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Sunday, 5 March 2017

On the Set of TopGear Series 24!

I think this is the right studio...
I worked out recently that I have been watching BBC Two's pokey motoring show for a full twenty years. Twenty! I'm only twenty-five years old, for crying out loud... and yet, after they rebooted and reformatted the show in 2002 to take place in a large hangar situated at former RCAF airbase south of Guildford, I never got tickets to be in the audience as messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May called each other names and told each other that Alfa Romeos are brilliant (but not as brilliant as something Jeremy's just thought of). I did apply once, but by that time the waiting list was allegedly as long as eighteen years and frankly it wasn't happening...

However, after a fracas, a shaky second reboot in 2016 and a year to figure itself out properly, TopGear is ready for what it calls series twenty-four (but which I consider to be phase three, series two) and recently sent out an open invitation online to apply for free tickets to appear in the audience for the first two episodes, airing this Sunday and next at 8pm. I was quick enough to jump at the latest chance and... I got tickets! Finally! Sure I wouldn't get to meet The Tall One now that he's migrated to the internet, but damn it all TopGear is TopGear! I'd applied for two tickets for episode one, but unfortunately my plus-one had a doctor's appointment in the end and I left it until it was too short-notice to get anyone else to join me. Still, I'd have more freedom to wander about on my own and could make the day longer by staying for the recently added companion show, Extra Gear.


Getting to Dunsfold Aerodrome from my house is actually very easy: drive to Guildford and turn right. Then, following the A281 south you eventually reach Alfold Crossways, a junction that's on a left-hand curve at which point you turn right and right again onto a parallel road, then immediately turn left (I imagine if James May had this described to him he would've ended up doing a U-turn and going back to Guildford... but it's easier to understand when you're there looking at it). Then go straight-on at the next corner and cruise past the Three Compasses pub. In mid-morning on a Wednesday after the commuters had gone to work, it took about an hour or so. Mostly because I didn't get lost - in fairness I've actually been here before for charity events.

You're checked three or four times for your credentials between Compass Gate and the audience holding area, which is essentially a slab of concrete parallel with the airfield's perimeter road and accessed via a very neat crossroads filled with seemingly unnecessary traffic lights. Once directed to a space, you find yourself facing the studio building(s) from across the airfield. What a tease!

Oh, and there was a food truck there. I had a banana with my burger and this seemed to be novel idea to onlookers.

I guess it's a bit like having my bacon-cheeseburger with a diet coke, but in food form
We were all given a TopGear quiz to fill in and submit, featuring questions that are even hard when you have a black belt in Google-fu. How am I supposed to know which hangar the new series is filmed in unless I work here?!

Wholesome meal over, it was time to wait around in windy drizzle... for about an hour longer than I'd anticipated. After tactically standing so that only half of me was getting soggy for quite a while, watching something red lapping the track from afar (possibly an Alfa Giulia QV or more likely a Toyota GT86 I'll bring up again later), we were then told that they were filming something and were having a delay, so despite the tickets saying "doors open at 1:00pm and close at 1:30," it wasn't until nearly 2:30 that we boarded some buses and were driven along the perimeter road to those buildings which were previously far away.

Oh the time we spent staring at those buses......
Then we had some more queuing to do, just to reassure those who came from a foreign country to be here that this is definitely Britain (also it was still drizzling, so I'm glad I wore a hat but regret not getting a clear-bin-bag "poncho").
We were told to leave our phones in the car and not take photos, so any images you see from here on in are actually startlingly accurate artist's impressions made using various media and a photographic memory. Honest...


Take, for example, this image of a blue Suzuki Whizzkid sitting right outside the studio, that was full of the sort of clobber you'd expect of a car that'd been sitting in somebody's garage for years rather than outside a TV studio. I love how the artist got the texturing on the metal bars so detailed in this image! Remarkable handiwork there.

