Things have been hectic in the world of Top Gear over the past few weeks – what with both Jeremy Clarkson’s job and the show’s future both hanging in the balance. Without Jeremy it seems, Top Gear surely could not go on. Jeremy Clarkson is Top Gear. But all of that needs to be put aside for a moment, because I feel something far more important has been overlooked.
Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Wilman deserve all the credit they have received for the work they’ve put into Top Gear, taking what was a pokey BBC motoring show and turning it into one of the biggest television programmes on the planet.
But there’s another man who deserves even more credit, because without him Top Gear as you know it today probably wouldn’t exist.
April 16, 1927 – March 17, 2015
The world has lost the true father of Top Gear, Derek Smith, who died of natural causes last week. He was aged 87.
Derek’s professional career began when he joined BBC West Midlands in 1957, working out of the corporation’s offices on Carpenter Road, Edgbaston. It was there that he produced films about the Armed Forces, among them the 1964 documentary Soldier in the Sun about the Royal Anglian Regiment in Aden and Yemen. He also made a documentary in 1969 about the history of the aircraft carrier called The Flight Deck Story, which he shot on board HMS Eagle and USS Enterprise off the coast of Vietnam.
In 1971, BBC West Midlands had outgrown their existing facilities and moved into a new integrated studio complex, Pebble Mill Studios. Pebble Mill became iconic because it was responsible for producing some of the most popular television programming of the 1970s – something Derek was about to play a major part in.
In March 1977, it is said that Derek looked out from his office across the car park and thought the BBC should do a motoring and car show, containing items on all motoring matters such as road safety and car tests. Derek began brainstorming ideas for the show and eventually gained approval, creating a new series for BBC Midlands. The name would be Top Gear.
Derek’s son Graham recalls a pivotal moment in which his father came to him for advice on the show’s title music:
“He came home and asked me if I had any ideas for the titles music. I suggested an Allman Brothers instrumental from an album I had.
“He said ‘Yes, that will do, write down the details’ and then he went into the BBC record library to make a copy.”
That Allman Brothers instrumental track was Jessica, and it has been used for the opening sequence of Top Gear for almost 40 years.
With Derek as Executive Producer, Top Gear started as a 30-minute programme aired monthly across the Midlands region. Staying true to the original concept, the programme covered motoring related issues such as new car road tests, fuel economy, safety, the police, speeding, insurance, second-hand cars and holiday touring. Whilst there were only nine programmes in that initial series, Top Gear showed great potential.
On July 13 1978, Top Gear moved to BBC2 and began airing weekly 30-minute episodes across the UK. Derek remained as Executive Producer, along with Angela Rippon as presenter along with co-presenter Barrie Gill. The first network series featured items such as Holiday Driving, Police Driver Training, the MOT test and a Search for a Female Rally Driver. Other items in that series covered drink driving, traffic jams, rust and corrosion, tachographs in lorries the Le Mans 24 Hour Race and the Motor Show.
In the 1980’s Derek developed the programme further – branching out to cover subjects such as child car safety, tyres, CB radio, weighing lorries and junior grasstrack racing. Various reporters were also brought on-board, including Mike Dornan, Judith Jackson and Barrie Gill. Local TV presenter Noel Edmonds was also introduced to the programme and performed road tests on new cars each week. Derek won the Conoco Jet award for Best Motoring TV programme in 1980 and continued on as the series producer until 1986.
Derek’s son Graham, now 59 and living in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, said of his father:
“He conceived these programmes because he was in a wonderful position as a BBC producer. He felt he had the best job in the world.
He could think of an idea for a programme and he would be allowed to go and make it. It’s a tribute to him that such a diverse range of subjects became successful programmes.”
Make no mistake, as Top Gear fans we owe everything to Derek for creating the show almost 40 years ago. While Top Gear may have changed substantially since he left the show in 1986, I think that his vision and determination in creating the original concept should be appreciated and remembered. Because without him, Top Gear as we know it today would simply not exist – and that’s a world I’m sure none of us would like to live in.
I’d like to thank Vanessa Jackson from What Was Pebble Mill and cameraman Jim Knights for granting permission for his photos to be used in this article.