Interesting Top Gear article from The Observer

James May's Hair

Well-Known Member
Oct 11, 2006
This Scepter'd Isle
It is a television phenomenon that is set to become Britain's latest lucrative cultural export, a specialist show that reinvented itself as mainstream family entertainment, winning a Sunday-night audience measuring more than eight million.

Top Gear, a programme about three middle-aged men messing around in cars, has already turned its presenters, including Jeremy Clarkson, into household names, and now it has become a vehicle for the BBC's global ambitions, a 'superbrand' executives plan to turn into an international money-spinner.

Last week bosses at the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, tasked with dreaming up new ways of making money from programmes, announced plans to take the show on the road, charging fans ?105 a ticket to watch Clarkson and fellow presenters Richard Hammond and James May front a live version of the series in Birmingham and London. More exotic locations, including Johannesburg, Sydney and Hong Kong await, and with at least 10 shows planned in each city, TV's most popular trio will bring their trademark brand of self-deprecating humour live to a total audience of more than 300,000.

The overseas push forms part of an aggressive expansion drive by BBC Worldwide, once a small operation that produced videos of the corporation's most popular shows, but now a commercial juggernaut that sells formats overseas, launching magazines and even buying up the travel guide brand Lonely Planet. Worldwide made ?118m last year and is now worth more than ?1bn, prompting complaints from the BBC's critics that it is using licence-fee money to crush smaller competitors. But like X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, Top Gear is expected to become a worldwide hit, demonstrating that nowadays no one does popular entertainment quite like the Brits.

Top Gear is already screened in more than 100 countries and a spin-off magazine, the country's best-selling motoring title, publishes 23 editions around the world. Other merchandise, including DVDs, CDs, computer games and a Top Gear toy and gift range, make it one of the BBC's most profitable shows. But exploiting the global market will increase those profits tenfold. American channel NBC has commissioned a pilot that will be made by BBC Worldwide's new Los Angeles production office; and Australians, who already receive the British version of Top Gear, will soon get a domestic equivalent produced by a home-grown company part-owned by BBC Worldwide. Not bad for a BBC2 show created 30 years ago as an early evening mid-week filler fronted by old BBC hands, including newsreader Angela Rippon.

'What's interesting about Top Gear is that everyone thinks it's about cars' says Wayne Garvie, BBC Worldwide's director of content and production. 'It isn't. It's about men and their relationships and that's a universal theme.' The plain-speaking Clarkson describes it simply as 'ambitious but shit' and his old friend, executive producer Andy Wilman, a former Top Gear presenter, is equally modest. 'It's about men dicking around. It's Last of the Summer Wine with cars,' he says.

'A lot of factual TV is about how to pay off your mortgage or buy a house because there's an obsession with being useful,' he explains. 'We just fuck about. It's a bit of downtime. It's got a Friday evening feel to it on a Sunday evening. It adds another hour to your weekend.'

Top Gear has evolved into a gentle television comedy where the cars are the props, and the presenters 'ad lib' in front of a studio audience of petrolheads. 'There was a point where we wondered if we actually had enough cars on the programme,' admits a former BBC executive who helped to relaunch the show.

Since moving from mid-week to a Sunday-evening slot, it has attracted a new audience - now 42 per cent of viewers are women who feel comfortable watching a show that can be laddish without being overtly aggressive or macho, and the presenters' ability to laugh at themselves has managed to attract a family audience, an impressive feat in an age when kids rarely watch the same shows as their parents.

'It's got that 1950s Ovaltine feel about it,' says Wilman. 'Mothers like it because the kids watch it, and young boys like it because they know they're not going to be David Beckham or Lewis Hamilton, but they could grow up to be an overweight bloke in jeans driving fast cars.'

In the 1990s the show was relatively successful on BBC2, regularly pulling in up to 1.5 million viewers and even continued after Clarkson decided he was bored with cars and wanted to pursue other projects, later recalling that he had test-driven a car and simply couldn't think of anything to say about it. In 2002, when Jane Root, then the controller of BBC2, ordered a radical makeover in the face of falling viewing figures, Clarkson was persuaded to return, partly because his BBC chat show had flopped, and it was moved to a new Sunday-night slot, with two new presenters and an hour-long format.

'I thought we'd die a death,' says one former BBC executive. 'But it immediately doubled its audience.' It continued to grow, and now attracts eight million, well over a third of all available viewers. That was achieved by broadening the show's appeal far beyond its core audience, mainly by wooing women. 'We genuinely thought we could attract a female audience because the show was funny', says the former BBC executive.

