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Top Gear Recollections from the Studio Audience – Series 17, Episode 1

17 Jul

Top Gear Recollections – Series 17, Episode 1 – June 22, 2011 (BBC air date June 26, 2011)

by Bill Pittock

This is the story of a day at Top Gear Studios at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey where I had the good fortune to attend the studio audience taping of the first episode of the 17th season of Top Gear.  I began writing this at Heathrow waiting for my flight back to New York and later added more commentary and the photos I captured during that day….

About ready to board my flight back to the US from Heathrow but still swirling with the events and opportunities of this holiday, particularly those of yesterday when I spent the day with a cousin and his spouse at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey for a taping of Top Gear, something I had been trying to achieve for years in the ticket queue but which announced itself days before departure on a planned London vacation.  There had been several other high points and memorable moments to the trip, but Top Gear was in another class entirely.  Early Tuesday we joined a group in the early hours headed for the summer solstice sunrise celebration at Stonehenge – a rare chance to access the stones with 18,000 others to celebrate one of nature’s nodal points.  It was an unusual communal event drawing the curious but also Druids, Wiccan types, self-described hippies, and more dreadlocks and pot collected in one location than I had seen in years. Though many were intoxicated after a night of camping and party, everyone was full of cheer and welcomed all joiners to add their energy to the event. There were islands of music where anyone could listen or play, be it guitar, drum, lute or some strange instrument looking like a sawed-off digeridoo. A little bit of peace and love in the English countryside.

I began my Top Gear day by bidding my family off on a tour of the Cotswolds that I would have joined had the studio taping opportunity not presented itself.  After seeing the bus depart, I returned to my room and slowly prepared for the day, not needing to arrive at Dunsford until 13:30 or 14:00. I called my cousin and he was as excited as I, bidding me to get on the road soon to get the adventure underway. I departed my Charing Cross hotel before 11:00 for Elephant & Castle by tube and then on to London Bridge station for the Southern Railway towards East Croydon station. On arrival, I waited at the car pickup and witnessed one of life’s wonderful moments. A woman of my age had just been dropped off to catch a train and was gathering her things on the sidewalk when a car filled with teenage girls drove up, stopping in the active lane rather than pulling into one of several short-term parallel parking spots.   The young driver opened a window and bid the lady executive over, whispering a request.  The lady smiled and dropped her bags again while the young driver exited and turned over the car to the stranger. She positioned herself at the wheel and proceeded to expertly parallel park the car. The teenage girl grinned while the lady collected her things and proceeded to the station, having helped the young lady demonstrate to the father she awaited how much better her driving had developed.

I met Simon and Paula not long after the successful parking and we drove south, gathering food along the way for an uncharted day in the hands of television production. We took the A23 and M23 motorway south towards Gatwick but soon were turned West into the country of Surrey, guided by an iPhone GPS system with the voice of Homer Simpson – with the most improbable turning instructions. Magic was afoot.  Paula described how thrilled she was to attend and how she let her brother in on the news. She led him to guess where she was going – he sorted out that it was a TV taping but couldn’t get over the hump of what. “Well, it involves a Stig” she said, and he exploded “Noooooo!  I’m so jealous!”  Apparently, many many people in the UK have been trying quite seriously for a long time for studio tickets. I still can’t believe – or explain – my luck.

Approaching Dunsfold Aerodrome, Surrey

Endless fields and aged residences blurred by and soon we saw signs for Cranleigh and Dunsfold aerodrome, following Homer to our goal.  A gatehouse was ahead with levered pole to control intruders but our papers were in order, the bar was raised and we entered after being given blue Top Gear wristbands (how long will I wear this I wonder?  Certainly for my first couple days at work).

Excitement was unbearable and then we saw the blue and white 747 across the field. Such a stupid smile on my face!  At the edge of a car park we met another sentry who described the layout, where to park (grassy field beyond the car park as we were early) and the amenities circling the car park – a food wagon with Route 66 logos, an ice cream truck (no business in the rain) and a proper diner filled with automotive and Americana memorabilia. There was also the merchandising tent with an abundance of Top Gear t-shirts but not much else save a Stig doll and pen.  I purchased a couple Captain Slow t-shirts unavailable elsewhere (one will be bound for a friend in Albuquerque) and we retreated to the diner for tea and coffee. As the gathering hour of 14:00 approached, we faced the rain again and joined the group in the car park as it seemed to want to herd, or simply do something besides wait in the grey rain. We migrated to one corner in an attempt to please, and then another, but no one had any clue what was next.

A "slightly moist" day approaching the car park

Soon a gentleman appeared and drew us close for initial instructions, asking how many people had NOT seen the show. One out of 850 present. He then announced that we could take cameras into the studio so long as they were smaller and not full SLR sized – totally opposite to our ticket instructions. I had a fully charged iPhone and my Nikon D200 in the boot. Wow!  We started migrating away from the car park deeply into the cluster of hangers and other buildings, many of them seeming to have something to do with hopping up cars.  The crowd electricity was buzzing and I noticed near us several military and some others with jackets indicating the Royal Navy Parachuting Team. Something was up.  We reached a break in the buildings and made a left to see the opening to the studio / hangar with the first people entering.

Following towards the hangar / studio entrance with test track in the distance

First glimpse of Top Gear Studios

My eyes got used to the dark and after tripping over a wired studio light on the floor (will they throw me out?) and I almost ran into the red Toyota pickup on the plinth. My jaw dropped.  I looked around – there was the Cool Wall and there was one of the channel crossing car complete with mast, and over there was the Italian police car (what episode was that again?).

The Cool Wall

Correct category?

Toyota on Plinth


What episode was this from again?

The space was huge – the producer said it could contain 1200 but the crowd was at a comfortable level.  The oh, so familiar round stage was in the center and the early crowd swarmed it to get prime position for fame in the background.  I was not up for that and hung out by the Toyota on the plinth near an ungodly beautiful Jaguar E Type convertible. I decided that if I would fight for a place on camera it would be near this most British car.  In the studio was also a series of VWs, an orange BMW 1 series M car and the newly-famous MINI Countryman Rallye car. As loyal as I am to MINIs, this Jag was amazing and I wasn’t going to drift far from it.

The Stig on watch over the crowd

Channel-crossing car

Fitting for outboard motor on calm days

Top Gear Studios

Presenters' stage

Probably the only off-limits part of the set

Star ready for reasonably priced car

Simon and Bill

Simon, Paula and Bill

Another announcer with instructions appeared and helped to confirm our expectations.  He geared us up with a blooper reel from the show, ending with Clarkson pointing to a young woman’s chest noting “If you ever come to England, all the birds here have got great tits…”  That one I had seen on YouTube.  He went on to explain how our role was important – to laugh at Jeremy’s jokes even if we needed to retake the scene several times.  We practiced.

The announcer then gave some rules about appearing in the background, that if you had a “stripey jumper” it may cause the HD image to blow out so don’t be upset if asked to move.  Then Jeremy was introduced and he came out to warm up the crowd, admitting that HD recording no longer blows out so if the producer asks you to move, its because of your looks – and then profiled two polar examples from the audience to make this point.  He dropped a carpet bombing of F Bombs which loosened the crowd and brought out the laughter.  He also discussed a survey they had passed out to a number of entrants and awarded the winner with a signed DVD package of the last season of the show.  Wish I would have won it – so I could complain that it would never work on my American DVD player…

Jezza and Hammond warming up the group

Next, he brought out Richard Hammond and James May and we moved right into taping. There was one boom camera swinging around overhead, two or three cameras on dollies and at least one handheld unit. I remained at the plinth but because tall could see the heads of everyone. There was an audio mike stand not far from where we stood and – as you can tell from the show – there were huge video monitors everywhere to watch the live taping in progress.

There were several things that surprised me from my limited other experience in TV studios. First, these guys “cock about” a great deal but they are amazing professionals who did 98% of the show in one take without pause. It was like watching the show live on television – on the many screens around the studio. The whole “News of the Week” was done live without pause – and went perhaps two to three times longer than a normal segment – to allow for editing to extract the best – but the boys did not stop. It was a conversation. Second, there were almost no retakes.  Two by my count – in the first segment when Jezza had to describe how wonderful the series of VW Golf cars were in leading to the profiled BMW 1 series M car, and then later when doing the studio recap to the MINI Rallye car with the guest star luger.  Both generated a ton of merriment as Jezza just couldn’t get the segment right – but then all erupted when he nailed it.  Another thing that amazed me coming from America was the lack of security and the trust placed in the crowd to behave and do the right thing.  At one point the producer announced that they would soon be wheeling in a car worth GBP 600,000 or so (a million dollar car) so we should just afford it the proper respect and watch ourselves about sitting on it – since one former audience member had done GBP 100,000 damage to a car by not noticing the key ring on his belt.  When we entered, the lovely original E Type Jag was just there on the floor for anyone to touch and examine.  The museum curator responsible was nearby but he even allowed some people to sit in it.  They did everything they could to simply welcome and trust the audience as responsible people sharing this great experience.  Finally, the thing that I always wondered about was whether they show the audience the pre-recorded off site trips on the video monitors.  For this episode those included the Hummer alternative from South Africa, the BMW 1 Series clip, the MINI Rallye car challenge, and the final Jag E Type tribute.  All of those were shown on the monitors in sequence as the show was taped – and the immediate applause and transition to the post-film discussion was immediate.  They recorded the applause and for a couple of the segments (BMW, MINI and Jag) it took a few minutes to set up the final closing video shoot in various corners of the set.

Museum E-type - 2nd off the production line

E-type cockpit

BMW 1 Series M car

Everyday supercar

VW Golf line-up as intro to BMW segment

MINI Countryman Rallye Car

Used in this week's challenge at Lillehammer

Driving lights gone missing from the segment clip

It suits me... Don't you think?

The first segment was dedicated to a Richard Hammond review of a bigger crueler version of the Hummer found on sale in South Africa – from the military which does need to check out your security status before purchase.  Still, a Hummer would cower in this thing’s shadow.  The video made suitable fun of the concept – by trying to buy fast food from a drive-through window and the like.  When boxed into a parking lot, the vehicle just drove over and crushed the offending vehicles.  The final bit concerned its ability to survive an IED attack.   They put 6 pounds of plastic explosives under a Hummer and later under this vehicle.  There were not many identifiable bits of the Hummer left.  With this vehicle, the blast went downward and dug a hole – that the car dutifully drove out of.  One tire seemed off the rim and a little draggy but it still drove off into the sunset.  Applause and cut to the boys commenting on the fact that the vehicle was not truly driveable very far after the blast – but what really would be ??

The News of the Week followed this bit and we were surprised by the length of the segment.  It all just flowed as a conversation but was much longer than the typical News segments we see on the show.  Clearly they will be removing the weaker bits in the final edit.  From my station at the Toyota plinth, I could see the heads of the three presenters and we watched the taping on the video monitors, with appropriate audience response to the funny bits.

The next segment was a review of a car you can buy today – an “everyman’s supercar”.  The focus was on the new BMW 1 M Series with high performance bits, flared wheel arches, and other enhancements – that at GBP 40,000 performs in many ways like an entry level supercar costing a good bit more (and it smokes a Cayman R and a Lotus Evora S in a drag race shown in the episode).  The filming transitioned from a Jezza commentary on the most important car of the last century (the Volkswagen Golf GTI – seriously?) where he walked down a line of them in the studio to his introduction of this most cost-efficient supercar you can buy today – the new BMW 1 M Series.  The linkage appeared to be that the cars shared a lot of the same parts but that BMW had injected the soul and performance.  This was Jezza’s video and he was seen ripping it up on the test track with this car, simply enjoying the power and handling of the seemingly innocent consumer car.  At the end, they handed the car over to their tame racing driver – the Stig – to test the car’s true mettle and we were happy to see it bracketed amidst some impressive company on the leaderboard.

