For the past 10 years now, I've always ensured I'm near a TV on Sunday nights at around 8pm. Except in recent times, I've watched it a little bit differently.
Top Gear's enormous worldwide popularity has been quite the phenomenon, a petrol sniffing phoenix that rose from the ashes of the much more consumer affairs-oriented show of before, a show that at one stage inexplicably featured that bloke who tells people to open boxes. But a couple of years ago, after ages of avid watching, I got to be part of the phenomenon.
In May 2009, in circumstances that will never cease to be surreaI to me, I did a stint of work experience on TG, and came back to work for them a couple of times thereafter in a range of roles. As such, I look at the 10th anniversary of one of the most successful shows on the planet not just with admiration, but with genuine affection.
The reaction I got to the news I'd be working on Top Gear was indicative of not just how popular the show was, but how wide its appeal was. For every car nut I talked to there was someone who'd invariably say "I haven't a clue about cars but I love Top Gear!" The gender spread was also much more equal than you'd think, as the studio audiences would attest. TG's knack for engaging fearsome coalitions was no more evident than in my own family home, where there are few shows that my Dad (a fan of detective shows where people say things like "Leave it out you slag!" and Westerns), my brother (anything involving Stephen Seagal or zombies) and I (black and white journalists with cards in their hats and Aaron Sorkin) can agree on, but Top Gear is one of them. It's quite remarkable to have a programme relatively esoteric in topic that is so widely watched without compromising on content.
Its cultural impact is also astonishing. It's watched in every corner of the world with apparently no lost in translationisms and also reproduced for national audiences in several countries, including Russia. The identity for The Stig was at one point named the mystery of the century, comfortably ahead of JFK's assassination. Joking while running for a particular mode of transport that it resembles a Top Gear challenge is the new "Run Forrest Run!"
For me, all this pre-eminence made the never-easy experience of starting new work all the more daunting. On my first trip to the feted Top Gear track, within minutes of landing down one of the mechanics asked me to bring an elderly VW Golf that was being used in a challenge over to the other side of the track. The heady combination of an old car, my rather raw (i.e. awful) driving skills at the time and a courtyard full of mechanics and crew meant I was never so self-conscious of the clutch bite and handbrake release in my life. Thankfully though, the Patron Saint of Clean Getaways was on my side that day, and my blushes were spared.
Although, even if I had, the crew probably would have been quite merciful, because that's just how they are. You'd be forgiven for thinking that an operation the scale of TG would be cold and militaristic, but while working on the show is like being in the Telly Marines, the production team and crew couldn't have been more helpful, more encouraging or more friendly. Extraordinarily so, given the fact when it comes to work of a technical or practical nature, I am as functionally useful as a bottle of hairspray on a bonfire. For the way the team brought me in and made me one of them I will always feel tremendous gratitude and loyalty.
Then again it's hard not to feel loyal when you're part of a team that is so wholly dedicated to each other. Putting a series of Top Gear together requires a Herculean amount of work and everyone concerned is fully invested in that, from Andy Wilman at the top of the ladder to me when I was there, the bit of cardboard put under the ladder to stop it from wobbling. If someone working on TG broke their leg, their first instinct would likely be to try and find some crutches on the way to work.
Ten years since the new Top Gear started, fans the world over will no doubt be thinking back over their favourite moments from the series, from the lads getting chased out of Dukes of Hazzard county to getting exquisite, garish suits made in 'Nam. For me, among my favourite moments now include getting to work on an enthralling tribute to Ayrton Senna, calling up the British Plastics Federation for a surprisingly informative 45 minute phone call about recycling bumpers, driving to Watford to buy a trambobaline, and loads of other japes I won't mention here so as not to embarrass the people involved, (i.e., me). But above all the other highlights is the real sense of pride to have played even a slight part on such a much-loved show, alongside the exemplary team who make it.
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