Five Things You Probably Didn't Know About Top Gear
Richard Porter, author of And On that Bombshell and script editor for all 22 series of Top Gear, divulges some insider knowledge from behind the scenes of the programme.
1. It wasn’t always three men mucking about on a Sunday night
From 1977 until 2001, Top Gear wasn’t a show about three silly mates building things then arguing about them until one of them fell over. It was a serious consumer programme in which cars were tested, safety advice was given, and traction engine rallies were visited. At least, it was until the 1990s when they hired a young reporter called Jeremy Clarkson who brought with him a sense of humour, giving a hint of what was to come when, many years later, he brought back the show in a brand new form.
2. The new show could have been killed off before it started
It’s normal in television to make a pilot episode before you start broadcasting, just to check that all your ideas work. The new format of Top Gear was no exception and, once our pilot was done, it rapidly became clear that what we’d made was a load of rubbish. It had a horrible set, it kept the audience penned in, and the it made the presenters seem rigid and uncomfortable. The BBC told us to go away and film another pilot so we did. And it was even worse. At this point, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for management to assume that we didn’t know what we were doing and quickly cancel the whole thing. Thankfully, they didn’t.
3. The Stig was almost called something ruder
It was Jeremy’s idea to have an in-house racing driver who never spoke and never took off his helmet. I think it might also have been Jeremy’s idea to name him after a leather-masked slave locked in a Los Angeles basement in the movie Pulp Fiction: He was going to be called The Gimp. The BBC realised that this was a bit rude and made us change it. Fittingly, it was Jeremy who also came up with the new name, based on what they called new kids at this school. And that’s how The Stig came about.
4. A Bolivian drug lord threatened to kill us
Filming the South America special in 2009 was full of excitement. Mostly the sort of excitement that’s actually terrifying. The roads were scary, the driving was lethal, the nightly camp in the rain forest was basically an invitation to a bitey insect festival. And when we finally rolled into a small town, filthy, exhausted and looking forward to one night in a proper bed, we discovered a local drug lord was having a very noisy and energetic party in the bar behind our hotel. Our producer went to tell him to turn down his music. The drug lord’s response was clear and simple. If you attempt to turn down my music, he said, I will kill you.
5. James May really did get lost all the time.
We used to make an on-screen joke out of James’s poor sense of direction and this was no TV trickery. He really did get lost a lot. When we recorded our voice over within a labyrinthine BBC building, Clarkson and Hammond could be left to make their own way there. It was wise to send someone with May, otherwise he’d disappear for 40 minutes then ring you in a state of confusion as he trudged through the Watchdog office for the 15th time. The strange thing is, James is one of the cleverest and most brilliant people I know. But if you sent him into a maze I don’t think you’d see him again.
Behind the scenes of the global phenomenon Top Gear.