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.