Finally, after more wristband checking, we were allowed to be herded in groups to and through the studio doors. Here is a realistic digital painting of that, featuring the backs of people's heads:

Such realism!
Having seen old TopGear on telly so many times over, I was immediately struck by the size of the newly-restyled studio... or rather the apparent lack of size. I always got the impression it was filmed in the group of three hangars near the exit of Gambon Corner, but this single unit (hangar 86, remember that for the quiz if you ever go yourself) a few feet down from the start/finish line is visibly cosier. Perhaps the loss of its long-serving stars has forced them to relocate across to here for a smaller audience, or perhaps it's "due to the unique way the BBC is funded." I don't know the explanation. Nevertheless, a smaller audience means you're more likely to appear on screen... but being self-conscious at the best of times I never tried to be right at the front, just somewhere that I could see the big screen and hopefully the presenters' heads.

Initially, I stood next to something very shapely indeed: a Rimac Concept_One that I have geeked out about elsewhere on this blog in the past.


Ah yes, the artist who perfectly recreated these scenes from memory was a bit nervous about using their special technique to mentally record an image in their minds so early in the day, so, er, the composition isn't brilliant. Don't worry, things get better in this regard. Anyway, they didn't actually review or lap the all-electric Croatian supercar, instead choosing for Rory Reid to walk around it and poke bits of it while discussing its speed and range with a confused Matt LeBlanc and a cynical Chris Harris... and the star guest. I'll get to him in a mo...

...because before "the talent" showed up, the audience was informed (briefly) and entertained (frequently) by kiwi comedian Jarred Christmas while the production team scurried around doing Many Important Things to set up the equipment. At this point I was even happier not to be near the front as he went around fishing for material by asking audience members about themselves - I'm happy just to laugh, thanks! He actually stuck around throughout the recording of the show to fill in long gaps between takes and present something akin to a "half-time show" during the break in filming, when they gave out prizes to quiz winners and he continued his day-long quest to find the ultimate cheese joke. You wouldn't brie-lieve some of them...

Once everyone was into the studio, the crew sprayed more white onto the white mats beneath the cars and took away the black fences around them before instructing us NOT to stand on said white mats. The man tasked with directing the audience then took charge and gave us a tutorial in how to be an audience - how loud to cheer and applaud, how to applaud without cheering, when to cheer and/or applaud in the opening scene - after which everything became professionally lit and we gave, on cue, both cheers and applause to the three presenters as they strode in near the hangar door and walked to the opposite end to find their newly redesigned sofas.

Matt LeBlanc (I was in the same room as Joey!!) thanked us for turning up and wished us well. Then it was time to open the show once and for all. The camera rigs were moved into position and I couldn't help noticing the bag of crisps balanced on one of the circular lower handles. A proud TopGear tradition from the Wilman era was prodigious consumption of crisps and that remains alive and well among the production team. We heard the start and end of the now famous remix of Jessica originally by the Allman Brothers Band, then gave riotous cheer with applause as the stars introduced the show and series, now standing centrally in the studio as a trio with the camera in a corridor formed by us, as they said their hellos and linked into the series preview montage. This actually happened two or three times thanks to a forgotten line here or there. I would eventually learn to get used to this aspect of filming a television show.


After the montage above, they walked towards a car on the opposite side of the studio to me: a resplendent Ferrari LaFerrari in pearlescent white with metallic blue contrasting roof. This was Harris's link into his film testing the Ferrari FXX K, a track-only unregulated version of LaFezza. After some exemplary work explaining and showcasing the sonorous thousand-horsepower training tool around Daytona Speedway's endurance route, we applauded (and possibly cheered). Some further discussion of the car's quirks occurred, after which they welcomed on this week's Star in a Reasonably [REDACTED] Car, James McAvoy. What, already? After one film? That's unusual.
It turns out that this element of the show has been overhauled. Again. Mercifully, last year's format of having two guests painfully irrelevant to each other sitting down and having their past cars compared via an audience shouting contest has been completely axed. Instead, the singular guest first appears where the 'news' segment of the show would previously have been and initial discussions with them happen then... but the lap was saved for later.

Instead, after comparing his Audi RS3 to the Millennium Falcon [an understeering one, Harris asserts] and mentioning a couple of things I remember him saying the previous time he was on the show... we had to do this segment again. I guess the director is a perfectionist. We even had to welcome him onto the stage a second time. While the camera squad moved their things around and people whispered into their headpieces to unseen overlords between takes, the presenters and Mr. McAvoy chatted to each other, which we could hear. They talked about his bikes some more (Matt LeBlanc is a keen biker too) and some ideas of how to deal with the issue of them being stolen. The two professional actors also talked about their current projects (Episodes has one more series, if I've remembered correctly... or it's over... or soon to be... OK I haven't remembered correctly).

Oh! I almost forgot. They did introduce the Car Of Reasonableness during this segment of the show. It's the red thing in the picture below - drawn with a thousand crayons, from memory of course.

(image recorded after TG was finished)
This series, the car is not reasonably priced... instead, it is reasonably fast; a brand new Toyota GT86 with much of the interior trim removed and a basic rollcage fitted for health and safety reasons. Somehow the BBC have allowed Chris Harris to teach expensive celebrities how to fling a 200-horsepower rear-wheel-drive sports car around the test track! Apparently it took some time to figure out how much electronic stability assistance to leave on, among other issues, but even though there was some ESP function, we still saw a few clips of James McAvoy half-spinning at quite high speed through the tyres and at the first couple of corners, much to the amusing (and uncensored) terror of passenger Harris. I imagine this will happen every episode. Still, beats a Vauxhall Astra TechLine!

Before moving onto the next film, the presenters talked about which upcoming cars they were looking forward to this year. Technology fan Rory Reid fancies the Rimac I was standing near, so he and McAvoy walked over to it to talk about how fast and clever it is. The car's TVR-esque feature of having a button under the mirror to open the door was a highlight to the TG guys, with Rory asking guest James to try opening the car without instructions (hey remember when Jeremy did that with a Tuscan II in 2005?). Predictably, Rory had to step in and do it for him. This worked the first time and they checked out the interior... but a fluffed line or misplaced camera meant they had to re-shoot it... and the door never worked again. Each time Rory reached for the button, the door stayed resolutely shut, to everyone's amusement. They gave him the key, he tested it successfully before they returned to their seats to repeat the short walk-and-talk towards the car... and when it mattered, the door didn't open. They eventually abandoned this idea, sat back down again - "Fucking door!" [laughter] - and moved on. I'm interested to see what the final edit of that will be like!*


The thing to which they moved on was the cheap car challenge requiring cars which had done more than 480,000 miles - or as they put it, "have been to the Moon and back." This was to demonstrate that you needn't give up on your car after 60,000 miles or two years or however long most people own a car. At first I was staggered to see that the odometer on Matt's E-Class began with an '8' only to work out that it was in kilometres, not miles. This is because it came from Germany, unlike the London Taxi and Volvo V70 used by Rory and Chris respectively. A familiar format with fresh faces, this was actually a very enjoyable piece, but an extra dimension when watching in the actual studio is that the audience - who aren't recorded during these films, of course - reacted like, well, an audience. So when something funny happened, the whole room laughed anyway. When the winner of the inevitable race appeared from the final corner, there was cheering (not to mention upstanding outrage from the shorter of the two losers in the darkened studio as they watched with us!). You won't hear any of this under the footage at 8pm, but we were fully engaged with what we were watching. I have never experienced TopGear like this before and it felt special. The enthusiasm of others was contagious and it wasn't embarrassing to react loudly, like it might be at home. It was like being at a gig.

Once the first half of this film concluded, it was time for a break and some fresh air, during which I made a beeline for the nice lady handing out wristbands for Extra Gear and got the last one she had. There was still no opportunity to sit down, especially as it was still wet outside, but hey, at least there was complementary tea, coffee and biscuits. I plumped for the latter two.



Said refreshments were served in another hangar, opposite the studio and roughly half the length. I couldn't help but notice some rather tasty cars behind a fence in this building, including [breathe] an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Verde, and Aston Martin DB11 and a Volvo V60 Polestar, not to mention a backup GT86 "reasonably fast car" and some others I can't remember. The Alfa and Aston appeared in the series preview, which makes me think they will be starring in episode two (which was filmed four days ago, so I can probably get away with telling you this). The Volvo will appear in Extra Gear later today.

I decided to get a change of scenery for the second half of the show, so I stood on the left-hand side of the studio instead, again next to a car but with a proper view of the big screen (there is one on each side, about a storey up in the air, flanked by '80s supercars possibly belonging to Harry Metcalfe, whom I spotted on the phone in the corner at this point).

