Wednesday 29 Oct 2014
Sunday 27 June on BBC TWO
As Richard Hammond prepares for a new series of Top Gear, the 15th, Press Information's Tony Matthews asks him about the formula that makes the show number one.
TV clips show researchers on the hunt for out-takes and bloopers should know not to get their hopes up as far as Top Gear is concerned. "There aren't any," says Richard Hammond, "that's the show. It's our failings and general uselessness that makes it work. If we crash, cock up or slip over, it goes in the programme, the only bits we throw away are those that went well."
For nearly a decade now, Richard and fellow presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May have perfected a formula that not only revived a respected, but conventional BBC Two car programme but also turned it into a television phenomenon.
It's such a brilliantly simple concept that it's tempting to think it happened by design, but Richard insists that isn't the case. "It's just three middle-aged men, who should know better, being irresponsible ... and some cars," he says. "It wasn't as if we thought, if we acted like this, then we'd become huge and find a following internationally, we just said let's make the show we want to make. For whatever reason it caught the public imagination and we're delighted. Let's be honest, I'm never likely to do anything bigger, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance that I never expected."
You don't have to be a car enthusiast to love Top Gear, although it helps. "Cars affect everyone," says Richard. "Whether you're taken to school in one, or your meals-on-wheels arrives in one, everybody has an opinion. They are part of the landscape, whether you're trying to prove your virility with a hot hatch or just getting to work without spending too much on diesel. It's a great way into all sorts of other social observations, not that we think about it much – we're just three petrolheads and we make the show from that standpoint. I think people are rather disappointed when they see us and we just slope off to the bar to argue about cars, but that's what we do."
Already in the can for the new series are assignments in Germany and Sweden and an appreciation of British sports cars. Richard also reveals that the Star In A Reasonably Priced Car feature will return with a new vehicle for Top Gear's special guests to race in, although he can't reveal what it will be. "All I can say is that some of the celebrities want to come back and have another go and we can't have them going round in the same one. The feature has taken on a life of its own; when we started it was a case of 'please be on our show', but now there's talk of some astonishing people coming. We do discuss who we'd like ... every series I say Angelina Jolie, but it never happens." Has he asked her? "No, because if she said 'yes', I'd faint. That's very modern man isn't it?"
So what about Germany? "We went to look at the kind of sensible four-door saloons that people can race on a track but also go to work in or take the kids to school in," he says. "I have to be a bit secretive about the cars, but they were real classics of their kind that any petrolhead would know, and anyone else wouldn't care about. We took three of those out ... and ended up in Colditz."
Really? What's that like? He laughs: "It's a tremendous place, resonant with history and stuff, but kind of empty now. It's just a big building, but remarkable to pass through." Not a tourist attraction then? "Not really, not on the scale I'd have imagined, it's not the way the Americans would do it..."
Since then, the team have also been to Sweden. "We had an epic race, which I think was the best use of a ski run ever ... and not on skis. The weather was terrible and we couldn't film for long periods, we just had to do bits whenever we could and wait until it turned."
As assignments go, Sweden was a tough one and the stars in their often outrageously priced cars rely on a great production team for support. "They're ridiculously good," Richard agrees. "We sometimes take them for granted, and then get a little reminder of how good they are. The three of us have this odd saying, 'I've got to get a burger van', which goes back to eight years ago on a nothing job when the editor, Andy Wilman, said to someone, 'I need a burger van with a bloke in it who doesn't mind being filmed for tomorrow at the track' ... and they just went 'yeah, fine, no problem'. The three of us just looked at each other... if somebody asked me to do that I'd have no idea where to start, but these guys can get a 200-foot crane or an expert in making a car amphibious, the most ridiculous requests. Sweden was a big job needing a lot of co-ordination and Oisin and Elena from the production office never stopped from the moment the plane touched down. Out in blizzards or in hotel reception they constantly had a phone or a laptop glued to them. One minute making a desperate call to set something up or getting permission to film in a complicated or sensitive location, the next running and getting a coffee for everyone – and they've got degrees, they're much cleverer than us. They know it's an opportunity to work on something massive and they will go on to great things."
What about his colleagues, what strengths do they bring to the programme? "Strengths is an odd word when applied to either of them, really," he says. "Profound weaknesses, failings – that's what we're made up of. Nine times out of 10 what we get is completely different to what we've talked about in advance – other stuff happens, and that's what makes the programme special."
While Richard, Jeremy and James make it look effortless, clearly a lot of work goes into Top Gear. "My social life is the programme," he says. "It's very time intensive; that's not a complaint but filming is practically all year round. We see each other more than we see anybody else and, yes, we're mates – we couldn't do the job if we weren't, we'd end up killing each other.
"It's a punishing schedule, but we're glad when it is knackering because if it came too easily that would be suspicious. There's harder jobs, talk to a miner or a soldier right now. I think we can carry on for a while yet; for a good example of how you can get away with it when you're 110 years old, look at Jeremy – even when you're an eight-foot tall decrepit giant you can still drive a car around a track."
Does Richard feel the pressure of knowing that manufacturers spend a lot of money developing cars that he might then criticise? "It's a sort of a myth that it has any effect," he says. "If a car turns out to be a lemon and doesn't sell that's terrible, but it's pretty bad if someone spends their hard-earned cash on it. That said, we're not a buyers' guide, there are plenty of publications for people thinking about their next hatchback and they're not likely to turn to us for advice. We take it very seriously as journalists; even when we're being goofballs our opinions are fairly well considered ... even Jeremy's! It's not a consumer programme, it's entertainment, but we look at it from the consumer's side."
So how are things for the motor industry, which took such a battering in the economic downturn? "It's a tough time and the industry is one that has borne the brunt of it," he says. "There's going to be a shake down and I feel desperately sorry for anybody working in it as jobs are affected, but these are big companies and they can look after themselves. We're seeing some big old marques and brands disintegrating or changing hands, although quite a lot of them have changed hands so often down the decades that they're not really what they were anyway. We're in a time when technology is driving change, but it's expensive to develop hydrogen fuel cell cars and, if they're not making a profit on their fossil-fuelled cars, how are they going to fund it?"
Does he have a favourite moment for viewers to look forward to in the new series? "The emotional tribute to the British sports car is silly but fun and, I think, has some genuinely touching moments as we were the best in the world at making sports cars. And we've just come back from four days building our own motor homes, which didn't go entirely well, to be honest, so it's shaping up to be a fun series. We're going to hit every single supercar as well. In truth nobody's buying them right now, but it doesn't make any difference because it's mostly a feature for the 10-year-old in all of us that just wants to look at the new Ferrari 458 or R8 Spyder."
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