‘Do you think I’ll pass this time?’ Keeley, a rather highly strung 40-year-old mother asks her two young boys.
‘No. You never do,’ replies the older one, stony faced.
‘But I’m going to try really hard this time!’
‘You say that every time,’ he says flatly. Keeley has failed her driving test nine times. The average female driver needs 21 lessons. Keeley has been trying to pass her test for the same number of years.
It’s very tempting to think, especially if you already have a licence and are negotiating our increasingly crowded roads, that some people – always other people, of course – were really not meant to drive. And Keeley, along with 65-year-old retired English teacher Malcolm, who also featured in the first episode of The Undriveables, a new, nicely-done ITV series which takes ‘Britain’s worst learner drivers’ and puts them into the hands of the country’s best instructors for a five day ‘crash’ course, certainly starts off by tending to confirm that view.
Keeley has hand-flapping, full-blown panic attacks behind the wheel – ‘put me in the car with a tester and I just turn into a lump of jelly’ – and anxious Malcolm, who gave up learning to drive 22 years ago, can’t see a kerb or car without trying to hit it: ‘I have a fear of doing damage to other road users,’ says the mild-mannered chap who when behind the wheel seems determined to do just that – albeit very, very slowly.
Or as the wonderfully deadpan Geoffrey Palmer narrating says: ‘Apparently men are more likely than women to have a crash during their test. Malcolm looks even more likely to than most.’
Keeley is put in a pair of large, safe and patient pair of hands, belonging to Simon Cook, 58, a former elite police driver from Kenilworth. ‘I’m one of the best driving instructors in the Britain,’ he says, modestly. ‘So when someone says to me they can’t do it, it’s like red rag to a bull.’ Good driving instructors don’t accept that some people weren’t meant to drive. Recognising Keeley’s confidence deficit he sets about telling her point blank that ‘We’re here to succeed. We’re gonna get you a full licence by the end of the week’. To emphasise the point he says ‘I won’t allow the use of the F-word - ‘fail’’.
‘I use a lot of F-words!’ says Keeley. And so she does, swearing at buses and vans and really anything at all that moves. When she’s not bursting into tears or rushing out of the car to throw up. ‘I am worried,’ admits a shaken-looking Simon, ‘because I’ve never had someone get out of the car to be sick.’
Or, I suspect, someone who exclaims in horror ‘ARGH!! I’M ON A BRIDGE!!’ (A nice big, wide one called London Bridge).
Sitting on a park bench, sharing a ciggie after another implosion, he tells her philosophically, ‘even bad experiences are an experience.’ Slowly, slowly Simon’s Zen-like patience begins to wear Keeley down – and calm her down. ‘I’d have thrown me out of the car ages ago!’ she admits. She begins to drive less like a crazy lady and more like a driver who might be allowed out without dual controls.
Meanwhile, Slo-Mo Death Wish 2000 Malcolm has been placed in the capable hands of Ursula Harman, a Grade Six driving instructor with a pass rate of 87 per cent - more than double the average. Her motto is ‘Pass With Class’, believing good manners and road etiquette are key. ‘I’d score Malcolm 2 out of 10,’ she said after the first lesson, dispensing with niceties. ‘His positioning of the vehicle does need a lot of work. We’ve got a bit of a mountain to climb with this one, yes.’
But climb it she does, making him drive down the narrowest street she can find and stop the car every time he gets too close to a parked vehicle to show him how close he is, rubbing his nose in it. ‘This is hell’, grins poor Malcolm. She also persuades him to lift his sights. ‘Anxious learner drivers often look too much at things close to them, worrying about hitting them,’ she explains.
Come the day of the test, Keeley complains of a ‘bit of a belly’. But she seems transformed from the ‘jelly’ she was at the beginning of the week. She even tells Simon that she knows she’s totally up for it. Malcolm is also much more confident than when we first saw him – and passes. Hugged by his delirious wife, who has been an unpaid taxi driver for Malcolm for the past 40 years, he says generously, ‘Nobody could be a worse driver than me – so if I can do it anyone can!’
Alas there is a worse driver than him – or at least one seemingly more determined to sabotage herself. Keeley hits a kerb hard during the middle of her test, resulting in the F-word. Simon reassures a teary Keeley in Churchillian style that this ‘is not the end but the beginning… we will win in the end’. Keeley vows: ‘I’m gonna dust myself down and get back up and work on my emotions and anxiety and maybe give it another go in another two months.’
Which is an uplifting ending. But I suspect her son still isn’t convinced.