I have to say at this point that Lady GaGa got a couple of appearances in this episode.  She is everywhere these days.  I was rather hoping for her as the star in the reasonably priced car – but it turned out to be Alice Cooper.  No complaints at all.  I love Alice.  Regarding Gaga, in the BMW leaderboard segment the Stig was playing a French version of “Edge of Glory” on his test lap (nice Stig) and Alice later talked about GaGa building on his repertoire – but in the nicest and kindest way.

As the end of the segment approached, they geared up the discussion to present the “Star in the Reasonably Priced Car”.  Minutes before this, I noticed that a couple of team members had escorted Alice Cooper into the studio from outside.  He was led around the edge of the crowd perhaps 15 feet behind me.  Classic Alice.  Jeans, leather jacket and long raven hair – with that edgy face.  So cool to be in the vicinity of rock royalty.  I am not worthy !!!

Jeremy then introduced Alice and welcomed him into the interview set.  It seemed like a long conversation going through the trajectory of Alice’s career.  I have read his autobiography and a lot of the discussion was not new to me – how Alice left drugs, found God and became a Golfing power to be reckoned with.  He was so core to the leaders of modern rock in LA in the 60s and 70s.  Apparently, he is on tour again and reaching out to a new generation.  As a youth, I felt a huge impact from his anthems – “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” among so many others.  When the talk turned to his lap, it seemed that Alice was not as much a car genius as he was a golfing demon – he scored second from bottom on the leaderboard and the video of his lap showed more of a reasonably priced car out on a shopping expedition than a timed lap.  Little fear of him lifting tires on Gambon.  The shot of him entering the last couple turns at speed was pretty unimpressive.

After the Alice segment, a tea break was offered and the massive doors to the hangar opened, letting us spill outside to gather at tables offering tea (every one was tea with milk – “regular tea” to a New Yorker), water and crisps.  We were promised a chance to catch up with the crew and get things signed at this point but the only one of the lads present was Hammond, who was out in the middle of the crowd, alone and working very hard to greet and respond to everyone.  He was a blur of signing books and posing for photos.  I got close to him but it was not important for me to get a signature or a handshake so I let him tend to all the young women who wanted to press cheeks for a photograph.  In this area, the gates opened to the airfield and the test track, and we saw a number of impressive supercars parked down nearer the field from the fences.  There was also an automotive workshop nearby with a number of classic British cars arrayed outside.  During this time we had the chance to roam and take pictures so I wandered over the set and caught pictures of all the things I did not have a chance for before.

On tea break Hammond worked hard to meet everyone

He was clearly a professional at meet and greets...

Towards the end of the break, a driver drove a reconstructed modern version of the E Type Jaguar – the Eagle – into the hangar to position it next to the classic E Type Jag.  The sound of it was like an acoustic orgasm – and people parted with wonder to let it enter.  It looked like an E Type but had radical modern features like a cockpit sculpted in red with no convertible top – it was a permanently open car.  The lines were familiar but modern and radical.  It was fun to be in the presence of a GBP 600,000 car and to be able to touch and photograph it.  After this, people began to cluster around the Jags in large number but the producer advised that we wouldn’t be doing that segment for a while.  Still, I wanted my position next to the E Type Jag but found that a number of English 20 somethings had grabbed that ground.  I positioned myself next to them and inched my way every moment more and more towards the car until I was front row.

Enter the Eagle

Bookends to 50 years of the E-type

Eagle cockpit

It's an E-type but so much more

Red and metal-flake black - just perfect

Can I get one with left-side controls?

Follow me if you can!

If this isn't pornography, what is?

