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.