DC Carver takes a break
Ever wonder what television coppers get up to when they're not nicking villains? Mark Wingett, who plays DC Jim Carver in ITV's The Bill, gets away from it all in the most civilised way possible: he goes diving. The English Channel is his favourite destination, but we caught up with him on a liveaboard boat off the Turkish coast, where he helped Lawrence Jones with his enquiries.
THE security man at Heathrow looked accusing. "'Ere, you're that bloke from the TV. You're in The Bill, ain't you?" he said. "Tony, come 'ere, it's that DC Carver from the telly, - it is, ain't it?"
My travelling companion, actor Mark Wingett, smiled and obliged with autographs. At the check-in the airline staff were so preoccupied that they omitted, or preferred not, to charge either of us for exceeding our baggage allowances.
His face is well-known in Britain, and he says there are times while he is out with his wife or children when strangers will shout abuse at him, albeit in an "old mates" manner. "For that reason I do like holidaying in places like Turkey!"
In Bodrum marina the luxurious, honey-hued wooden yachts they call gulets were moored three-deep. We were booked on a week's dive-sail trip with New Bodrum Diving, a premier BSAC school. Aboard our 26m chartered yacht, we unpacked in spacious, wood-beamed cabins.
Carpeted, and each with en suite toilets and showers, air-conditioning and heating, these offered better accommodation than some hotels.
Mark Wingett has been an actor for most of his working life, and in The Bill since it began in 1983, when he played a probationary copper on his first day at Sun Hill police station. He also appeared in films such as Quadrophenia and Breaking Glass.
What is little known, however, is that for the past seven years he has been a Diving Officer. "As a kid I watched all the Cousteau documentaries like everyone else," says Mark. But he was moved to take up the sport in 1983 when a drinking companion called Kenny Johnson needed to learn to scuba dive as part of his stunt-man training.
With two actor-friends, Paul McGann (The Monocled Mutineer, the latest Dr Who) and David John (star of the film Remembrance) they joined Londonwide Divers, a small club with a predominantly cabbie membership.
Their BSAC training dives were carried out at Kensington Sports Centre and "good old Stoney Cove!" Mark's first sea dive was off the wall in Newhaven. "I was so keen in those days!"
Mark has been with Londonwide ever since. In 1985, with The Bill becoming a fixture, he went with the club to Israel. "I had a bit of money, so I bought myself an underwater camera. It was a Nikonos V, and that was how I started getting interested in underwater photography.
"That particular trip was one of my most memorable, because it was my first diving trip abroad. Nowadays there is nothing uncommon about such trips, but it was quite special then."
Next morning Sami II moored over Little Reef, just out of Bodrum, and our small group of divers dropped into the clear blue waters. The reef rises from 32m to within 8m of the surface and can be covered comfortably in a half-hour dive. With the uppermost rocks coated in onion-skin algae, it is best enjoyed at between 20 and 30m. Dozens of fish species played over fingers of soft red coral, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and neon-blue nudibranchs.
Past tall walls of rock, and we were enveloped in a meteor shower of tiny silvery fish. Our guide later explained that this behaviour was typical following any recent spear-fishing on the site. We then found a small jumble of broken amphorae and played at 3D jigsaws, while our guides gathered some small shellfish.
These clams are known locally as fuska: the smaller the tastier. While de-kitting we tried some raw, which is apparently the connoisseurs' way of eating them. Their flavour is "individual". Back on the southern side of Black Isle, and anchored in Poyraz Bay, our afternoon dive was to start in a small cave at just 5 to 6m.
The dark entrance looked ominous, but once inside we were able to rise into a rocky, air-filled chamber about 5m high and 3m across. An eerie glow of light enveloped us.
Outside again we finned around the headland over a rocky seabed, and worked our way back to Poyraz Bay and our floating hotel. Scarlet starfish shone in the sunlight in the shallow waters, while scorpionfish moved off as we swam over them.
