Archive for the ‘Tales from Top Gear’ Category

Some say…

Posted in Tales from Top Gear by Richard Porter on Friday, June 5th, 2015

For 13 years I was script editor on Top Gear. Here is another boring story about that.

In headier times the Top Gear production office was a cheery place, full of the jocular, back-and-forth verbal tennis that tedious bores like to call ‘banter’. In particular, we had a great fondness for what you might call a ‘riff’ in which someone starts a gag and everyone escalates it in that way that keeps men bonded together without having to do anything as horrifying as talking about feelings. And it was from this tendency to amuse ourselves that the ‘some say…’ Stig intros were born.

It was 2005 and we were working on the sixth series of the show. On the whole, things were going quite well for Top Gear. So well, in fact, that efforts were being made to develop a US version of the programme. Executive producer Andy Wilman and I were in our shabby, scruffy corner of the office discussing this flattering development in a not-especially-serious way. ‘What are they going to make of The Stig over there?’ asked Wilman. ‘I heard…’ he continued in a preposterous, below-the-Mason-Dixon-line accent. ‘…that’s he’s a CIA robot experiment what has gone wrong.’ I spat imaginary tobacco into an invisible spittoon. ‘I heard he done got lasers for eyes,’ I said, like an insultingly bad impression of Uncle Jessie. ‘And if you looks at ‘em, they done burns through your brain.’ And on it went, probably for the rest of the afternoon. In fact, the riff wouldn’t die. Every so often, and triggered by nothing, someone would start it up again, assuming the deep fried southern accent to claim that their cousin reckoned The Stig was a government assassin or was made of Space Shuttle stuff or somethin’. Normally, titting around in the office stayed in the office for the very good reason that, as you might have noticed, it’s not very funny unless you’re there. But this one wouldn’t go away and, when we started writing links for the first show of the next series, it seeped into the script. Up until that point, The Stig has been introduced with a series of ghastly puns; ‘It’s time to introduce the GTI to the STI…G’ and so on. By the time we got to the wanton awfulness of ‘Mitsu-Stig-i’ it was high time we tortured the audience in a whole new way and the mythical claims of southern state conspiracy crazies seemed like a good starting point. All we needed to do was switch ‘I heard…’ for the broader ‘Some say…’, which gave the claims a certain vagueness, underlining that each statement was a curious rumour which Top Gear could neither confirm nor deny. Right from the start The Stig was always meant to be a man of mystery, and this seemed to fit well with this conceit. Although, obviously, it was also total bollocks.

I liked the new Stig introductions immensely, largely because I clung to this notion that The Stig was more than just a mute bloke in a crash helmet who appeared briefly to do a lap of the track. To my mind, he had a full character, which was mysterious, unusual and really strange. So I wrote a load of introductions to reflect this, the main point of them being that he lived in an exceedingly odd way and did exceedingly odd things. Over time they evolved so that The Stig became weirder and weirder. I liked the weirdness a lot, especially intros that suggested he had a full-size tattoo of his face on his face or kept a photo of his wallet in his wallet or was in some other way caught in a nonsensical logic loop of his own making. Every so often Jeremy would warn that things were getting too weird and it was time to pull it back. It was hard to argue with the bloke who had to stand in front of a massive audience and deliver this drivel but I used to counter that oddness was part of the whole Stig character. Also, the pattern we settled on tempered the abject stupidity of the first line with a topical gag in the second. Some weeks that was a gift because something funny or controversial was in the headlines and Stig could be dropped into a world of celebrity or politics he was plainly ill-equipped for, and some weeks it was a right arse ache because the news was full of war, death and pestilence, none of which could be considered fertile ground for introducing a man in a shit racing suit driving round in circles at high speed. Still, it was a good challenge and my aim was always to have a fully formed intro in the draft script when the presenters came in for our Tuesday writing session, the day before studio recording. If I’d hit the spot, Jeremy would read it, give an amused snort and move on. If the intro wasn’t strong enough there’d be a mumbling noise before he’d swivel around in his chair with the words, ‘I’m not sure about this…’ Then we’d sit around trying to think of something new during which Clarkson would charge through some guaranteed studio audience amusing options involving genitals, May would get caught up in a brilliantly over-complicated odyssey into Stig’s taste in crisps, and Hammond would remind us of the embarrassment inherent in a trip to a hauntingly cold, silent place available only to TV presenters in front of live audiences which he called ‘the unfunny moon’. Then we’d decide to claim that Stig once punched Princess Anne and move on.

