Clarkson on: Top Gear
May I begin by wishing you all a very happy new year. I certainly hope you enjoy reading Top Gear magazine over the next 12 months, because the way things are going, the programme of the same name isn’t going to be making much of an appearance.
Thanks to Wimbledon, the BBC’s strange obsession with covering snooker, which is like billiards for poor people, and the World Cup, which is a competition in which people on vast salaries run around a field, there simply isn’t enough space left for the sort of television programme normal people might actually want to watch. I think there will be one episode of Top Gear in 2006, on a Thursday, in August, while you’re at the beach.
This might be a disappointment for the huge numbers of teenage girls that tune into to see Richard Hammond’s new teeth every week, but for those who actually work on the show, it’ll be nothing short of a blessed relief.
In the olden days, making Top Gear was easy. You drove round a few corners, put some suitcases in the boot of whatever you were testing, and then back at the edit, the director would cover up the gaps with lots of pounding Seventies’ rock music. It took about 15 minutes.
Not any more, because the show has become a monster. You may have noticed that the credits at the end of a normal programme roll for about six seconds, whereas the ones at the end of Top Gear give the impression you’ve been watching Ben Hur.
So what, you may be wondering, do we all do? Well obviously, a lot of the time, we stare at Sophia and Rachel, our production co-ordinators, but then, we have to get down to it.
Take the Bugatti race from Alba to London. Obviously, someone had to find a Bugatti which was available for six days. Then someone had to get two crews out to Italy and someone else had to find a four-minute hole in Richard Hammond’s diary, so he could come too. While all this was going on, I was chained to my phone, talking to the engineer at Volkswagen who’d designed the car. And then I wrote the script. But, finally, we’re all ready to go.
A lot of people ask how we film these races, and whether they’re fixed. Well, let me say here and now, in print, they’re not. I follow a Range Rover tracking car, and we really don’t pull over for anything except fuel. In the drive to Oslo, the camera man spent 24 hours in the boot and had to relieve himself in a bottle because there was no time to stop.
Meanwhile, James and Richard are doing all they can to beat me. We take it very seriously.
But not half as seriously as the director who, when the race is over, has to retrace our steps, adding to the miles of tracking shots he took in the race, with many more miles of arty ‘ups and passes’. This usually takes three days. And then he edits the film.
And to edit the 32-minute Bugatti race took a staggering 33 sixteen-hour days. That’s not even a minute a day, and no one spends that much time (or money) on a commercial. It’s the main reason why Top Gear doesn’t look like any other show on television. Because everyone on it works so bloody hard. And because we have the best production manager in the whole of the BBC.
“Just as I’m saying 'Please welcome, James May', I see him going to the bogs with The Daily Telegraph”
We also have the best executive producer. Unlike most executive producers who are paid to have a lot of lunch, Andy Wilman spends all day in the office, swearing at anyone who walks past, and then when everyone’s gone home, he goes to the edit suite in central London to swear at everyone there. In the last run, he never got home before one in the morning.
He’s so busy, in fact, that he doesn’t even stare at Sophia and Rachel all that much. Then he announced he was firing everyone in the office who was a first-born child, “to keep the faith”.
Eventually, all the films are made, and edited, and normally everyone would go home to relax. But on Top Gear, we then go into production. We record on a Wednesday in the old hangar where they used to paint Harrier Jump Jets and that means on a Tuesday, the presenters have to rock up at the office.
Richard spends the day flossing or talking to his dentist, James looks at Rachel a bit, and then looks at the prices of old motorcycles on eBay, but I have to write the show and prepare the guest interview.
On the Wednesday, we read through the script I’ve written to make sure it’s not in French. Then we do a quick rehearsal in the freezing, or boiling, studio. Then James has a full three-course lunch as it’s been a while since his full three-course breakfast. And it’ll be at least six before he sits down to a three-course dinner. Richard doesn’t eat as it dulls the whitener.
Then it’s time to get ready. This means we have to break out the ironing board and do our shirts – when you’ve spent 33 days editing one film, there’s no money left over for wardrobe girls. Or cars to whisk us to the studio. Or even a green room.
What we do have is a Portakabin. This is the beating heart of the operation. It has no heating, no broadband, no chairs, and nowhere for the guest’s entourage to relax. We like it that way.
In summer, we sit on the grass looking at the airfield where WW2 fighters used to take off and imagine we’re in the RAF, waiting for the signal to scramble.
This comes at around 2.30pm when the audience is herded in and the gates shut. At around 2.28, a bird normally flies into the Portakabin and craps on James. Or he decides he’s hungry and needs another course, or that he needs a shit. So, just as I’m saying “Please welcome, James May”, I see him going to the bogs with The Daily Telegraph.
Currently, there are 190,000 people on the waiting list for tickets to see Top Gear. And with space for only 500 a week, it would take 19 years to accommodate them all. So we know it’s a big deal and have a tea break, so Richard, James and I can stand around having our pictures taken on people’s telephones. This baffles James a lot, partly because he doesn’t understand camera phones, but mostly because he can’t work out why anyone might want the picture of someone who’s spent most of the day having a crap. But I love Wednesdays and the buzz of a studio, standing there wondering why no one’s laughing at your jokes and speculating on how big the laugh will be when it’s dubbed on afterwards.
I love the sheer volume of Red Bull we get through, the vast quantities of cigarettes we smoke. And just how often we can call Hammond gay. I love the energy, the buzz and the way people react when you show them the films you worked so hard to make. It’ll be hard to get that same buzz from watching two men play snooker.