Jarred Christmas reappeared as we filed back in and everyone got ready for the second half. As well as asking us for more cheese jokes (the Camembert/"come on, bear" joke took several attempts), he found a new game where he sang one line of a pop song and hoped an unsuspecting victim would sing the next line. Some were better than others. I continued to keep a low profile, or as much of one as you can when standing an inch away from a pearlescent white Ferrari.

Here is a terribly composed portrait of said LaFerrari, done in pencils this time
I have to say, I don't normally like white on cars, but the way the pearlescent finish softly highlights the surfaces on this hyper-hybrid really works in person. It looked stunning. I spent of lot of the waiting time just looking at as much of it as possible. I'll probably never stand this close to one again. Fun fact: it was imported by Ferrari Japan. I don't know why this is, given that they sold them in the UK...

Anyway, we then got to watch James McAvoy's timed lap, which was certainly a bit lairy in wet conditions. We then had four or five goes at putting his lap time on the board (including all the talking post-lap) and cheering him goodbye. Sometimes it was a presenter tying their tongue in a knot, one time Rory stood up randomly for no reason, one time it was a mystery. I think it was after this that they re-shot some of the conversation about the Rimac, several times, just looking at Matt's face and Chris's face separately as they repeated what they said about it (Matt questioned its top speed, range and whether they're both possible simultaneously, Chris rubbished the whole idea of electric supercars saying the companies just make stuff up about a prototype and nobody buys one).

Television is hard.



After that, we watched the final part of the high-mileage cars film (during which I spotted a producer or somebody sitting next to Chris discussing what they were seeing), with a beautiful closing scene of the rocket launch to which they'd been racing. Personally I very much enjoyed this Kazakhstani adventure of theirs, with purely natural banter between the presenters and little-to-no manufactured action. An un-forced show for car enthusiasts. Thank goodness! Then there were three or four attempts to tell you what's happening next week, including three or four rounds of applause with cheering from us (always excellently delivered, of course).

Overall, I had a feeling that I'd just seen a good episode of TopGear. It wasn't a show I'd have to be defensive about and unlike the first episode of "series 23" last year none of it made me cringe... which is always nice. I feel optimistic about this series being a genuine alternative not only to The Grand Tour, but also to just watching old repeats on Dave, which is to say that, hype aside, it'll be of the same quality as what we've known before. Maybe. There certainly won't be any "we'll just have to be patient and give them a chance" excuse-making like there was in 2016. I have also learned that it takes about three times longer to film a TV show than it does to broadcast it. Mind you, it's not like I get to be on set every week, so I'm not complaining! Just observing.

But now, it was time to hang around for a bit. Again. There's a lot of that when you're making a TV show.

Mercifully, I found some Formula 1 tyres to sit on this time. No, I have literally no idea why they were there. Other people quickly sat on the new sofas for a photo, but obviously I didn't have my phone because I'm not naughty. Here's an exact scale replica of part of the main set platform. I cut a circle of acrylic especially for this image.




You can also see the Tyres Of Mercy and two of the star cars above (also accurate scale models, obvs). Despite LaFerrari having an electric mode that works up to 5km/h to manoeuvre it around, the person who had to turn it around 180° into its position for Extra Gear didn't realise this, instead starting the 6.3 V12 engine with a silence-shattering whip-crack that settled quickly into a booming burble. They were then very careful with it, as anyone would be with somebody else's million-quid machine.

TG's companion show has also been refreshed for 2017, with its own new set design including an amphitheatre-style three-tier seating setup for the audience... and a new presenter! Rory and Chris are now the suppourting acts for WRC-loving comedian George Lewis, a stand-up act on the rise making his TV** debut.

**Can you call it a "TV" debut when it's exclusively online?


It was actually during filming for this show that I saw something to add to the optimism I mentioned above about the show's future: chemistry. This was always something fans of the previous trio were keen to rattle on about as a USP of the show that made it work. Chris and Rory were almost like two lads in the pub together.