They introduced James’ segment – the weekly challenge in which they returned to Lillehammer to repeat a previous challenge – this time with the new MINI Countryman Rallye car against the British world champion luger Amy Williams on the luge track.  A very exciting race – and an amazing MINI vehicle.  Rallye is something you don’t see much of in the US at all but is huge in Europe and is almost at an F1 stage of investment and crowd following.  MINI had huge glory in the 1960s with its Rallye cars and is reinventing itself with the new Countryman platform.  I loved James’ comment that everyone needs to own a MINI at some point in your life or you are an incomplete human being.  I felt that way when I bought mine back in 2006 – and still have the passion for it.  Frankly, I can’t imagine driving anything else short of a supercar.  Amazing vehicle that I love every day.  The new Rallye car is wicked fast and so pretty.  The video showed the car in action, and handily beating the luge.  It took a couple of takes after the video to capture the intended dialogue successfully – as Jezza was all over complimenting the incredibly cute luger with the curly mane – but eventually they got it down.

After the MINI segment, the producers began to set up for the final Jaguar segment and by this time I was front row leaning next to the classic Jag E type right abreast of its windscreen.  I was hopeful for my two or three seconds of fame to be sure.  The three presenters gathered between the two Jags with the Royal Navy Parachute Team arrayed behind them.  It was at this point that I witnessed the phenomena I was sure happened at each and every taping of the show since the beginning – the “stage dressing” of the pretty young things that always appear behind the presenters.  The crew had found three or four gorgeous young women and brought them out stage center behind Clarkson, May and Hammond – positioning them in clear sight to cover most of the background behind them.  They even made sure that one surly looking gearhead was positioned right behind Clarkson and out of view.  What happened next was a hoot.

Clarkson on microphone gave a pep talk to these young women to gear them up for the final scene.  He addressed them and indicated how important their role to the success of this broadcast was…  You see, the primary viewing audience of Top Gear is traveling business men in hotel rooms who are fearful of ordering up the porn channel on the hotel television service because they might get caught, so they instead choose Top Gear and are looking for that same measure of excitement in our show.  In that light, these chosen women have a key role in satisfying that key BBC demographic and need to get across the proper impression that will keep this important audience glued to the screen.  Actually, Clarkson got a bit more graphic talking  about the anatomy of such businessmen but I will spare those details…  It was an absolute riot for the crowd.

The video was a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the E Type Jaguar, which has always been my favorite car – bar none – that has ever graced the pavement.  From the time I was a boy I loved this car.  It’s the only car that can make me look past my current MINI Cabrio.  The video showed Clarkson riding in the classic E Type currently at my feet in the studio – the very first convertible E Type to come off the assembly line (in British Racing Green of course).  It was a superbly glorious car – a long torpedo with chrome and wood fittings everywhere with those great wired wheels with the flying blades coming out from the hubs.  Clarkson was flying over the British countryside and laughing like a child with how quintessentially British this experience was.  One of the great Top Gear segments ever.  He then introduced the Eagle Speedster, the current tribute car to that 50th anniversary – a modern bookend to this amazing story of such a classic car.  The car just takes the platform of the E Type into obscene territory with modern performance and esthetics.  The video segment ended up with Jeremy atop the White Cliffs of Dover in the green E Type going on about how every great nation needs a symbol of patriotism to rally around – an object that clearly defines the national psyche and national spirit – and he was putting up the E Type Jag as that object for England.  I have to say I whole heartedly agree.  Nothing is more essentially British than this car.

The final segment flowed into a shot of the three presenters between these two amazing automobiles talking about their merits.  I had maintained my place in the front row next to the glorious green E Type Jag – and in the last few seconds Hammond walked over saying “why would you want anything else when you can have this?” pointing to the car at my feet.  I have to say I agree.