As so often in TV, the current line-up, on which much of the show's success rests, owes more to accident than design. Producers wanted to recruit a female presenter, and her agent set up a meeting on the condition they also met another client, Richard Hammond, a former local radio presenter working on an obscure cable channel. 'I thought "you must be joking!"' remembers the former BBC executive; but Hammond was allowed to make some short films for a Top Gear spin-off and when he auditioned for the main show he was an instant hit. 'We interviewed lots of high-profile motoring journalists and half of them were scared shitless of Jeremy,' says the former BBC exec. 'The remarkable thing about Richard is he was naturally funny and he took the piss out of Clarkson, which Jeremy loved.'

Unlike Hammond, May was initially reluctant to return to a show he had briefly hosted before, until he was told he would be free to be himself, perfecting his persona as 'the ale-drinking older man with the classic car in his shed'.

'James had a 14-year-old Bentley at the time,' the ex-BBC man recalls. 'At the audition he said "I've found out if you spend ?50 at Tesco you get ?5 of free petrol. Now I can drive anywhere I like; the problem is my house is full of rotting food". Everyone in the room laughed, Jeremy laughed. That landed him the job.'

The decision to record the series in front of a live studio audience also proved to be a masterstroke. Initially they had to pay a company to recruit guests, including women who were placed strategically in front of the cameras. Now there is a three-year waiting list for tickets. 'People look back and say it was bound to be a success, but there was nothing to suggest that in the pilots.'

'I'm just a facilitator,' says Wilman. 'The engine room is Jeremy. I'm not just blowing smoke up his arse. Its rare you get a presenter with that level of involvement and that much editorial nous.'

Clarkson and his co-stars publicised their world tour last week in typically bombastic fashion by driving a tank across Tower Bridge, and they will be rewarded handsomely if the brand travels well overseas. Hammond and James, who negotiated new salaries following a brief ruckus over the amount they were paid, will get extra money; but Clarkson and Wilman stand to make even more.

BBC Worldwide acquired a stake in their company, Bedder 6, last year as part of a ground-breaking deal that will see the duo share half of the profits from the show's international expansion. That has also been criticised by some observers, who fail to see why presenters should line their pockets on the back of a brand built with licence-fee money. The answer, in part, is that it helps the BBC retain key talent, and similar deals could be struck with other presenters. 'It's no secret people were after us to leave and it was one way of us staying,' says Wilman. 'If it's going to be a brand all around the world we get some payment for the work we do on that, but there's no extra strain on BBC resources.'

'None of us saw this coming,' says Wilman. 'We couldn't have dreamed it.' But he admits that maintaining Top Gear's success will be a hard slog. 'People will get bored of us. We'll wear ourselves out. It gets harder and harder to think of new ideas.' The bigger question, as with all shows whose success depends on the popularity of its presenters, is whether it could continue should they decide to leave. Wilman, for one, believes it would. 'The Richard, Jeremy and James line-up is a tour de force but it would survive without them. We are like stewards for a while and then it becomes like Doctor Who. It will regenerate.'


This is a pleasant read with a few interesting snippets regarding Richard and James joining the programme.

'We interviewed lots of high-profile motoring journalists and half of them were scared shitless of Jeremy,' says the former BBC exec. 'The remarkable thing about Richard is he was naturally funny and he took the piss out of Clarkson, which Jeremy loved.'

'James had a 14-year-old Bentley at the time,' the ex-BBC man recalls. 'At the audition he said "I've found out if you spend ?50 at Tesco you get ?5 of free petrol. Now I can drive anywhere I like; the problem is my house is full of rotting food". Everyone in the room laughed, Jeremy laughed. That landed him the job.'

Well worth five minutes of your time - honest.
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Nice read, good reminder of how unique the appeal of TG is. :lol: at James' line about the fuel & food too.
Best article I've ever read on the subject of the show and some nice insights into the history.

Well found.
Nice insight. I'm optimistic towards the future of TG, these are creative people and as long as BBC doesn't run them too tight they will come up with new ideas.
Great read indeed. Really filled some blanks on how the show came to be and how JC and Wilman view it. Loved it.
Great read, especially the perspective it gives on how the merry band of pranksters came to be.:clarkson::hammond::may::thumbsup:
Great read, full of info I hadn't seen elsewhere, especially the bit about how Richard and James joined the show. Thanks for the heads-up.
I didn't realize that they paid people to be audience members back then!

The audience for the first programme of the new format was the thinnest I'd ever seen for anything... ever. Old Top Gear's magazine format never required an audience; nobody knew at the time what to expect from the new format, and there were probably loads of people that never realised the format was going to change anyway.

Now there's going to be a select few who can tell everyone who's queued for their tickets longer than the East Germans did to get their hands on a Trabant that they were in the audience once and the producers paid them! That's one exclusive club...
Nice article, I'm definitely going to have to forward this to my friend and my brother.

I never realized that's how Hammond and May got the job. I read Hammond's book recently and I guess it's kind of sad to know that his worries weren't completely unfounded. =/
Clarkson and Wilman stand to become extremely rich bastards from this deal...