My favourite moment of the day will probably go forever un-broadcasted; it was time to introduce the part of the show where Chris takes a car around the track and this week it was the Volvo V60 Polestar, in reference to the V70 he'd just left knackered in the main show. The final line of his paragraph to camera was to say that he was to take "this viking Labrador carrier" around the track to see what's what. A slip of the tongue caught him out as he said "viking Labrador corridor." No matter, he sat back down and George re-did his segue to Chris's part. Having walked and talked his way to the front of the Volvo again... "viking Labrador corridor." Walking back in dismay, he asked us the rhetorical question "'Corridor'?! Where is that coming from???" as he went to try again. It then happened a third time. Rory started laying into him about his abject failure to read an autocue and Chris rugby-tackled him in a manner similar to Nico Rosberg on Lewis Hamilton after the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix, only these two landed carefully back on their bench before recomposing themselves and trying again. Fourth or fifth time lucky, Chris nails it once and once only... and we all hold on with palpable anticipation until the director makes clear that it's all OK and in the can... before we erupt into riotous applause like he's just done a back-flip through fire or something. He immediately turned round and showed Rory some particular fingers with great enthusiasm and triumph in his eyes!


After that it was back to the normal routine of having a couple of goes at professional content, although as they paused to set up for one re-take the two of them did argue about who failed the most to say their lines (Chris assured us that Rory's line was tiny and his was like War and Peace, so exaggeration is another TopGear tradition alive and well). I will say in his defence, though, that he does seem like a proper guy - sympathetic towards us and our long day's work and chatting to us between takes about the cars we could see, how LaFerrari looks miles better in person than in pictures (true), how the Testarossa set decoration looks cool too but if you ever look to buy one, check the welds; if they're actually of a good quality then it's been crashed and repaired, as Ferrari didn't really do quality control in the '80s. OH, and he complained the set's bench was still too high for him. I heard someone afterwards say that he's the one you'd most want to have a pint with and I'd concur, no disrespect to the other two of course (Rory hung around for selfies the longest). Plus of course, as the "continuity nightmare" bit in the main show attests, he is one of us: a true, nerdy petrolhead. As for new boy George, he made a fine referee as he balanced his presenting debut with sorting out Monkey and 'Rench on his left.

As for the format, Extra Gear no longer has a bonus guest on, which was always a confusing aspect of its first series, and nor does it have a bit where the presenters discuss cars รข la "The News." Instead it essentially focuses on its main purpose to take you behind the scenes and show a bit of bonus content. Both shows, then, have been tidied up nicely compared to last year and will make for enjoyable viewing over the remaining six weeks of take two of the third era of the greatest car show...... In The World.

I'm glad I was well and truly there to see it.

----

An angle of the studio you'll never see on TV, sketched while sitting on a Tyre Of Mercy
*P.S. This has taken me so long to [stop procrastinating and] write, that I have now seen the broadcast...

So after watching the episode on BBC Two, I see that they actually just cut the entire Rimac section out altogether, meaning the only part of the main show where you might have seen me - especially as standing behind LaFerrari meant I was always out of shot for the second half - wasn't actually aired. Thank goodness I took so many "photos" of it, LOL... Also, at the end of the FXX K film they were standing next to an actual FXX K in the broadcast, which was NOT in the studio the week I was there! The conversation about being invited to buy one was had sitting on the sofas during the day the rest of this episode was filmed. They must have found one available later and made time during filming for episode two to add that bit in a few of days ago... a technique which would explain why episodes are, it turns out, filmed eleven days in advance, not just four.

I also see that Extra Gear went through quite a lot of editing, although detecting how carefully Harris said "viking Labrador carrier" in the final cut brought back some of the gleeful buzz from when I heard him say it the first [fifth] time. George's introductory piece to camera was shorter than in the studio - removing a section where he captioned some short clips HIGNFY-style - and I remembered that sometimes the first takes were more natural than the re-takes that were generally used. This is just part of TV - because the script isn't always word-for-word and the autocue just says "DISCUSS [subject]" for a time, the presenters just speak naturally to each other, then have to recreate that if a re-take is needed. It's only made me more glad to have been there to hear it all happen in real time, although I'll sometimes wonder what I'm missing from now on when I watch future episodes. Maybe I'll have to hope that repeat appearances in the audience are allowed... and that they'd even let me come back after all these, ahem, artist's impressions...


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