An authentic antidote to the high jinks of Messrs Clarkson and co, he went on to renovate a narrow boat, reconstruct a beached Spitfire and investigate Industrial Revolution technology. And most eye-catchingly of all, in Speed with Guy Martin on Channel 4, he attempted to break a wacky series of hair-raising records on land, water, ice and in the air.
Martin’s grandfather was conscripted by the Nazis in 1941. No one in the presenter’s family had a clue
One of the most impressive of his feats was breaking the British record for outright speed on a bicycle – he hit an extraordinary 113 mph by using the slipstream created by a specially-modified lorry. (He has since said that he wants to reach 200mph.)
He also broke the British hovercraft speed record on Loch Ken, in Dumfries and Galloway, and the speed record for a toboggan, although, when he attempted to break the world record for the hovercraft, a change in wind direction saw him fly 100ft into the air at 76 mph, damaging the craft and forcing Martin to abandon ship.
A show on Channel 4 next year will see him attempting the world speed record for the Wall of Death, the epic fairground stunt that involves riding a motorcycle around a vertical wall. Martin – who, on top of his crash this year, broke his back and eight ribs in 2010 in a crash on the Isle of Man – is fearless.
But, outside of these adrenalinefuelled pursuits, he has a simple life. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is reluctant to become a full-time TV presenter, doesn’t even own a television (or a smartphone) and, while out on location, often spurns the hotel to sleep in his van with his dog. But it’s exactly this combination of eccentricity and humility that makes him so popular with viewers.
What choice did he have? You look at the bare bones of it, that’s all he could have done. I’d have done the same
Knowing a good thing when they see one, Channel 4 persuaded him earlier this year to film a travelogue. Our Guy in India took Martin on a 1,000-mile motorbike trip around the country. And now he has made his most personal documentary yet.
“After Our Guy in India they asked me if I wanted to shoot abroad again. I said, ‘I’m not a big holiday person but I’ve always wanted to go to Latvia. Just to find out what it’s like.’” Researchers delved a little deeper and found that there was a much more compelling programme than a bog-standard portrait of modern Latvia.
It turned out Martin’s late grandfather, Walter Kidals, whose original first name was Waldemars, came from Latvia and had been conscripted by the Nazis in the Second World War.
He had then spent two years in a Belgian prisoner-of-war camp, before arriving in Hull as a refugee in 1947. No one in Martin’s family had a clue. Martin’s main memory is of a man who liked his shed and “didn’t say much”.
“His English wasn’t the best,” he says. “He could get his point across. He was just different, just the way he ate and the way he drank his tea. He’d mix anything with anything.” Walter shared so little that even his wife Lill, now 92, had no idea that he was an orphan.
Like tens of thousands of Latvians, when Germany occupied the country in 1941, Walter was offered a choice: fight for the Nazis, or face death. At 80,000, the Latvians formed one of the largest national groups of Nazi conscripts. What would his grandson have done? “You had no choice,” he says. “What other option was there? You look at the bare bones of it, that’s all you could have done. I’d have done the same.”
• Sons suffering the sins of their Nazi fathers
After the war Latvian soldiers were exonerated by the Nuremberg trials and surviving conscripts were allowed to settle in the US and Britain as political refugees.
For Walter, there was no option of going home to a country which was now part of the Soviet Union. To simulate the kind of welcome his grandfather would have received, Martin visited a former prison which offers a quasitotalitarian experience in which curious tourists are brutalised and shouted at in Russian.
“There was no friendly atmosphere at all. We didn’t have a chat beforehand. They wouldn’t shake my hand, told me to sign this form, and from there on it was a bit of a battering. I genuinely was bloody scared.”•• •
In Our Guy in Latvia Martin once more reveals himself as a hugely likeable one-off. His down-to-earth aura, and eagerness to throw himself into anything, would have brought a welcome injection of unmediated spontaneity to Top Gear, so it is all the more regrettable that he turned down Chris Evans’s invitation to join. Instead, he’s sticking to fixing lorries while nipping off to make programmes for Channel 4. “It’s not for me,” he says. “I’m sure it would have been good for a pay cheque but I think I’ve got the best job in the world.
“Television opens up some bloody great doors. That’s the plus. The minus is the attention it brings. It is a bit of a pain now just doing a few hours of television a year. I don’t want to be famous. And that would have been a whole new level if I had gone and done Top Gear. It would be just stepping into Jeremy Clarkson’s shoes.
“What we do on Channel 4 is like our own version. If they keep coming up with interesting ideas I’ll do them. If they come up with crap ideas I’ll just go to work.”
Our Guy in Latvia is on Channel 4 on December 14 at 9pm