique, Formula Finesse. 'As you approach the hairpin you apply progressive deceleration, nice and smooth, that's the Formula Finesse way,' he was explaining."

At that moment there was a flash of yellow as the Tyndall-piloted RS3100 steamed past with its nose spoiler scraping the ground under heavy breaking.

"I flicked the beast sideways and exited with the rear end bouncing over the corrugated kerbs on opposite lock.

"I had done it. I had passed a triple world champion in a similar car on the same track. That's one for the grandchildren.

"But Ford were not amused and we were immediately red-flagged and sent to the naughty step for the rest of the day.

"That night we flicked on STV and there was Jackie: 'Nice and smooth now, that's the Formula Finesse way.' We couldn't believe our eyes when the cameraman panned onto our rogue Capri, catching its dramatic dive and rough ride over the kerbs. We heard the world champion say: 'That is not the way to do it.'"

But Tyndall has been doing it his way for decades, bringing his love for fast cars onto TV screens via his RPM Motorsport productions and doing more than anyone before him to showcase Irish rallying.

In retirement he has joined forces with former Circuit of Ireland-winning co-driver Dr Beatty Crawford to create the popular Deja Vu retro rallies which have raised more than £100,000 for charities, mostly cancer charities naturally.

Plum is still keeping the revs up.

The book can be ordered online at rpm-motorsport.com, price £14.99.

Belfast Telegraph

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