In a world that increasingly feels like it only works on raucous hysteria, BBC Three’s zen motoring feels a bit like a godsend. This new six-part comedy is relentlessly calm and thoughtful, almost to the point of disorientation. Comprised primarily of dashcam footage and ambient music, Zen Motoring is a vehicle for the mind-expanding, patient thought processes of one man: a mysterious former battle rapper named Ogmios.
Filmed primarily in London, but reaching out to Milton Keynes and Herne Bay in Kent, Ogmios spends the series in a state of almost non-stop flux, aware of everything around him and doing his best to increase the harmony of the road experience. . When blocked by some dumpsters, where other drivers would writhe in waves of stress, Ogmios keeps his head. “I’m so happy to sit back and watch this mesmerizing display,” Attenborough murmurs, like a beat poet from north London.
Not much happens in Zen Motoring: Ogmios rescues an injured pigeon, visits new cities, raps a bit, but that’s the point. The backbone of the show is the reassuring commentary from the dash cam. Imagine the police camera action! narrated by a pool commentator and you’re halfway there.
Ogmios is also known as Ivan Battaliero-Owen, a 41-year-old former physical education teacher from Hackney, east London. It’s always a bit tense talking to a comedian for the first time, especially one with a personality as sharp as Ogmios’s, because you never know if you’ll get the real person, the character, or a mix of the two. So it makes sense to ask him in advance. I’m confused, I tell him. Are you Ivan or Ogmios?
“I’m confused too,” he laughs over the phone, his voice only a fraction less unflappable than his on-screen creation. “It is a very fine line. Ogmios is my rap name, and 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 spouting almost spiritual platitudes for every traffic snag he encounters. But the line between actor and character seems incredibly blurred. “It’s something I’m interested in,” insists Battaliero-Owen, who came up with the idea for the show through her hobby of watching YouTube dash cam footage.
“A lot of the dashcam stuff on YouTube is pretty tense, with a lot of swearing, road rage, and crashes,” he says. “I thought about trying to do something just using dashcam footage of a really relaxing drive. Before that, I used to see things on the road and wished I had a dashcam. I would think: ‘Oh, this is dashcam gold’”.
Last year a prototype appeared online as Ogmios School of Zen Motoring. Across three videos, Ogmios applied his calm philosophy to a series of real-world situations. The videos are great – in one he’s out during the Jewish festival Purim and gets caught on a street full of Hasidic Jews enjoying a deafening rave – but the BBC show is more structured. It has a narrative that allows us to get a better idea of who Ogmios is. The results are beautiful. It’s the kind of show you can either let it wash over you or you can lose yourself in the nuts and bolts of the zen driving mindset.
The key to achieving this, says Battaliero-Owen, is the ability to clear your mind and think of traffic as a large organic system, rather than something you aggressively conquer. “You’re thinking about the general flow of pedestrians, bikes, cars, and general movement,” he says. “See yourself as a part of it and think about what move will help the situation flow. Something bigger is happening.”
So is it really a Zen driver? “I am, yes,” he says. “I’m certainly trying to get more Zen. Over the years I’ve been trying to dig into that well of patience. Sometimes I fall short, which doesn’t mean I get out of the car and hit people, but I have to cultivate that mentality. It’s the zen practice of thinking, ‘This is fine, I can wait here,’ as the taxi stops in the middle of the road and drops everyone off.”
This mindset is key to the success of Zen Motoring. For the most part, driving can be a tense affair, filled with angry people ready to fight at the mere provocation. Ogmios’ refusal to get involved with all the rushing stress around him is not only funny, it’s also a little inspiring.
That said, a relatively new addition to the roads seems to be pushing both Ogmios and Battaliero-Owen to the far fringes of their calm. Both Zen Motoring and YouTube videos are worried about electric scooters. The “scooterboys”, as Ogmios has called them, are a plague on the roads; they have rights, they are alien and a danger to everyone around them.
There is an episode where Ogmios engages in a rap battle with a scooterboy, and another where, in a nod to Taxi Driver, he begins to view them with unusual disdain. It all seems to come from a very real place, I say.
“I guess I originally found this phenomenon that quickly appeared on the streets interesting,” he says of e-scooters. “The spaces they occupy, they can move quite quickly. They are not cyclists. The whole vibe of moving through space while standing. Having to adapt to scooterboys who don’t have much experience with traffic rules.”
That said, you can understand its popularity. “In general, I am in favor of electric travel and I hope that we can move towards a sustainable travel network,” he says. “I rode an e-scooter for the show, and they are more fun than I thought.” Furthermore, he points out, scooterboys seem utterly harmless compared to a new breed of cyclist on the roads. “I’ve noticed the ‘wheelboys,'” he says darkly of those who ride electric unicycles. “They are even more otherworldly, traveling through our dimension.”
A big part of Zen Motoring’s appeal is the music: a hazy, hazy 3am vibe that Battaliero-Owen plans to release as an album this year. It fits into a long line of comedies where the mind-blowing soundtrack is as vital as the words spoken. there is a little blue jam there, and strong echoes of Joe Pera Talks With You’s amazed tenderness. “You’re the second person to mention it to me,” says Battaliero-Owen. He hasn’t seen any of Pera’s work, but plans to, which seems sensible, because, in their ability to do comedy that actively lowers blood pressure, they’re clearly kindred spirits.
“Honestly, if people just watch the show and find it relaxing, that’s a win for me,” says Battaliero-Owen. “My humor can be a bit idiosyncratic and not for everyone, but there’s stuff on the show for dashcam purists, ASMR devotees and people who like music.”
One good thing about going big on YouTube first is that Battaliero-Owen already knows what kind of comments to 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 are not always positive. “A friend sent me a Reddit thread where a cyclist had posted my video. He enjoyed it, but then he was like, ‘Oh, this guy had seven minor fouls.’” Is that frustrating? I ask, trying to pierce his unflinching demeanor. “No!” he answers. “I would love to know what the flaws are. I am always looking to improve.”
Battaliero-Owen quit her education job last April to focus on the program. He sounds insecure when I ask him about future plans, just hoping he can focus on nebulous-sounding “creative stuff.” But you shouldn’t worry. Zen Motoring has all the makings of a cult hit. Judging by the word-of-mouth recommendations it’s already inspired, more episodes would seem like a safe bet.
If that’s the case, he knows what the next episode will bring. Part of it will involve getting out of the car. “I hope to make a couple of videos of zen cyclists. Just strap on a GoPro and go on a journey from a cycling perspective.” In addition, 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 and harmonious dashcam footage. If that doesn’t make the world a better place, nothing will.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism