‘Top Gear’ Producer Gets in the Driver’s Seat
The Production office in Dunsfold is the kind of place that makes you instantly try to remember if your Tetanus shot is current. The floor is grubby brownish/gray carpet that likely started out light tan; the furniture is a combo of Ministry of Defense surplus and big box “some assembly required” Scandinavian, and the air hangs on a heavy musty smell. However, if you’re a “Top Gear” fan, it’s the coolest spot on Earth. There are piles of racing car helmets strewn about, spare tires sit stacked in corners, it’s littered with more television awards than a slickster Hollywood producer could ever hope to collect. There’s more than one smashed camera from a track turn taken too widely, and a pad locked room that simply says “Stig.” There is a long room with lots of windows that sits parallel to the track, it’s populated with what would have been “rusty edged” computer technology in 1994. This is the timing room for all of the challenges that take place on the track, and in spite of its maturity, it gets the job done. Behind the track room, is the “talent” lounge, this is just a small room with a couple of couches. I’d love to be a fly on that wall in that room during production; you can bet there’s been some lively discussion between the “Top Gear” boys on those couches.
Next to the track room is the prop storage area. It houses little bits and bobbles from all the past episodes of the show… in a giant pile! Joining the prop room is the planning room. This is where all the logistics for the challenges are hashed out before taping. The large conference table was littered with maps, pads full of notes, aerial photographs, and reams of printed production plans from past episodes. Adjacent to the planning room is the award room/crew lounge area. There are several glass cases housing the numerous awards bestowed upon “Top Gear” since its revival in 2002. This is also were the “lost” camera collection rests.
Two rooms are situated off the crew lounge: the green room and the “Stig” room. The “Stig” room is locked with a very large pad lock, has a steel reinforced door and a large locking mechanism. I don’t know what’s in there. It could be the Stig himself, but clearly they didn’t want us in there and we didn’t push to gain access. The green room didn’t seem like a place where folks like Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, or Jay Leno would have hung out. It seemed more like a club house teenagers would have snuck beer to drink without getting caught. There were two old couches draped with furniture covers and I didn’t dare to lift them out of fear for what might be below. About the only indications this was a place for talent to hangout in were the mini refrigerator in the corner and the loads of celebrity pictures on the wall. All of them standing on the track in white racing helmets, leaning next “reasonably priced” cars. There wasn’t a sour puss in the collection, just smiles and happiness. I realized no matter how shitty this production office is or how flat the soda in the green room fridge tastes, this is a fun show to do and the stars have fun doing it. The production budget isn’t being wasted on office luxuries; it’s all going onto the screen. Definitely not in to the office!
We decided the planning room would be the best space in which to shoot the wraps we were doing with Andy. We started cleaning up the room a little and staging it so the lighting director could begin his setup. About that time, we met one of the most critical people in our “Top Gear” experience. Peter is the unofficial caretaker of the “Top Gear” production office and the official vehicle wrecker on the crew. He and his wife Sarah own a towing company in Surrey and he’s the guy who tows away all the working or more often non-working vehicles when the show is done with them. Peter proved invaluable at many turns; a found tool here, some old props there, he even showed us where the bathroom was. So after a few hours of setup, we were ready to start calling it a day. This is when Peter really started to shine. He asked.
“Do you guys want to see some of the old Top Gear cars?”
Is a bear in the woods catholic? You know what know what mean. We indicated we’d very much like to see the old cars. So we followed Peter to the other side of the aerodrome into a slightly abandon looking section of the industrial park. There were about ten of the famous challenge cars sitting in a mothballed state on an unused piece of tarmac. There were several Morris Marinas, a blue sedan flattened beyond recognition, another hatch-back reinforced with steel plating, and the crème de la crème: the first amphibious VW van, the HMS Wiltshire. Denny couldn’t resist the opportunity to jump behind the wheel of the old girl and get a few shots for the scrap book of the failed contraption. He eased in, smiling largely, as I focused the camera. I got about three clicks off before he realized his foot was sitting in the entrails of a badger like carcass of an animal that had crawled into the vehicle and died… a long time ago. Denny sprung out of the car/boat hastily scrapping rotting guts off of his suede chukka boots. This is when Peter asked us if we’d like to see the good stuff. Again we profusely indicated “yes.” We drove a few minutes to Peter’s farm/garage. This is where he keeps all the vehicles that are likely to make potential reappearances in the program or are being prepped to go to the “World of Top Gear” at the National Motor Museum. One of the first things to catch my eye was the tank Richard Hammond drove in the demolition challenge last season. Peter immediately picked up on my intrigued and asked if we’d like to drive the tank. One of the hallmarks of a good executive producer is to let the Producer to the potential stupid things first, that way if something goes really wrong… you didn’t do it. So Denny jumped up into the driver’s seat and Peter walked him through the start up process. The tank’s diesel engine growled to a smoky idle and Denny griped the two steering levers. Easing the two levers forward, the tank lurked before settling into a slow crawl. In the end, we only drove the tank a short distance up and down his driveway, but it was still pretty cool.