Former Stig Ben Collins reveals what it was like to be part of the Top Gear family and gives his verdict on the event that led to the end of an era
The story of Top Gear is so full of surprises and contradictions that nobody can be sure what will happen next. Born in the Seventies, it grew big hair in the Eighties, went into decline in the late-Nineties and was shut down in 2001. The show we now know was conceived by Jeremy Clarkson, executive producer Andy Wilman and a few good men in 2002. Five years later it had 350 million viewers in more than 170 countries.
During its time, it also won countless awards, not least an International Emmy for best unscripted show, which delighted script editor Richard Porter no end.
When you think if the global expeditions, innovative “technology” and audacious interstellar missions that it brought to the screen, you’d be forgiven for assuming that there was a Thunderbirds-style operations room at the hub of it all. But the truth, at least when I was part of the team, was quite different.
The furiously bright young boys and girls behind Top Gear worked in an office much like any other. Only the “loves us, hates us” board of car brands on the wall gave away their naughty secret. And the list of lovers was always comparatively short, with several companies about to transfer to the other side. Juggling these tender relationships required telephonic guile of a very high order to convince the automotive powers that be that it was still in their best interests to loan us a car.
These young producers were the show’s biggest fans as well as the engine room of its ideas, especially during the early years. Revving that engine, of course, were Clarkson and his close friend Wilman. Nothing aired without passing Wilman’s beady eye. He maintained a firm grip on the palette, always searching for colour, comedy and action, with the odd vehicle thrown in, too.
Wilman is the Jedi master of deadpan, and was always utterly devoted to his work. He drew in likeminded obsessionistas to direct, shoot, edit and perform. You brought your A-game or received a dressing down. But while you generally had to look elsewhere for pats on the back, every now and then he’d surprise you.
I remember a shoot on the Isle of Man which culminated in Stigging the cars around the mountain roads. Fog reduced visibility to 20 metres, which wasn’t ideal at 140mph. Luckily, I’d brought my Kevlar underpants. I took risks, got some good material and received a rare moment of praise which had the same effect as a Vulcan nerve pinch.
With Wilman at the helm we sailed through some remarkable seas, like modern day Vikings, to plunder and pillage the global car market.
Peugeot once raised two fingers to the dragon boat after receiving a negative review and refused to provide a car for the studio piece. The producers had to replace it with... something. Lights… Camera… Action… The camera swivelled to reveal a bucket of horse manure. You simply couldn’t get away with that on any other show.
On another occasion I suggested a terrible idea to one of the researchers about doing a challenge with David Beckham. But two days later the glint of an idea had morphed into car football. Also known as smashing up cars while pretending to go for the giant inflatable ball. It then contorted into Car Hockey, Car Rugby and perhaps one too many re-hashes since.
The point is, on planet Top Gear, anything could happen. Except lunch.
Thanks to the Top Gear diet I never had any trouble squeezing into those butt-hugging white overalls. Lunch was 98 Ron and a packet of crisps. We lived fast and we filmed fast. Within hours we could have an elite camera unit anywhere, producing nigh-on cinematic footage.
When normal people were fleeing the eruption of that Icelandic volcano which shut down Europe’s airspace in 2010, James May was dispatched to investigate. With molten lava exploding skywards, he parked at the lip of the flaming monster, did a piece to camera, scooped up a hot rock and used it to cook himself a steak. I rest my case.
Early one morning we all bowled up at the Top Gear test track to film a powertest, which was basically a comparison of two or three very fast cars. The camera team unloaded their kit and our attention turned to breakfast. We always fuelled ourselves before turning a wheel. But shock, horror, some dastardly money man, somewhere way up the food chain, had penny pinched us out of our bacon butties.
Pray you never see people turn the way I did that day. What started as a gentle rumble from the sound guy became a cacophony of bap rage, mutiny even. Tempers were only soothed by a young runner who wisely nipped off to the roadside café.
Ironically, in the light of recent events, Clarkson handled the Top Gear diet better than anyone. Give the man a Scotch egg and a fag and he could march for days. His energy knew no bounds. During one of the Top Gear Live shows I was waiting to go on stage, nursing a crippling headache from the fumes of the indoor arena. Hammond had swallowed his own vomit in front of the live audience but Clarkson, who had been out drinking the night before, remained indomitable. He burst through the backstage curtains in a shower of perspiration, flung a cigarette between his lips, drew on it like it was a snorkel, quaffed a Red Bull and tore off again without missing a beat.
He was always a good sport, too. I’ll never forget watching a special forces instructor reaching his limit with the big man during preparation for a drive to the North Pole. Having debated weapons handling techniques with the trained killer, Clarkson was shoved into an ice-hole. He plunged headlong into the freezing water, before emerging for further beasting in the snow. This was not conveniently rigged; it was laugh-until-you-hernia telly.
But Clarkson was never the greatest listener. When we did a 24-hour race at Silverstone I thought, yes, I’ll finally get him to shut up for a few seconds while I teach him how to drive properly. Nope. He argued every corner, line and braking point around the lap. When the tyres could take no more we adjourned to the pits where I hoped to pass on some knowledge to the other two, but Clarkson hijacked that lesson, too.
In 2010, Wilman said he thought the show had peaked in 2008. And it was around that time that I noticed things getting a bit corporate. Our track HQ at Dunsfold consisted of a leaky Portakabin bordered by broken concrete. But one day Tensa barriers sprung up to separate staff from the crowds attending the studio sessions. Despite my distinctive Stig party suit, I was denied access by a gorilla wearing a stab vest who wanted to see some ID. The bubble was starting to stretch.
Even so, sharing space with the three amigos and the extended Top Gear family for eight years was a riot of pithy banter and adrenaline. I left the party early, but as a huge fan of the team and the show I find it impossible to reconcile the events that led to its demise. It may be that if you start treating people like rock stars, they have to behave like rock stars, but it’s just not the Clarkson that I knew.
Top Gear is now a monolithic commercial franchise, with shows in America, Australia, Korea and Le Stig even inhabiting France, no doubt keen as Dijon Mustard to mop up Peugeot’s reputation. There’s no way the BBC will can it.
I suppose there are three potential outcomes.
One: Everybody leaves, perhaps with the three amigos moving to a new network, and the BBC’s Top Gear starts from scratch.
Two: Wilman stays, hauls that dragon boat around and rekindles the magic with a new format, perhaps with new faces.
Three: Everybody stages a comeback. “It’s all been a PR stunt!” Labrokes recently slashed their odds on this scenario to 5/1. I’m off to the bookies.