Ever wonder what it would be like to be a writer on what probably is (or was) the most popular “reality” show on television? Wonder no more, fellow TVWriter™ites, cuz we just found the skinny:
by Richard Porter
The very last Clarkson, Hammond & May edition of Top Gear will be broadcast this Sundayand sniffpetrol – by day, mild mannered former Top Gear script editor Richard Porter – explains how they used to put the show together and what it was like to be at the cutting edge of cocking about.
There we go then. The sun has set on what I imagine we will one day call Old New Top Gear.
Now we sit patiently with seatbelts fastened and backrests in the upright position, awaiting developments from New New Top Gear / The Jeremy Clarkson Car Hour / James May’s Amphitheatre Of Cheese.
Whatever happens next, it’s going to be quite different from what I like to think scholars will one day call Top Gear Classic. It might be made in quite a different way too. I don’t know. I only know the way we used to make the show, which was with a mixture of sweat, panic, disagreement and potato snacks.
On the programme I hope historians will soon refer to as Top Gear – Original Taste the most important thing for any given item was, unsurprisingly, the idea. If we’re talking about a track test, that idea was always pretty simple; is it an interesting car and can we say moderately entertaining things about it while slithering around a runway for six to eight minutes?
Ideas for the big, three presenter films were rather more difficult. Coming up with suggestions wasn’t the hard part, it was the process that followed in which the idea would be prodded and dismantled and subjected to the same line of questioning it might receive from a four-year-old; Why? Why? No really, why? Why were we going there? Why were we taking those cars? Why were we doing this at all?
For those items in which we bought old rotboxes or built something of our own, it was important to have some headline question we were answering or some logical problem we were setting out to solve. Can you buy a car for £100 or less? Can you build your own amphibious car? Can we alleviate travel chaos brought on by snow using machines that normally sit idle in winter?
You needed the question for the studio introduction to give some line of logic, some small reason why we were craving your attention for the next half an hour or so. Once the item was up and running you could drift away from that original point, though I believe the best Top Gear stories never forgot it.
If the idea couldn’t pass muster in the office, in particular at the hands of chief scrutineer Clarkson who worried about this stuff more than anyone on the team, then it didn’t happen. Case in point, we once had this notion that we would re-invent the fire engine. Why were we doing that? Because it seemed like they were too big and too slow and therefore took too long to get to emergencies. The solution was obvious; Top Gear would build a small, high performance fire truck.
The trouble is, if you make a fire engine smaller there’s no room on board for all the ladders, hoses and burly men it needs to do its job. So it has to be big. And then it can’t get through gaps in traffic. So you make it smaller. And then it can’t do its job. And then…