TopGear TV part 3
Andy Wilman talks celebrities in the fnal installment of his History of TopGear TV
Like any TV show that decides to have a guest slot, the frst thing you do is make a wish list of stars you want.
With our list back in 2002, the emphasis really was on the word “wish”. We had Arnie, Tom Cruise, the whole of U2, Beckham, Paul McCartney, Cameron Diaz… basically anybody whose agent was going to say: “Really??!!”
And so it was that we found ourselves in the pub one evening – Jeremy, Richard, Jason and I – trying to fnd the number for the manager of the drummer from The Rubettes, when Harry Enfeld walked past. Not three feet from us was an actual celebrity, more to the point an actual celebrity unprotected by the force feld of his agent or publicity person, so we pounced. We descended on him like piranha fsh in a local swimming bath, like 14-year-olds in a One Direction dressing room. He was British, he was middle class, he was polite. He never stood a chance.
With the guest for show one sorted, we now needed the car. It had to be reasonably priced, it had to be uncool in an underdog way, it could only have a modest amount of power so that non-petrolhead celebs would feel comfortable fooring it, and it had to be from a manufacturer who would agree to give us a car. In truth this last point was sort of the clincher, as we discovered when carmaker after carmaker put the phone down on us. But the chap at Suzuki, a wise old fox, understood the tongue in cheekness of the whole venture and stumped up a lovely Liana, little knowing that this unassuming boxy saloon would one day become the most famous car on the planet.
A month later Harry Enfeld found himself piloting the Liana around an airfeld and then sitting opposite Jeremy in a hangar, telling an audience of 60 gentlemen in Subaru feeces – chaps who kind of preferred watching Colin McRae to Tim Nice But Dim – all about the experience. The genial comedy maestro didn’t really know what was going on, as you can see from his bemused face in that original show, but nevertheless The Star in
nd a Reasonably Priced Car was of the launch pad and heading for the stratosphere.
Sort of. The problem was that no matter how often we sat in Jeremy’s local, we weren’t going to get a celebrity brushing past every week. We called in favours from celebrity petrolheads we knew – Jay Kay and Steve Coogan in particular, both of whom agreed without hesitation, and I will forever be in their debt for that. However, Steve, Jay and Harry gave us a grand total of three, we had ten slots to fll and Renée and Renato weren’t returning our calls.
It was at this point we got lucky again. Jeremy rang me one afternoon, just as I’d got of the phone to Bobby Davro’s agent, telling me that he’d bumped into a famous knight of the realm who would love to come and drive a small Japanese saloon around a track. Yes, Sir Michael Gambon was up for it. We are talking here about not only one of the greatest actors of all time, but a man who had refused all chat shows, including Parky. However what those shows didn’t ofer was the chance to rif about cars and engines and gearboxes and all the things it turned out that Gambon loves. Dumbledore himself was our frst petrolhead-who-youwouldn’t-think-was-a-petrolhead, and TopGear would go on to unearth quite a few of these, including Kevin McCloud, Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders.
Sir Gambon said he was free to do the following week’s show, which quickly focused our minds on the sort of hospitality our guests were being ofered. You see, most celebs when they go on Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton get given a comfy dressing room with en-suite bog, minibar, telly and basically everything you’d get in a top-end Premier Inn. We, however, in those days – and I’m talking about the whole TopGear production crew – had to make do with a Portakabin the size of Frank and Pat Butcher’s minicab ofce, so we could only aford to cordon of a quarter of it as a top celebrity hangout. Now this was fne for Jay Kay, who only requires some Jafa Cakes and a chair to keep him happy, but a theatrical deity? How would this feapit go down?
In the end, better than we could ever have imagined. Gambon turned up four hours early, pored over the old planes in the various hangars, then set of in the Liana to do his timed laps. Since he was quite old and wearing a jacket and tie, we weren’t expecting a blistering performance, but then came the moment when he barrelled into the fnal corner on two wheels, giving the thumbs up to the camera as he went. In honour of his bravery, we instantly named the corner after him, but Gambon’s near-death antics were of much greater signifcance. He had put the Star in a Car segment on the map – people were no longer talking about it as a bit of telly where petrolheads could have a bit of fun, but as a thing where celebs you’d normally see on a comfy chat-show sofa were now pushing themselves in an exciting environment.
