Andy Wilman recently wrote an interesting article in The Telegraph revealing how Top Gear works behind the scenes.
If we’re going to go on air in June, we’ll get our heads on in February. There’s no gap after a series. There’s a little bit of a formula in that we go, ‘We need a couple of daft “cockabout” films and then we need a couple of sexy films – like a big road trip – we need some solo films,’ and so on. Everyone knows the timetable. There’s nine of us in the Top Gear office plus the three presenters. We’ll try and get at least one big brainstorm with all 12 of us.
The younger kids in the office go for the stunts. Jeremy, Richard, James and I think about other things now. We get some ideas together and go yes, no, knock some stuff out right away. We’re disciplined about what constitutes a Top Gear film. Sometimes I kill stuff and people will go, hang on, you’ve got cars going off a cliff in the motorhomes film and I’ve got this idea where they build a car out of wood and camp in it. And I’ll go, yeah, but it’s not right.
In this series, we’ve built a Top Gear train. We spent two hours thinking: should we build Top Gear fire engines? The idea was similar – we in our cack-handed arrogance think we can do a better job of something that already exists, comedy ensues – but we just couldn’t get it right. So, fire engines and trains are on the board and then fire engines dies away. By about April, we’ve really got to know what we’re doing.
Blowing the budget
We rarely stay within budget. We’ll go six figures over sometimes, then we get told off. But they don’t send the bailiffs. Every show has had to go through a budget cut and we were not excluded from that, but BBC Worldwide also puts money into the show. They’re selling it to 100 countries, so we’ve got a stronger argument to go to them and say get your wallet out. The presenters’ salaries haven’t gone up exponentially with the success of the show. Ultimately it’s a BBC Two show, there simply isn’t the budget to top-load their salaries and they all know that. You can’t start giving Louis Walsh money out.
Each film is looked after by a producer or an assistant producer. They have to handle the logistics, pulling things together if you need experts, and keeping the storylines solid and honest. In amphibious cars [in series eight], for example, the cars had to be able to drive on the road and go straight in the water, so they’ve got to be road legal. That’s the task, not how silly or inventive we can be. Once you do that, it grounds the story.
Filming and editing
The look of our show is important. The unit is expensive for a three-day shoot. There will be a helicopter if required. We will go where we need to go, even if it’s Romania. We don’t have the budget to wait for things to happen. That’s why sometimes you’ll see a test at the track where it’s raining one minute and sunny the next. It’s called ‘living in Britain’. We’ve just shot a McLaren film that’s like that. We don’t stop. That’s movie behaviour.
The evil bit is how quickly we have to turn it around. In the new superminis film, we started in Lucca, went up to Alba and then down to Monaco. We came back with over 100 hours of stuff. Plus you’ve got all the minicams in the cars rolling. Worst mistake we’ve ever made. The presenters can operate them themselves, if they’ve got something to say, and then they’ll just leave them on… I wish we’d just had a big boxing glove come out instead and say shut the f— up now.
You’ve got to go through it all though because there might just be a gem. It has to be ready in four weeks. The editors will get rid of all the stuff like James eating Werther’s Originals.
Then I come along. I’m probably the fastest at knocking that down into 40 minutes. I know what to throw away. It’s done on paper. In the new series there’s a segment with Richard driving a Marauder [armoured vehicle]. He did 10 scenarios with it, you need seven.”
We have to put all the scripts through [the BBC] compliance [process], in case something like Mexico comes up [Hammond sparked a furore when he said Mexican cars would be “lazy”]. We use the John Humphrys test. Could we defend ourselves against him? I didn’t anticipate the Mexican ambassador sending a letter to the papers. But when you make a joke about lorry drivers and prosititutes, you know what’s going to happen.
In the superminis film, Jeremy is driving with a dog. He puts the brakes on and the dog shoots out of camera and you hear a bump, then a yelp. Somebody is bound to go, why was that dog in the front? But the dog was fine.
‘‘Elf ’n’ safety’’
Sadly, yes, we have a health and safety officer at planning meetings. We did it even before Hammond’s accident. The irony is we’re pretty good at it because we do it all the time. They probably have more to say to shows that do a stunt occasionally. To us, they’ll say, right, that qualifies as a stunt, so you need a stunt co-ordinator – and I don’t want to pay for one of them. But I’m experienced enough to argue, ‘No, it’s not a stunt, and these are the reasons why.’
In the studio
We write the script for the studio section on the Tuesday before the show airs. It’s written by the presenters and [script editor] Richard Porter. We start at nine in the morning, and have a read-through at three in the office. If there are no laughs, it’s, ‘oh s—.’ Jeremy and I write the questions for the guest together. This series Rowan Atkinson’s finally coming on, Cowell’s coming back. No word yet from Prince Harry but the offer’s there.
On Wednesday we decamp down to Dunsfold [in Surrey]. While the studio is being set up, we’ll have a run-through of the script. Tweak it again over fags and coffees, then rehearse it. Then it’s get changed, make-up, food, in. Guests arrive about one o’clock; they do their lap with The Stig.
We cut that together on site.There’s no warm-up man. The presenters do it. They just chat away, taking the p— out of each other. The audience are Trojans, they get a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat, they never get to sit down. We start at three, and we’re done by six. In the early days, it used to be eight o’clock, and we’d still be there. My job was to be at the door saying, please don’t go.
Then, you have to get rid of the presenters because they’ll all start going, ‘What about that bit where I got everyone to laugh?’ It’s a rule. They go.