I enjoyed this weird world we created around The Stig. In my head, he was single minded, stubborn and hilariously petulant. Specifically, a mix of Kimi Raikkonen, the keyboard player from Pet Shop Boys, and a 15 year old boy forced to go on holiday with his parents. I used to get quite defensive about other people messing with his on screen persona and we started to police how The Stig was used to promote the programme and associated commercial things. This was actually quite easy. No, The Stig wouldn’t be interested in soft drinks. No, The Stig wouldn’t wave to the camera. No, The Stig wouldn’t put on a funny hat. Less was more. One day Newsnight made a feeble item about that pub opening in a motorway services on the M40 and got a man in a crap knock-off Stig suit to go up to the bar and attempt to drink a pint. We were furious about this. They hadn’t asked permission and this was just the sort of thing The Stig wouldn’t do. I suggested we take revenge by inventing someone called ‘Jeremy Spaxman’ who was a heroin addict and a murderer, just to see how they liked having one of their lead characters mis-portrayed. We could monkey about with what The Stig did or didn’t do, but other people could not.

Likewise, we thought only we could write ‘some say…’ lines since it was our riff to begin with. Of course, by the same token they were ours to kill off and if anyone was going to come up with a new way to introduce The Stig, I thought it should be us. After a while I wondered if they were getting a bit tedious so, in between series’, I had a bit of a think and worked out this new introduction thing based around a triple rhyme. ‘He’s slick, he’s quick, he’s often covered in sick… It’s The Stig.’ That sort of thing. ‘He’s speedy, he’s needy, he’s in love with Cheryl Tweedy’, that was another one. Then I realised we’d need loads of them to keep it going and it all sounded not only far too difficult but also even more annoying. So I kept it to myself and quietly dumped the rhymes into the folder of shit ideas. Besides, I think people had got used to the way we did it and maybe even quite liked it.

Some say we came up with a distinctive and enduring way to introduce The Stig pretty much by accident and could never think of a better way to do it. And they’d be right.

The slogans

Posted in Tales from Top Gear by Richard Porter on Friday, May 22nd, 2015

For 13 years I was the script editor on Top Gear. Here’s another boring story about that. 

We weren’t very good with planning on Top Gear. The stuff we put loads of work into often turned out badly. Hence never-loved features like Barn Or Bin or the utter tossfest of Top Gear Stuntman. Whereas the things we didn’t really plan for often became unexpectedly good or turned out to be important. Hence the American road trip that spiralled into something so massive it couldn’t be edited to fit into a normal studio programme, earned a whole show to itself and accidentally invented the annual Top Gear not-Christmas special.

There are a couple of things people seem to remember from that inadvertent special. The cow on the roof of a Camaro being one. That one wasn’t planned at all. Jeremy thought of it in the field, possibly literally, and there weren’t any dead cows lying around so he rang the office back home and one of our researchers hammered the phones into the night until he found a nearby farmer with a no-longer-mooing body we could use. I often thought Top Gear had the most talented and dedicated production team in television and there’s your proof; even from 4000 miles away and at short notice, our people could source locate a stinking, bloated, rotten, disgusting cow corpse.

The second thing the American road trip is remembered for is the slogans daubed down the cars. Now that one was planned. It was planned by me. Sorry. I’d had this idea ages before for something called The Texas Smartcar Challenge in which a presenter was required to drive a bright pink Smart covered in jauntily liberal slogans across the Lone Star state and see how far they could get before they got lynched. Thing is, we’d have needed to ship the Smart over there, and fly our crews from the UK, and it all started to sound like a lot of time and expense and effort just to get someone’s head kicked in. So the idea went away until we started planning an American road trip and it became clear we might be passing through some places where ‘liberal’ is basically a swear word. I mentioned the slogans part of my Smart idea in a meeting. People seemed to like it. ‘So basically, you want us to be killed’ said Hammond with mock indignation. No, no, no, I’m sure it’ll be fine, I insisted.

