THE PROGRAMME we will soon come to call the Old New Top Gear was made in many states of mind. Panic, terror, mirth, joy, glee, confusion. But over the course of the 13 years and 22 series, the most constant and enduring emotion was surprise.
We were surprised that people were watching our poky little car show. We were surprised that three men bickering, blustering and falling over also had the sort of genuine and watchable chemistry you simply couldn’t synthesise. We were surprised when things worked out, when they didn’t and then surprised when actually our biggest failures were also our most beloved successes. We were often, as you might have gathered, a shambles.
You could tell as much from the working conditions under which Top Gear was made. Our office was home to a great deal of industry and contained a great many very bright, very talented people yet it appeared to have been recently vacated by a band of especially messy pigs whose last gesture before leaving was to bomb the place.
Our production office at the studio in Dunsfold, Surrey, was even worse, being bleak and cold and of such rank odour that once, when an owl got into the building, flapped around a bit and died, we only noticed the corpse because it made the place smell nicer.
Most of us on the team found some strange comfort in labouring away inside a manky, messy assimilation of a cheap student bedsit because it forced us to keep our feet on the ground and our tetanus boosters up to date. As the show’s audience grew, you might have expected us to be working from offices lined in oak and ermine yet nothing could have been further from the truth.
Besides, we were still trying to get our heads around the global success we had accidentally become. In our minds we were still a very local, very British motoring programme beavering away in a corner of BBC2. In the very early stages of planning we’d been told by Beeb bosses that if we could get to 3m viewers, we’d justify our existence.
By the end our global audience was said to be 350m and people in suits told us we were being flogged to 212 territories worldwide. Now, I’ve checked and there are only about 195 countries on the planet, so I can only assume that some places were accidentally buying us twice, the way a household might when you haven’t agreed whose turn it is to get bread. Even so, this was nice to know, as much as it was a great surprise.
The programme’s vast reach and audience was always a shock, especially since you can’t actually see 350m people watching your show, or at least keeping an eye on it while ironing the dog or deflea-ing their work shirts. It would be easy to assume the numbers were fiction until we turned up on location and within 20 minutes drew a crowd large enough to populate a small town.
People really do seem to like us, we would think, and this in itself would be a surprise. After all, what were they watching? Three middle-aged blokes driving around a bit and calling each other idiots. On paper it doesn’t sound too promising. Yet in real life, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May had a natural chemistry that made them hilariously funny.
This was only enhanced through the prism of TV as they bickered and boasted and found each other intermittently irritating in the way only friends can. Perhaps they reminded people of their real mates. Perhaps they seemed like the kind of mates they wanted to have. Either way, we were quite surprised that people wanted to watch this strange and badly dressed threesome doing whatever daft things they’d thought of that week.
Of course, this being Top Gear, it didn’t occur to us to put them together in the field until the fourth series. But then strategic planning never was our strong suit. The cross-continent races and the cheap car challenges took their sweet time to arrive and the very idea of making a Christmas special came about entirely by accident.
We could never truly acknowledge that our greatest successes crept up and took us by surprise, because we couldn’t plan not to plan, but it was self-evident that the things that worked best were those we set out not to do. Whereas any idea we formulated meticulously typically fell onto its bottom in an undignified and unamusing way, hence the India special and the best-forgotten laugh vacuum of Top Gear Stunt Man.
I suppose we shouldn’t have expected any more from ourselves. We were, after all, the show that began life by making a pilot episode so bad the BBC, showing a weary tolerance that would become the hallmark of its dealings with Top Gear, told us to go away and have another go.
Which we did, only to turn in something that managed to be even more terrible. That’s not to suggest that the entire Top Gear team was a gang of blithering incompetents, because nothing could be further from the truth. It was, in fact, a staff of rare intelligence and dedication that still managed to form a freewheeling and chaotic whole. We changed our minds, we changed our opinions, we changed our studio to make it bigger, then accidentally filled it with old cars and so much rubbish that it actually became smaller than the old one. We were, as someone once had it, a brilliant dysfunctional family.
Just as much as we surprised ourselves when things didn’t work and yet actually worked out marvellously, our longtime quest was to surprise our audience. In the early days this was relatively easy, because viewers didn’t expect to see grandmothers doing doughnuts in a Honda S2000 or to find Jeremy driving a large Vauxhall from the back seat.
We did this sort of thing so other programmes didn’t have to. Also, other programmes were the News and the Antiques Roadshow and they probably didn’t want to. The main point was, no one else was up to this stuff. The problem was, you can’t surprise people for ever because soon they learn to expect the unexpected. Or, to put it another way, once you’ve shown people that you can turn a Reliant Robin into a space shuttle and pilot a pick-up truck across the English Channel, they’ll believe that nothing is impossible, short of James whipping off his rubber mask to reveal that he was played by Meryl Streep. And that, I’m afraid, had to remain a secret. Our power to surprise others, if not ourselves, was diminished, but I like to think we still delivered the occasional broadside, even if it was just confounding expectation by not setting something on fire for once.
Then in March we managed to deliver the ultimate surprise when Top Gear suddenly and unexpectedly clattered to a halt. I won’t go into the why and the how of all that again. I think it might have been covered in a couple of the newspapers. All I can add is, after living for so long in a state of constant surprise, for those of us who worked on the show this was regrettable but hardly unexpected.
After all, what did we imagine? That the show would end with calm and dignity? Whether by design or by accident, we’d created our own little world of chaos, calamity, madness and foolishness. It was, therefore, absolutely to be expected that Top Gear would die just as it had lived. In a strange and surprising way.
And on that Bombshell, by Richard Porter, is published by Orion, priced £20
Five surprising Top Gear successes
PUTTING THE THREE HOSTS TOGETHER ON LOCATION
In the original plan the presenters were together in the studio and went their separate ways to film the segments. It took four series for us to realise they might be quite funny if we shoved them together on location. Even then, it was a cautious experiment. The result, to our surprise, became a bedrock of the show.
There was a never a plan to make annual Christmas specials. We simply went to America to film a road trip, belatedly realised it was so massive it needed a whole show to itself and, hey presto, the Top Gear Special was born completely by accident. Originally, they weren’t even on at Christmas either.
THE RELIANT ROBIN SPACE SHUTTLE
Jeremy Clarkson thought it was a stupid idea. Our money people spluttered at the quote for building the largest non-commercial rocket Europe had yet seen. The finished craft failed to detach from its booster and smashed into the ground. Yet despite its tortured genesis and ultimate failure, the Reliant shuttle became one of our most beloved stories.
THE GLOBAL AUDIENCE
We never planned to have a massive worldwide audience. We were a silly little British programme hidden away on BBC2. Worldwide success happened by accident. Besides, if we’d tried to be global we’d have had Clarkson shouting “trunk” instead of boot, Richard Hammond speaking fractured Mandarin and James May in Dutch national costume. It would have been inept and horrendous.
Having a mute, faceless racing driver was Clarkson’s idea. I didn’t think it would work. The whole thing almost stalled after we decided to call him the Gimp. The BBC realised this was a bit rude and the man inside the suit objected, so we hastily renamed him after the nickname for new kids at Clarkson’s old school, with no idea that the Stig would become such an icon.