Tubeworms fanned their feathery displays and fireworms caterpillared across volcanic rock. Between two purple anemones, just past a huge black sponge, Mark glimpsed the unmistakable outline of an amphora top. Stopped in midwater, he dropped onto his target. Grasping both handles he tried to pull this ancient piece of pottery free, but over countless years it had become encrusted in the seabed to the shoulders.
Playing cards that evening, I quizzed Mark about his first set of diving gear. "My first suit was a Roy Williams semi-dry which cost 120 - a lot of money then! I also bought a secondhand Fenzy ABLJ, and my cylinder was a monster 87cu ft, 200 bar beast, which is of course small by today's standards. That was secondhand too and cost me £40.
"It was quite funny because the four of us went over together to get measured up for these suits, and we also went together to get our basic mask, snorkel and fins from Thames Watersports Centre. We must have looked a right bunch, all dressed up the same!" Mark has a husky, infectious laugh which is occasionally of Jovian proportions.
He said he had splashed out on a Poseidon Cyklon DV, setting him back another £120. "The old Snark valves in our club were crap!" Remembering my own first fierce sucking on such abused club equipment at about the same time, I could only burst out laughing.
But Mark's tone became subdued, almost secretive: "I used to be very superstitious about my dive gear," he said. "I used to have to sleep with it!" He had my full attention, but if I thought this was a wind-up I was wrong. "I'm absolutely serious, it was just something I did. I don't know how it started - it might have been the wetsuit..... no, no!" Apparently this was his own ritual - each new item of equipment had to spend at least one night in his bed, or under his pillow, before he would use it for diving.
Mark has to fetch all the club equipment for pool training sessions and carry out all the usual chores required of a DO. "But I had, and still have, a fantastic committee to support me. They have put in so much hard work over the years, giving lectures, working on the club RIB, servicing equipment and so on. It's something the core of every club does, which is seldom seen or appreciated by the rest of its members.
"Divers should spare a thought for their clubs. With the onslaught of PADI, some clubs like ours are shrinking." He laments the fact that so many divers now seem to leave clubs after being trained. "We have even had to give up the use of our training pool because we no longer have the number of instructors available to run the courses that the club needs to thrive. You get out what you put in."
Why had he volunteered to be DO? "I think I've been DO for so long because no one else wanted the job!" he says.
An active diver in both British and foreign waters, I asked Mark which, after 13 years, was his favourite dive destination. "The English Channel," he replied without hesitation, but he also enjoys Scapa Flow and diving out of Oban.
The next day over breakfast, Mark talked about one of his favourite British wrecks, the Boadicea. Situated off Weymouth this WW2 minelayer/ submarine hunter-killer was sunk by a dive-bomber. Though resting at 57m, it stands some 15m high. So impressed was Mark that he told his father about the dive, only to learn that his great-uncle Charlie had served on the ship!
Sami II headed east along the huge Gokova Bay towards Orak Island. As we donned our 4mm suits on the sunny foredeck I asked Mark what he wore for diving in home waters. He is happy with his Solent Divers neoprene drysuit, though says he has never tried a membrane suit.
His loyalty to Poseidon regulators remains; he now uses an Abyss, though confides that he is not completely satisfied with it. And following his preferred choice of deeper wrecks he now straps on a Faber twinset of 10-litre cylinders pumped to 300 bar, each with separate take-offs.
He had tried a pair of wings but could not get on with them, so stayed with his Scubapro stab jacket. I asked him what he saw as the biggest single advance for sport divers. "Diving computers!" he declared. He wears a Suunto Eon and a Suunto SMLE, each to back up the other in case of failure. Orak Reef basked in 30m-plus visibility, and our dive was splendid. The reef is well-known for its rugosity, and as a wall dive. At 6m we bottomed out, and the uppermost line of the reef drew closer. Beyond was the empty ocean; we crested the top and were suddenly going headfirst down a rocky cascade.
Mark is not the sort of diver who waits for others to take the lead; self-confident and adventurous, he is always likely to be disappearing around a rock promontory or dropping to a deeper ledge. The walls looked like curtain-folds, studded with bright orange and red sponges. Shoals of small brown scissorfish washed over us like screen savers on a giant computer monitor.
Below us lay the large teardrop-shaped shells of a bivalve known locally as pina. Some 50cm long, they appeared to have nose-dived into the soft sandy ledges like dumpy javelins. The small muscle that closes the two halves of the shell is prized by gastronomes.
We lunched on fish caught by the crew in a deserted little bay. Exploring the ruins ashore we discovered what we reckoned was a Roman pottery, complete with blackened kiln and alcoves to hold shelves.
No diving is permitted around such historical sites, even though they are unattended. But as there is always plenty of leisure time on any liveaboard, such diversions are a bonus between dives. Strolling on the empty beach Mark explained the staying power of his TV alter-ego.
"Jim Carver is a bit of a grey character," he said. "That's probably why he fits so well into so many of the stories. He is probably a little bitter at having been passed over for promotion, but personally I'm quite happy about that, because if he gets promoted he'll have to move to another station and therefore I'll be out of the show!"
A five-hour sail south-east across the Bay of Gokova took us to the peninsula that forms its southern edge. Mark was telling me how Londonwide Divers found ways to entertain themselves on dive trips. "That means me finding my drysuit boots filled with the guts of sea urchins just as I'm kitting up to dive!"
As we savoured this subtle example of Cockney humour, he went on: "My ex-diving officer Terry used to enjoy catching his own flatfish for supper. More than once he has surfaced from a dive unaware that he had the tail of some poor sole flapping away under his chin. He used to catch his flatfish then stuff it inside his wetsuit jacket for the duration of his dive!"
As he talked our dive boat crept into a picturesque inlet. The profuse green vegetation left us in no doubt why it was called Little Amazon.
Our Turkish hosts prided themselves on fishing and catching their meals rather than cooking from frozen. As the crew gathered wood for our barbecue, prepared the lobster and tenderised octopus against the rocks, Mark told me about the episode of The Bill in June 1995 that had featured him diving.
"It had never before been mentioned in the series but all of a sudden it turns out that good old James Carver is actually an experienced diver!"
He was scripted to clear a fictitious canal of some rubbish for a community project.
"As happens in television, my buddy and I got separated underwater because it was murky, and the girl that I was with thought she had seen a body down there! She came up screaming, and I went back down, but couldn't find anything. It was basically an excuse for the series to script in the Police Underwater Search Unit," said Mark.
The topside shots were in the London docks, the underwater shots in a tank of water in a New Forest studio. The 3m-deep tank was filled with shopping trolleys, filing cabinets, tyres - even a motorbike. Fuller's Earth provided the murkiness. "This," said Mark, "broke The Bill convention by actually having an overnight away from London and the usual studio."
He used all his own kit for the shoot, though he said it was a particularly hot summer to be donning a drysuit for a full day of filming!
That evening we enjoyed our game of Liar Dice in proportion to the raki quaffed. As usual on such holidays drinks are not included in the price, but the organisers will purchase in bulk to advance order and have it chilled ready. All the food is included - good value, especially considering the number of lobsters we enjoyed.
We crossed from Little Amazon to English Bay on our third day. Guests can lounge about or join in the "handling" of the sails if they so wish. Once under sail, gulets are transformed into vessels of galleon-type splendour, and an intense air of tranquillity seems to wash over guests and crew alike. English Bay is named after the many British ships that sought shelter from the Germans here during the last war. There are numerous dive sites but guests can elect, as we did, to go on a full-day excursion.
A two-hour minibus ride brought us to the riverside town of Caunos, where we transferred to a 5m river boat and set off along reed-lined waterways under the gaze of the rock tombs of Lykia. Hewn from the cliff-face centuries ago, these must rank as the eighth wonder of the world. Turtles ducked below the waters, kingfishers painted blue streaks across the reeds.