Slowly, the guest list started to fll up. Patrick Stewart gave us the nod. At that time he was at the height of his Hollywood fame with the X-Men and Star Trek movies, but like Gambon – maybe old English thesps
are just well-mannered – he turned up early and unannounced. In fact, when we saw this chap in jeans and a baseball cap walking towards us, Jeremy turned and said: “Sorry mate, we’re just going through the script here. If you’re dropping a car of, can you talk to one of the lads in the ofccccccce… Mr Stewart so nice of you to come how are you please have a seat can I get you a cofee?”
A couple of series in, we got our frst big American star, Lionel Richie. Since he would obviously be coming with an entourage and a scary manager, we fgured we needed to hire our frst-ever celebrity Winnebago. Roger, our production manager at the time, is the tightest man you’ll ever meet, so when the man from Ace Winnebago Hire opened up with: “The cheapest one comes for £200...” Roger stopped him right there and told him to deliver it promptly for Lionel day. When it did turn up, it was browny beige and would have easily ftted in the bathroom of Jenson Button’s motorhome. But no matter – it was better than a quarter of a Portakabin.
Then Lionel arrived, as expected, with a convoy of three blacked-out Mercs and a very scary manager. That particular day was wet, cold and windy, and as the scary manager stood at the side of the track, his
nd LA tan being stripped away by the sideways British rain, looking at his superstar talent pounding round in a small Japanese car, with no prospect of performing his new single, you just knew he was thinking: “What are we doing here?”
“So this is a popular show?” he asked, as he spat rainwater out of his mouth.
“Oh yes, very,” I replied. “Millions and millions of viewe…” At that moment, I abandoned the sales pitch because he and I were both looking at Lionel careering across the tarmac in a shower of sparks, the front wheel having completely sheared of. The manager’s jaw muscles did a little dance as the composer of ‘Hello’, wrestling with the remaining three wheels, hurtled across the grass and just missed a pile of tyres. Having retrieved Lionel, we decided he needed hot cofee and shelter from the rain, which meant it was time to unleash the Winnebago. As I opened its door, the smell of mildew from unloved velour came galloping out with quite considerable force, but nevertheless in full Basil Fawlty bowingand-scraping mode, I ushered Lionel and the scary manager up the steps. Once inside, they turned to look at me in stony silence. I peered past them, and it was then that I saw the sole decoration on the wall – an old Athena poster of the Twin Towers.
While I beat Roger the production manager to death around the back of the Winnebago, Lionel settled in and, as it turned out, was charm personifed. In his climb to the top, he’d clearly encountered much worse setbacks than a frontsuspension collapse, and he happily joked about lawyers and whiplash claims, and then delivered beautifully in the interview. Basically he gave a masterclass in how to be a big star of the old school.
As one series followed another, the popularity of Star in a Car slowly grew, along with the surrealness of the mix. One week it would be Roger Daltrey, a proper rock god, stopping mid-lap and asking for a nice cup of tea; the next, it would be Johnny Vegas, still on L plates, stopping mid-lap and asking for a can of Tennent’s Extra. Equally diverse was the quality of driving. At one bookend you had the likes of Simon Cowell, who we thought was just an overgroomed lightentertainment luvvie, but in fact was a brilliantly focused and brave driver who topped the board on both of his appearances. At the other end of the bookshelf you had Terry Wogan, who never understood or cared that setting a lap time required a diferent attitude to driving than when you drove to work. In the middle, you had Jimmy Carr, a one-man wrecking ball who had the conviction of Cowell, but was so mental behind the wheel that he rarely managed to complete a lap. I remember driving down to the start line to check on his progress, only to come across The Stig, who doubled as the celebrity tutor, coming the other way. “I give up with that t**t,” he announced with uncharacteristic vigour. “He just won’t listen, and he’ll end up on his roof.” Stig also said it was a shame, because in the rare seconds that Jimmy focused, he was a very natural driver. We pulled Jimmy in, forced the cheeky comic to focus via a bit of tough love, and, as Stig had predicted, he went top of the board.
After several series we chopped in the Suzuki Liana and replaced it with the Chevy Lacetti. By now we were no longer
struggling to fnd guests, but to pull in the big names, we had to do something we’d hoped we never would, which is let them plug stuf. The diehard TopGear fans whinged, but there wasn’t an infnite supply of petrolhead celebrities out there and the show was starting to go global, so we had to play the game. I guess the turning point was Hugh Grant, who came on to promote a romcom to fve million bemused Subaru fans, but in return we got a blindingly funny interview – he is one of the greats in a chatshow chair – and an A-list name we could then use as a magnet for other A-listers.
For me personally, the most tumultuous megastar moment came when Ronnie Wood’s publisher rang and asked if we wanted him on to promote his autobiography. Now I bow to no one in my love of the Stones. I have the bootlegs, the rare vinyl nerd records, the ticket stubs from countless concerts, the mental memory stick of pointless trivia that would make you kill me if we were stuck in a lift. All I’d never done was met an actual Stone, and here was my chance, which was why everyone was quite surprised when I said no. It wasn’t a case of “never meet your heroes”, it was just that I knew the Stones had lived in a bubble for pretty much all of their years, a parallel universe where questions were vetted and anything they didn’t want to do was removed from their path before they even knew it would have been there. And if you exist in that sort of environment, the odds are that you won’t give a good interview because, well, you’ve never had to; you’ve never been judged on how funny, revealing or entertaining you are or aren’t, and never been told you were boring, either. I didn’t want Jeremy to have to struggle with a monosyllabic rock god, so with a heavy heart, I declined the ofer. But then Ronnie’s publisher rang back and said she knew where I was coming from, but that this would be Ronnie on his own, not Ronnie in Rolling Stones world. Would I like to go around to his house to meet him and have a chat? There was a silence, followed by the sound of all my high-minded principles collapsing in a shameless heap, then fnally me squeaking: “What’s the address?”
Ronnie himself was waiting on the doorstep to meet me, which made me so nervous, I nearly backed into his Bentley. Inside he had an espresso machine on permanent dispensation mode, and while he drank his 28th cofee of the morning, he told me how much he was looking forward to coming on the show. I suspected he was just being polite and hadn’t actually seen it, and when his daughter had to explain to him who The Stig was, that sort of confrmed things. This mattered not a jot to me, though, because I was already totally starstruck and half an hour later I was also of my tits on quadruple-strength cofee.
By then I’d completely forgotten that I’d come to fnd out if he’d be any good on the show, and was jabbering on about all the Stones concerts I’d seen, reeling of set lists, who did what guitar solo, etc., basically showing of until he’d realise I was the best friend he’d never had. I think at some point he got a word in and mentioned he’d heard I was worried he might not be great as an interview: “Nonsense,” I howled in a cafeine-fuelled yelp. “That must be someone else, not me.” Finally I said I’d see him at the track next Wednesday and he opened his laptop, pulled up an email and said innocently: “Yeah, Dunsfold, I’ve got the address and the details and everything right here.”
Inside my cofee-flled head a small bomb went of: “What!!!??? Hang on a minute!!” I thought. “Ronnie’s a Rolling Stone. A Rolling Stone should not be cluttering up his godlike Rolling Stone brain with mundane drivel such as addresses and arrival times – that sort of task is for mere ordinary people.” Since my neurological system was now basically powered by espressos, I decided to share my thoughts with him: “You shouldn’t
know that! It’s not right!” I declared loudly, and then left a rather bafed Ronnie looking at his laptop as I bid farewell and powered of down his driveway.
If you caught that show, you’ll know he was great: funny, modest, charming in his shyness, and I seem to recall he nearly wiped out half the camera crew on the fnal corner. But that would have been OK. He’s a Rolling Stone.
There were many other happy memories from the Chevy Lacetti era. Brian Johnson, what a legend – the blueprint for being world-famous and not letting it change you. He must have been half an hour signing autographs in the audience. Usain Bolt – sheer charisma, Sienna Miller – top girl, James Blunt – too funny, and Eric Bana, who I think could have been top of the Lacetti board if it hadn’t been a wet day on his visit. We’ll never know, but what we do know is the little Chevy ended its reign with Jay Kay as its fastest pilot.
Although the Lacetti eventually gave way to the Kia Cee’d, the original Suzuki Liana was still putting in the occasional appearance, on account of it being needed for the Formula One drivers. This little Star in a Car spinof had begun with Damon Hill, and eventually the board boasted most of the big names, including Lewis, Jenson, Mark Webber and Vettel. Even though we are talking about a 1.6-litre roly-polysuspensioned car, all of these guys took their stint in the Liana extremely seriously, because it was the one time they got to compare themselves in the same car. They would quiz the hapless TopGear producer in charge about all sorts of nonsense: “What was the track temperature when Vettel came down?” “What were the tyre pressures when Lewis did his laps?” Then their hearts would all sink when they asked where the timing device was positioned and the producer would point to a researcher with his fnger poised over the stopwatch on his mobile.
