John DeLorean: NI saviour was king of manipulation

GRAEME COUSINS talks to the NI man behind a new documentary based on the life and times of John DeLorean

Monday, 26th April 2021, 9:00 am
John DeLorean on the production line of his Dunmurry factory in October 1981. Pacemaker Press Intl

With the Troubles raging around him US entrepreneur John DeLorean arrived in Northern Ireland to do the unthinkable.

He planned to set up a car assembly plant in a warzone, in a country that had never previously produced a single automobile.

As one worker, being interviewed as production began on the iconic car, said: “I had my own car but that’s the only experience I ever had with cars.”

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The DeLorean is one of the world's most iconic cars

In 1979 DeLorean was able to set up the factory with financial assistance from the British government. The location was west Belfast – an area which at that time had the highest unemployment rate in the industrial world.

BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent when the DeLorean factory was set up was Jeremy Paxman. When interviewed subsequently for a documentary which will air tonight and tomorrow night on BBC One NI, he said: “The rationale of the British Government was simple – people who have jobs don’t spend all their time rioting and fighting and scheming.”

Roy Hattersley, who had then been secretary of state for prices and community protection, said: “Roy Mason (the Labour secretary of state for NI) put it in such a way that to turn DeLorean down seemed like abandoning Northern Ireland and its economy.”

Mechanic David Winnington described the factory at The Cutts in Dunmurry as “an oasis” allowing Protestant and Catholic workers to escape the sectarian tension engulfing Northern Ireland.

Delorean on DMC bonnet. Photo by Alexx Michael

But it wasn’t to last as the DeLorean dream went up in smoke less than two years after the first car came off the production line in 1981.

The man who produced this fascinating and stylishly presented new documentary on John DeLorean is Jon-Barrie (JB) Waddell.

He lives in Helen’s Bay, Co Down and his production company – Fired Up Films – is based further along the coast in Holywood.

JB began his psychological study of DeLorean using hours of unseen footage filmed by US documentary filmmaker DA Pennebaker and his wife who had been given exclusive access from 1979 to 1981.

DeLorean first appeared in the Back To The Future film trilogy in 1985

He said: “The Pennebakers started to see things going wrong. What they said was he was creating firestorms all around him to distract people from what was really going on.

“He was a king of manipulation. He was able to manipulate people and situations to get his way and he did it very well.”

The Pennebakers’ footage is used alongside news archive from the time, recent interviews with key players in the story and artwork from Belfast animator Peter Strain to make for a thorough investigation into the man behind the car made famous through the Back To The Future movie franchise.

The documentary is a BBC co-commission with Netflix, made with assistance from Northern Ireland Screen.

John DeLorean was given £54m to build his factory in Belfast

JB added: “What I found amazing is when we were selling the project to Netflix, the execs weren’t even aware that the car was built in Belfast.

“That’s the illusion of the DeLorean motor car, everyone knows about it from Back To The Future, it became an iconic vehicle throughout the world but not many knew who John DeLorean was and that the car was built in the middle of a warzone.”

Perhaps a subconscious starting point to the project was the fact JB had rode in a DeLorean as a schoolboy.

He said: “My dad was head of programmes at Ulster Television at that time. He had John in the studio and he gave us a DeLorean for a couple of days.

“I remember being 10 years old, being in the DeLorean. Those were iconic memories. This was 1981, before Back To The Future came out and everyone went DeLorean mad.”

Of DeLorean’s desire to locate his plant in west Belfast, JB said: “He was looking around for a fast buck, a way to build a factory. He’d been in Spain, in Italy, in Puerto Rico. He was very close to doing a deal in the Republic. When they did their due diligence on him they backed out.

John DeLorean with his model wife Cristina

“The British came in like a rocket afterwards and DeLorean secured the deal very quickly – within 11 days of discussions. He was awarded a significant amount of money. It was working for both the parties. The British were desperate for investment, DeLorean was desperate for money. He definitely saw this as an opportunity but he had no idea what he was walking into.”

Special NI version of events

The two-part series DeLorean: Back From The Future starts tonight on BBC One NI at 9pm and continues tomorrow night at 10.45pm.

A BBC co-commission with Netflix, this extended, two-part version of the documentary has been specially made for BBC NI using rare and unseen footage filmed by Oscar-winning directors DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and through news archive documenting his life and career.

Former colleagues and factory workers shed new light on their experiences as the true turmoil unfolds behind the scenes.

For the first time in 40 years, ex-wife and fashion model, Cristina Ferrare, delivers a moving account of her time with the auto maker. His son Zachary also shares a rare and emotional insight about his father.

Respected journalists offer new perspectives as they investigate DeLorean’s colourful past and dramatic fall from grace, while the series unravels one of the greatest corporate failures in modern British history.

Previously broadcast as a 100-minute film on BBC Two, it will also be available on BBC iPlayer. The Netflix version is due this summer.

From sexploitation to exploitation via Hitler

Personalities explored by JB Waddell in previous documentaries have included Bruce Lee, Adolf Hitler and Russ Meyer.

He said: “One of the first projects I directed was on a film maker called Russ Meyer, he was the king of sexploitation in the 70s and 80s. He was a huge figure in the underbelly of Los Angeles.

“I’ve got a real fascination with profiles on unique individuals. Bruce Lee, Hitler, Russ Meyer all come from very different backgrounds, but all their stories are very rich.

“We’re looking at a number of other high profile characters. We’re looking at cults at the minute as a company.

“We’re working on a project called The Children of God which was an LA based cult run by David Berg in the late 70s.

“It went on to become one of the largest sex cults in the world. There hasn’t been a deep dive done on The Children of God.

“We’ve been working very closely with contributors in the inner circle of The Children of God, it stills exists today, it’s called The Family International.”

JB used to work with his sister Jannine at Waddell Media, a company of 30 years standing with a proud track record of producing documentaries and factual entertainment series.

He said: “I left a couple of years ago and formed Fired Up Films. It’s a scripted and unscripted company, I’ve a partner in London. We’re really focusing on these kind of blue chip, deep dive, psychological profile type series.

“DeLorean is one of our first projects. We’ve secured it as a co-production with Netflix and the BBC who were looking for new projects in this area.

“I think a lot of these documentaries are now playing out like drama, like movies. That’s what’s really hooking the viewer in. They’re creating drama, cliffhangers, incredible stories.

“These documentaries are much deeper dives into a storyline, there’s a real appetite for breaking down these complex characters rather than skimming across subjects. The audience are getting a fresh lens on subjects that they’ve never seen before.”

Further recommended viewing

True crime documentaries and dramas worth checking out:

• Making A Murderer (unpicking the murder of Teresa Halbach)

• The Serpent (drama based on killer Charles Sobhraj)

• Tiger King (study of the Joe Exotic/Carole Baskin saga)

• White House Farm (Bamber family murders dramatisation)

• Don’t F*** With Cats (story Luke Magnotta, one of Canada’s most infamous murderers)

• Mindhunter (drama based on FBI profiling of serial killers)

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