After the last shooting it was not over as Jezza needed to record a number of audio voice-overs for the episode.  One of them he put up to a vote in a contest against his producer – which would be the segment to introduce the episode at the beginning?  He read them both and we all voted on them.  The producer’s desire was a factual description of all the segments, while Jezza wanted the description more aligned with “Richard Hammond drinks a coffee, James May slips on some snow, and we show a picture of Steve McQueen”.  The vote was unanimous for Jezza but the producer took his defeat well…

It's a wrap - Thank you Everybody!

It was finally a wrap and the production crew began to stand down – but I still had something fun to witness.  I was standing outside the hangar doors and an insanely beautiful Lamborghini started driving straight towards me.  I moved out of the way and it slowed and stopped.  I was to understand that this was Hammond’s car for the ride home.  It was just amazing.  Jezza complained all he had was a Golf to go home in.

Hammond's car brought round

No words to describe this

After the filming there was no announcement that we were all to clear out and go home.  In fact, people were free to mill about, take more pictures and just enjoy the experience until they were ready to leave.  As it was still raining, most headed for the car park and we followed suit after a bit of lingering to watch the amazing Eagle back out and drive to another corner of the property.  Before the car was moved out, we met one of the leaders of the team at Eagle that brought this car to creation.  It was fun to talk with someone with equal passion for the E Type.

Pausing outside Top Gear Hangar, I looked over the gate and saw a corral of supercars between where we stood and the airfield / test track.  I found myself standing right next to a very nice Ferrari and spied the new Aston Martin Virage in orange not too far away (which will be profiled by James the following week, to be followed by a good shaking out by the Stig on the test track).  Further out were another Lambo, a Porsche and a car that looked like the double of the BMW 1 Series on the floor of the hangar – probably the one that the Jezza and the Stig had just tested around the track.  Interestingly, there was an ambulance parked there that seemed to be a permanent part of the fleet.

Ferrari at my feet, Porsche and ambulance straight back. Lambo, BMW and new Aston Martin Virage to the left

This Aston Martin Virage will be profiled in the next week's episode

We finally bid farewell to Top Gear Studios and began the walk back to the car.  It had been a long day of taping.  We arrived between 13:00 and 14:00 and began to think about heading for the car after 19:30 or later.  With the summer solstice a few days ago, the days were incredibly long (sunrise before 4:30 am and sunset near to 10:30 pm) and it still seemed like mid-afternoon to me.  We never saw the Stig except for the huge banner of him that was raised and lowered all day depending on the segment – but in recollection I think that I lucked into the best episode ever.  Lots of talk about the MINIs I love so much, a segment on a BMW that I might actually buy – and a tribute to my lifetime car passion, the E Type Jag.  I could not describe a better show to be a part of.

Farewell to Top Gear Studios as the Stig flies proudly overhead

We wandered back towards the car park but were distracted by an access ramp that led to the airfield and noticed a few others from the audience already down there.  We detoured to walk as far as we could to the airfield and came face to face with the final corner of the Top Gear test track – with Gambon corner to our left and the finish line to our right.  I put aside the iPhone and grabbed my Nikon D200 from the boot and began taking serious pictures of the airfield and test track.  The famous blue and white 747 was right in front of us and a number of retired British military aircraft were resting across the field.

Top Gear Test Track - "...and across the line!"

Gambon Corner

Top Gear's executive jet

Stig's-eye view of the starting line

We lingered for a few minutes and finally loaded ourselves into the car for a ride to a canal-side pub in Surrey (with narrowboats tied up) where we celebrated the day and our good fortune at having joined in this singular event.  All were still buzzing and drunk with the experience of having been part of this deep dive into the world of Top Gear.  I still remain amazed at my good fortune at having been chosen for tickets – but there is one certainty at this point…  I will get my name back in the lottery and look forward to my next chance at joining the boys at Dunsfold.  This is certainly one of the finest experiences that one can hope to join if you are a proper gearhead and a fan of the show.  I hope to be back again – and again….

As a final offering, here are a couple of shots that caught me during the last few seconds of the episode…

Clip from the episode - my goal was to be first row behind the magnificent original E-type. Accomplished!

Final scene of episode


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14 Jul

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