Through a maze of water channels our boat putted on to Turtle Beach, 5km of soft sand where turtles nest during July. Our destination was the 4th century BC ruined city of Caunos, where Mark Wingett found the pull of the stage irresistible.
As we sat on the stone benches of the ancient amphitheatre, he gave a fine rendition of Hotspur from Henry IV Part 1 and other Shakespearian selections, his voice carrying with remarkable clarity. To end our visit a wallow in the famed mudbaths of Caunos looked good for a laugh. "Last one in is a cissyeeeee..." I taunted as I slipped and fell headfirst into the warm, grey ooze. Emerging likehe creature from the lost lagoon, my moans were lost in the howls of laughter from Mark and the others. "We're like extras from Apocalypse Now!" quipped an absurd-looking Mark as the mud dried and tightened around his jaw.
The last of the three pools is a volcanically warmed bath of mineral water in which we washed off the last of the mud. The day typified our enjoyment of a dive-sail holiday that seemed to offer much more than the "two-dives-a-day-then-go-home-knackered" trips I am used to.
I would usually hesitate to recommend such a trip to non-diving partners and families of divers, but in this case they would probably be quite happy. The diving continued unabated in the following days, but other excursions were available.
Moving slowly west along the southern peninsula of the Bay of Gokova we would anchor up over the reefs around the Seven Isles and watch the turtles as they broke the calm surface. Moon jellies and moray eels brightened our dive on Teke Reef, while Okan's Reef, with its buttress-type walls, seemed to be festooned with nudibranchs, shoals of scissorfish and all sorts of sponges.
We even spotted a manta ray, a sea hare and several amphora pieces. And it was while I was off following some pretty parrotfish that Mark discovered a small cave among the various rock formations.
Though wide enough for only one diver to swim through comfortably at a time, it transpired that this was a genuine discovery. We had to name it "Carver's Cave".
Later I asked Mark what had been the best advice given to him on the subject of diving over the past 14 years. He tapped his Camel on the ashtray. "Geoff Kaley, an ex-DO of our club, once said to me that 'nothing is 100 per cent underwater. If you don't want to risk having a bend, then don't go underwater!'"
He then recalled his favourite Weymouth diving skipper Andy Smith, with whom his club dives at least once every year. Andy had always advised divers to wear a line-cutter if diving the Salsette, as there were many nets on it (see The Incident Pit in this issue). "I have dived the Salsette four or five times and never got caught on it, but it so happened I did once, and I hadn't brought a line-cutter!" Mark had already exchanged signals with his buddy to start their ascent from 40m, as their bottom time was up. He became tangled in some derelict monofilament netting and they became separated. Recently trained in self-rescue techniques, Mark was able to partially inflate his ABLJ, then locate and cut the strands that were pinning him to the wreckage near the seafloor. In shallower waters he spent nearly 20 minutes decompressing. "I surfaced looking like the proverbial ball of wool!"
This had been his first dive with a twinset: "But for the fact that I had been wearing so much air, things might have turned out differently. I thought that was it, because I was sliding down the incident pit quite nicely, thank you! "
Mark bought himself a line-cutter, and now carries it in his BC at all times!
Looking ahead, he enthuses about his involvement with the Catalina Project in Northern Ireland. Fast Cat to Killadeas was a documentary made by a friend, John Bruce, during his first expedition to hunt for the old WW2 flying boat, but they had failed to locate it. Mark revealed that on subsequent trips they had made a positive trace on sidescan sonar, and he hopes to be part of the team that will eventually raise the Catalina from 15m, although he says the project is desperate for funding.
The days of our Turkish holiday seeped one into the other. Whether simply motoring off in the tender to go exploring, or lying back on the aft cushions listening to the breathing of the boat under sail, it was a fabulous experience.
No one would pretend that the marine life in the Aegean Sea is any real competition for the more expensive and exotic locations of the world, but this was so much more of a holiday it really didn't matter, as our fictitious detective readily agreed.