In a world that increasingly feels like it runs on nothing but shrill hysteria, BBC Three’s Zen Motoring feels a little like a gift from heaven. This new six-part comedy is relentlessly calm and thoughtful, almost to the point of being disorienting. Primarily comprised of dashcam footage and ambient music, Zen Motoring is a vehicle for the patient, mind-expanded thought processes of one man: a mysterious former battle rapper named Ogmios.
Shot primarily in London, but reaching Milton Keynes and Herne Bay in Kent, Ogmios spends the series in an almost unbroken state of flow, aware of everything around him, and doing his best to increase the harmony of the road experience. When he’s blocked in by some binmen, where other drivers would twist themselves into waves of stress, Ogmios keeps his head. “I’m quite happy to chill and watch this mesmerising display,” he murmurs, like a north London beat-poet Attenborough.
Not an awful lot happens in Zen Motoring – Ogmios rescues a stricken pigeon, visits new towns, raps a little – but that’s the point. The backbone of the show is the calming dashcam commentary. Imagine Police Camera Action! narrated by a snooker commentator and you’re halfway there.
Ogmios is otherwise known as Ivan Battaliero-Owen, a 41-year-old former PE teacher from Hackney, east London. It’s always a little fraught speaking to a comedian for the first time, especially one with a persona as sharp as Ogmios, because you never know if you’re going to get the actual person, the character, or a mixture of the two. So it makes sense to just ask him upfront. I’m confused, I tell him. Are you Ivan or Ogmios?
“I’m confused too,” he laughs down the phone, in a voice only a fraction less unflappable than that of his on-screen creation. “It’s a fine line. Ogmios is my rap name, and it has been for 15 years or more, so it’s a subtle distinction between the character and who I am. It’s me, essentially.”
The premise of Zen Motoring is played for laughs, with Ogmios rolling out quasi-spiritual truisms for every traffic inconvenience he encounters. But the line between performer and character seems incredibly blurred. “It’s something I’m interested in,” insists Battaliero-Owen, who struck upon the idea for the show through his hobby of watching YouTube dashcam footage.
“A lot of the dashcam stuff on YouTube is quite tense, with a lot of swearing, road rage and crashes,” he says. “I thought I’d try to make something only using dashcam footage of a really relaxing journey. Before that, I used to see things on the road and wished I had a dashcam. I’d think: ‘Oh this is dashcam gold.’”
Last year a prototype appeared online as Ogmios School of Zen Motoring. Over three videos, Ogmios applied his calm philosophy to a number of real world situations. The videos are a blast – in one, he sets out during the Jewish festival Purim and gets caught in a street full of Hassidic Jews enjoying an ear-splitting rave – but the BBC show is more structured. There’s a narrative to it, allowing us to get a better sense of who Ogmios is. The results are beautiful. It’s the sort of show you can either just let wash over you, or you can lose yourself in the nuts and bolts of the Zen driving mindset.
Key to achieving this, says Battaliero-Owen, is the ability to clear your mind and think of traffic as a huge organic system, rather than something to be aggressively conquered. “It’s thinking about the overall flow of pedestrians, bikes, cars and the overall movement,” he says. “Seeing yourself as one part of it, and thinking what move will help the flow of the situation. There’s something larger going on.”
So he really is a Zen driver? “I am, yeah,” he says. “Certainly I’m trying to get more Zen. Over the years I have been trying to dig into that well of patience. Sometimes I fall short, which isn’t to say that I get out of my car and beat people up, but I have to cultivate that mindset. It’s the Zen practice of thinking: ‘This is fine, I can wait here,’ while the cab stops in the middle of the road and disembarks everyone.”
This mindset is key to the success of Zen Motoring. For the most part, driving can be a fraught affair, full of furious people spoiling for a fight at the merest provocation. Ogmios’s refusal to engage with all the hurried stress around him isn’t just funny, it’s also a bit inspirational.
That said, one relatively new addition to the roads seems to push both Ogmios and Battaliero-Owen to the furthest peripheries of his calm. Both Zen Motoring and the YouTube videos are preoccupied by e-scooters. The “scooterboys”, as Ogmios has termed them, are a blight on the roads; they’re entitled, oblivious and a danger to everybody around them.
There’s one episode where Ogmios performs a rap battle with a scooterboy, and another where – in a nod to Taxi Driver – he starts to view them with uncharacteristic scorn. It all seems to come from a very real place, I say.
“I guess originally I found it interesting, this phenomenon that quickly appeared in the streets,” he says of e-scooters. “The spaces they occupy – they can move quite quickly. They’re not cyclists. The whole vibe of moving through space while standing up. Having to adjust to scooterboys not being particularly experienced with the rules of the road.”
That said, he can understand their popularity. “In general I’m in favour of electric travel, and hopefully we can move towards a sustainable travel network,” he says. “I rode an e-scooter for the show, and they’re more fun than I thought.” Plus, he notes, scooterboys look positively harmless in comparison with a new type of rider on the roads. “I’ve noticed ‘wheelboys’, he says darkly of those who ride around on electric unicycles. “They’re even more from another world, travelling through our dimension.”
A huge part of Zen Motoring’s appeal is the music: a hazy, ambient, 3am blur that Battaliero-Owen plans to release as an album this year. It fits into a long line of comedies where the trippy soundtrack is just as vital as the words spoken. There’s a little Blue Jam in there, and strong echoes of Joe Pera Talks With You’s awestruck tenderness. “You’re the second person to mention him to me,” Battaliero-Owen says. He hasn’t seen any of Pera’s work, but plans to, which seems sensible, because, in their ability to make comedy that actively lowers your blood pressure, they’re clearly kindred spirits.
“Honestly, if people just watch the show and find it relaxing, that for me is a win,” says Battaliero-Owen. “My humour can be a bit idiosyncratic and not for everyone, but there’s stuff on the show for dashcam purists, for ASMR devotees and for people who like music.”
One good thing about getting big on YouTube first is that Battaliero-Owen already knows what sort of feedback he can anticipate. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed is getting messages and comments from people who have said I’ve given them driving tips,” he says. But they’re not always positive. “A friend sent me a Reddit thread where a cyclist had posted my video. He enjoyed it, but then was like: ‘Oh, this guy’s made seven minor faults.’” Is that frustrating, I ask, trying to pierce his unshakable demeanour. “No!” he replies. “I’d love to know what the faults are. I’m always looking to improve.”
Battaliero-Owen gave up his job in education last April to focus on the show. He sounds uncertain when I ask about future plans, limiting himself to hoping that he will be able to concentrate on nebulous-sounding “creative things”. But he shouldn’t worry. Zen Motoring has all the hallmarks of a cult hit. Judging by the word-of-mouth recommendations he has already inspired, more episodes would seem a safe bet.
If that is the case, he knows what the next episode will bring. Part of it will involve getting out of the car. “I’m hoping to do a couple of Zen cyclist videos. Just strap a GoPro on and get a journey from a cycling perspective.” Plus he would like to see the impact of his Zen driving on the world. He envisions “an army of Zen drivers”, all recording their own thoughtful, harmonious dashcam footage. If that won’t make the world a better place, nothing will.