I say all the F1 drivers took the Liana lap seriously, but there was an exception and, as you can probably guess, he’s Finnish and currently drives for Ferrari. At the time he visited us, Kimi was just returning to F1 with Lotus, and you’d think most drivers coming back to the top arena in motorsport would be anxious to prove they’d still got it. Not this boy. Admittedly it was a wet day, so he was never going to go top of the board, but even so after half a dozen laps, he’d had enough and headed for the arms of the La-Z-Boy chair and the warmth of his motorhome. Don’t get me wrong: he wasn’t sulky – he was perfectly amiable – he just genuinely didn’t give a shit what people would think or not think about his lap time.
I went into his motorhome and told him it had stopped raining and the track was drying, which it was. Reluctantly, he pushed himself up in the La-Z-Boy, peered out of the window at the now obviously drying tarmac, then said, “No, I don’t think it is,” and fopped back into the chair.
“Kimi,” I said, “there’s a lot of F1 fans, us here included, who are really excited about you coming back and you do not want to be watching this show on Sunday night with that lap time, which I can’t tell you, but you really can do better.” I thought he was going to tell me to sod of, but eventually he smiled – well, arranged his lips slightly diferently – and said “God, it’s worse than F1 here,” then got up, went outside and did some more laps. He could have gone faster than he eventually did because the track was drying all the time, but whatever. I can at least put on my gravestone: “I got Kimi Räikkönen to shift his arse.”
The one F1 driver who didn’t do the lap was Michael Schumacher. Although he was in temporary retirement at that point, he clearly was not going to muck about with the myth surrounding the greatest statistical
nd driver of all time. However, Jeremy and I had met him several times over the years and seen him grow from an uptight youth into one of the most amiable gentlemen in the pit lane. There isn’t the space here to recount the personal experiences I’ve had of his decency, or of similar stories I’ve heard from people I know, including my wife when she worked at Minardi. Bottom line, I admire that man immeasurably, and it was no surprise therefore that he agreed to out himself as The Stig when it was put to him.
Michael’s day at the track kicked of in typical TopGear fashion. Since he was arriving in his private jet, fight plans had been logged, permissions to land obtained, and at 9.15am his pilot was lining up on the approach path, as arranged, when suddenly the control tower heard the voice of another pilot: “Erm, Foxtrot Alpha Papa Tango James May. Hello, receiving wilco over.” Yes, James was also lining up in his Sopwith Tiger Moth or whatever it is, which in turn meant Schumacher’s pilot had to suddenly make new plans.
Once the seven-times world champion was fnally on the ground, he got ready to do a lap in the Ferrari FXX. Now normally The Stig takes the F1 drivers around frst, just to show them how the track goes, but Schumacher wouldn’t get in his car because it was a Jaguar and since he had an endorsement deal with Ferrari/ Maserati he couldn’t be seen in any other brand. “No problem, you go around; I’ll follow you in my car,” Schumacher said to Ben Collins, our Stig at the time. And thus Ben flled up his gravestone epitaph as he barrelled round the track with Schumacher on his arse in an FXX.
Michael then wanted to say hello to Jeremy, Richard and James. “I’ll go get them,” I said, knowing full well the state of the little scripting room they sat in. “No, it’s OK” said Michael, “I’ll go see them.” There is little doubt his temple of a body would have convulsed as he walked into the wall of ciggie smoke in the room. Then he perched on the bank-holiday-sale DFS sofa and had a good chat with the boys, even though his eyes kept being drawn to the collection of cock and balls illustrations on the wall. We told him that guests were sometimes invited to contribute one, but he politely declined the marker pen. What I do remember though is him saying that the frst corner on our Heath Robinson circuit was “pretty interesting”, which is good enough for me.
We then asked him to think of some answers to some daft questions in The Stig reveal interview, and if you never saw the moment he took The Stig helmet of, I urge you to watch it, because it’s the most electrifying studio moment in our whole history.
Schumacher is alright. Better than alright. I still cannot believe a man of such talent, for whom mobility and speed is such a fundamental urge, sits now as a prisoner of his body, and I really hope that one day medicine provides the key to release him from his cell.
