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.