I wrote some suggested slogans on strips of paper, divided these up between three envelopes which I gave to the crew, and waved everyone off to the airport. And then, having sent our plucky lads off to their fate, I bravely went on holiday to New York. While I was there I went for an afternoon drink with my friend Tracy, who’s from the American south. We’re actually filming in the south at the moment, I said jauntily. Yes, it’s all terribly amusing, I went on, we’re writing slogans down our cars and driving them through Alabama. Tracy looked aghast. ‘You’re doing what?’ she spluttered. No, no, it’s fine, I laughed. We’re just messing around, I’m sure it’ll just be a little bit awkward or something. ‘Trust me,’ she continued in that casually aggressive tone New York obliges its inhabitants to perfect. ‘I’m from down there, I know those people. They. Will. Fucking. Kill. You.’ Oh dear me no, I said, trying to maintain an upbeat tone. I’m sure it’ll all be fine. Shortly afterwards my phone rang. Several times in fact. I can’t remember the specifics of what was said, but the words ‘properly angry’ and ‘fucking scary’ might have been used and I think possibly Jeremy claimed they were ‘almost literally killed’.

I never imagined that some idiotic things daubed down three cars would get an actual reaction. Secretly, I was quite thrilled. Obviously, it’s easy to be thrilled when you’re 1000 miles up-country with your face in a bucket of mojito. Even so, it was quite remarkable. People still think we faked it, which is a shame. I can tell you it wasn’t a set-up. Those were real people who were really angry, all as a result of my stupid slogans idea. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit, it’s one of the proudest moments of my career.





The naan bread

Posted in Tales from Top Gear by Richard Porter on Thursday, May 14th, 2015

The other day on Twitter I mentioned that I had some stories from my 13 years as script editor on Top Gear, but that they weren’t very interesting. Since a couple of people asked, I’ve written this so you can see what I mean.

There was an unwritten rule on Top Gear that the further away from cars we got, the worse an item was going to be. As a general guide, if you didn’t see a car moving on screen for over two minutes, the film was probably shite. Unfortunately, every so often we completely forgot about this rule. Which is how come we ended up making an idiotic thing in which we took over an art gallery and filled it with motoring themed things. If memory serves, it came about because of some bet Jeremy had made with a mate who ran a real art gallery, but casual bets aren’t necessarily a good basis for actual television programmes. Otherwise we could have filled 40 minutes watching Hammond trying to fit six Crème Eggs into his mouth.

Before anyone realised this, a very nice gallery in Middlesbrough had agreed to let us take over their building and James May and I were on a train to the North East in cheery mood. I think we spent most of the journey looking at Triumph Dolomites for sale on the internet. We’d had this idea to record a real time audio guide to our exhibition, the kind you listen to on a little rented headset when you visit a proper gallery. Except, ours would be a gag based on the gallery’s many rooms and James’s on screen persona which had a poor sense of direction, inspired by James’s real life persona which also had a poor sense of direction. We thought the headset idea sounded hilarious. Then we realised that for it to work (which is to say, for it to send baffled members of the public blithering about into walls and down fire escapes and into the disabled loo), we’d have to record a full length commentary for real. Hence we were sent up to the location early and James spent the afternoon wandering about the gallery, describing left and right turns in excessive and baffling detail while I sat in the café downstairs and occasionally rang him to ask how he was getting on which would prompt him to tell me to sod off, and this too would be recorded onto the commentary along with, if I remember correctly, a part where he broke off a speech about sculpture to go for an actual wee. Eventually, the idiotic commentary was recorded and we went to the hotel for a drink.

The next morning there was some grand plan which involved Hammond going off to plug our crap art show on local radio, Jeremy driving his rubbish art car to the location and James hanging some more pictures or something. This is where it went a bit wrong. May and I loafed around the hotel with our film crew for ages having an agreeable breakfast and then someone couldn’t find some car keys and someone else had lost their phone there was a general bit of faffing about before finally we headed towards the gallery. We all had a lot to do and everyone else had been busily filming for ages, except us. Jeremy rang me to see how we were getting on and I had to explain that we were still in the back of a crew van, bumbling out of the hotel car park.