Back, though, to the amateur drivers, and by the time we entered the Kia Cee’d era, we were pulling in the big names quite regularly. Ryan Reynolds – one of the top fve funniest men you’ll ever meet; Mick Fleetwood – legend; Rowan Atkinson – deeply shy and a complete gentleman. Then one day we got the call that the man we’d often joked about, as in: “Oh yeah, you’ve got more chance of getting Tom Cruise on”, was actually up for coming on. What’s more, he would be with Cameron Diaz. Now having experienced the entourage nonsense that accompanies any normal Hollywood Alister, we expected the hoo-ha surrounding Tom and Cameron’s visit to be of the scale. And it was. A security team came to check out the track. Approximately 48,000 people would be coming from the flm company. Then a couple of days before the visit, we were sent a timetable for how the day itself would run, and it wasn’t short on detail. Tom would arrive at 12.01. He would say
hello to Jeremy, Richard and James at 12.04. He would go into his motorhome at 12.07. He would reappear at 12.09 and get in the Kia Cee’d at 12.11, and so on and so on.
All of this went to s**t at, I don’t know, let’s say 10.04, when we heard the thrum of rotor blades and Tom’s helicopter deposited him on the ground a full two hours early. He’d got up, decided he wanted to get down to the track, and the truth is, the fuss and nonsense that precedes the man is most defnitely not the man. As for the timetable, he talked with everybody, goofed about and hardly went in his motorhome once, but what impressed me most was how he handled the flm company people. Basically, when he’d done his laps it was raining, but then the sun came out, the track dried, and he turned and said: “I’d really like to do my laps again. Do you think I can?”
“You defnitely should,” I said, “I can tell you’ll regret it if you don’t do a dry time. Trouble is, you’ve got 48,000 people standing right behind you who’ve got you on a really tight schedule because they need to get you to your flm premiere in the West End.” Now at this point, he could have simply fexed his Biggest Star in the World muscles and declared that that was what he was going to do. But instead, he asked the flm company people if it would be OK for him to go again, and when he saw the anxiety on their faces, he suggested they scrap the time they’d allotted for going to the hotel to shower and get dressed for the premiere. “I can change in the car on the way there,” he said. Genuinely, he was one of the nicest guests we’ve ever had at the track, as indeed was Cameron Diaz. I remember at one point telling her that Jeremy would be asking her how her nose looked so perfect, given that she’d broken it four times. “It’s not perfect, it’s terrible,” she said. “Well, it just isn’t – it’s perfect,” I retorted. She then took my hand and ran my fnger up and down her nose. “Look, feel that,” she said. “It’s terrible.” To be honest, though, I wasn’t listening; I was too busy composing another epitaph for my gravestone.
Reading back through what I’ve written, I know it comes across a bit like a Hello! feature because I have not been critical of any of our guests. But the truth is, out of all the stars we had in the cars, only one (and I’m not going to say who it is) was a knob. The rest were anything from perfectly pleasant to an absolute joy. I don’t know why that was. Maybe, as they sat in our terrible student bedsit of a green room with wonky pictures of previous celebs and a fridge that kept the drinks warm, they appreciated the lack of the usual TV nonsense. Perhaps it was the fact they could have a fag without being tutted at or simply that they could bomb around a track – or both of these things, in Michael Fassbender’s case. I think a lot enjoyed it, though, because they came down believing they would embarrass themselves at the wheel of a car but then, with a little help from The Stig, pushed themselves right out of their comfort zones and found themselves in a place they never expected to be, and actually really liked.
I dunno. I’m just glad nobody got hurt – I honestly can’t remember if we ever bothered to take out any insurance.
Sir Michael Gambon, knight
of the realm, secret petrolhead
and giver of his name to a TopGear
James McAvoy: 1:43.6 despite going over the grass. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz: Hollywood royalty come to shonky Dunsfold ofce
STARS IN AND OUT OF CARS
Tom Cruise: forget
the Ferrari in Risky Business – all he ever wanted to drive was a
Jeremy didn’t get to feel Cameron’s nose, unlike Andy. So there...
Ronnie Wood: rock
god and fan of extra-strong cofee
Michael Schumacher: forget what you think you know about him, and realise that he’s
Schuey refused to get in a Jag. Only Ferrari
products for him... The leader board. Object of scrutiny
Probably the iconic moment of TopGear TV.
Schuey is The Stig!