The thing about Jeremy is that he likes exaggeration. Also, he’s very good at it. So his reaction was quite hyperbolic. “You’re WHAT?” he boomed. “This is a complete DISASTER.” We’d had quite a few drinks in the hotel bar the night before. I was tired and possibly a bit hung over and not in the mood for overstatement. “It’s not a complete disaster,” I snapped. “If you want a fucking disaster…” At this point the line went dead. In retrospect, this was almost certainly because we were on mobile phones and one of them had dropped the connection. But at the time, I didn’t think of that. I thought Jeremy had hung up on me. And I was very cross about this. How rude, I thought. How bloody sodding rude. And this put me in a foul mood with Jeremy that somehow lasted all day and into the evening, right up to the point when the director said he had quite enough footage with Clarkson and May in it and perhaps I would like to get them out of his way by taking them for a curry. ‘Ooh, a curry,’ said James. I struggle to think of a moment when James May would turn down the offer of a curry. Unless of course he was already consuming a curry, and even then he’d have to think twice before turning down another. So the three of us went into Middlesbrough to get a curry.

The curry house we were recommended didn’t, I would guess, get a lot of stars walking into its premises. As a consequence, Jeremy and James were treated like royalty and immediately ushered to the ‘VIP area’, which was a table at the back, up a couple of steps. Ironic really, since very famous people notoriously don’t ‘do’ stairs. Unfortunately, although a tiny set of steps might have repelled Mariah Carey, it did not hold back the Indian food connoisseurs of ‘Boro, all of whom wanted to come up to the VI table and get autographs from the unexpected Ps sitting at it. The restaurant realised this might become a bit annoying and, without being asked, came up with a solution. Which was to get a member of their staff to stand in front of our table to act as ‘security’. And to make his role clear, he was wearing a high-visibility vest. Which, ironically, only drew more attention to us. Oh look, people probably said to each other, there are two blokes off the telly, over there behind that lone man standing motionless inside a dimly lit restaurant wearing a bright yellow tabard.

Of more concern to me was that, as soon as we’d sat down, James’s phone had rung and he’d started a lengthy phone conversation with his girlfriend. This meant that Jeremy and I were left to make conversation. Which was a problem since, as you might remember, I was still in a petulant piss of a mood and didn’t want to talk to him.

The thing about giving someone the cold shoulder is, it often helps if they’re at least dimly aware of what you’re doing and why. Jeremy wasn’t. And I wasn’t about to tell him, because we were men in a curry house in Middlesbrough on a Friday night, trying to ignore the hi-vi wearing waiter’s arse that hovered above our tray of dips. We weren’t about to start talking about emotions. So instead I sat there furiously texting people, like a narky teenager. “Are you alright?” asked Jeremy in a personable way that only made me more furious with his inability to understand that I was being huffy. Yes, I’m fine, I hissed, staring intently at my mobile in the manner of a surly youth in a bus shelter.

Finally, May wrapped up his interminable phone conversation. At last. James was here to save us from conversational awkwardness with some jaunty observations about the quality of the chutney. Unfortunately for me, he’d been talking for so long our food was arriving. And this is when the naan bread arrived. This was not a naan in the sense you might imagine. It was not a loose ellipse of doughy goodness that could fit on a small silver plate with only a little overhang. What they had brought us that evening was an incomprehensibly huge schooner’s sail of bread, a thing so vast it could be used as a metric for how much rain forest had been destroyed that week, and which hung vertically from its own intricate tower of scaffolding. As two or three waiters lowered it into position, I realised with dread it was cutting off my one lifeline out of this terrible evening, shutting down all lines of communication with James May. A naan curtain had descended across the table. “Are you okay?” Clarkson asked. “You seem distant.” I’m fine, I insisted grumpily. For a brief moment it seemed we were on the world’s worst first date, stuck between a bouncer’s back and a vast wall of ghee sodden bread in a cosy cubical of our own conversational awkwardness.

I tore at the western edge of the epic bread in a frantic attempt to eat my way through to James on the other side but it was useless. I would need help. Oi May, I shouted, eat some of this bread. “What?” he said from somewhere deep within naania. I sent another five texts to other members of the team imploring them to join us and help me scoff my way to May. They didn’t reply. Jeremy and I ate in silence.

The curry, I seem to remember, was quite good. The item about the art gallery, I’m almost certain, was quite shit.