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And on That Bombshell by Richard Porter: book review, an insider’s look at Top Gear

Top Gear had up to 350 million viewers worldwide but there’s been very little written about how the programme was made. Until now, thanks to Richard Porter.

RICHARD PORTER WAS the Top Gear script editor for thirteen years, all through Top Gear’s phenomenal run of popularity, joining the team shortly before Richard and James. But is this book a cheap attempt to make money, hastily scribbled by a hanger-on with a best claim to fame of once having made the tea?  Not at all.
 
A “script editor” turns out to be someone who is intimately involved with the show, at least in Porter’s case.  He did everything from coming up with original ideas for segments, to planning, researching and fine-tuning ideas including thinking up all sorts of skits, scenes, gags, one-liners and witty things.  It seems that if Top Gear team was a car and the three presenters were the body panels I think executive producer Andy Wilman would be the engine, and Porter would be the transmission, certainly a vital part of the show’s success. Well, I’m not sure how far that analogy goes but regardless, Porter seems to be the ideal man to tell the Top Gear tale.  The next question is how well he does so.
 
Rather well, is the short answer.  Porter’s book works on a number of levels.  It gives a great insight into how Top Gear was made, from initial idea to execution and subsequent fallout.  You get a good sense of who the three presenters really are, and if you are a fan of the show it’ll be fun to do what I’m going to do and re-watch a few episodes in a different light now you know the back story behind them.  It’s a book for Top Gear fans first and foremost, and also perhaps for people uninterested in Top Gear but wanting to know how a successful TV series is made.  Each chapter is a different tale or general observation more or less unrelated to the others, all told in a jocular, rather Britishly self-deprecating way.
 
As a long-time Top Gear fan there wasn’t much new for me – the fracas is better covered elsewhere, as is the Argentinian scandal – but it’s all amusing, interesting and well worth a read for lovers of the show.  I don’t like to give everything away in reviews but here’s a few pointers – why they wanted to wet the Top Gear test track for all hotlaps, the effort required with SIARPC, background to Schumacher’s appearance, and why they switched from Range Rovers to Discoverys – and interestingly they had to hire them, would have thought Land Rover might have supplied a fleet free of charge. I will never understand car public relations principles.
 
Most of the book is relating anecdotes, but there’s a bit of interesting reflection here and there, not least on what made the show successful, and why things worked as well as they did.  You also get insights into Clarkson, Hammond and May, and the interesting line here was that Clarkson delivered “lengthy office-bound lectures on EBD”.  This I found fascinating as his on-screen persona appears not to be in the least concerned with how braking force is distributed between front and rear axles under the direction of computers.  You always wonder if TV stars are the same in real life as they are in the show, and it seems that Clarkson has a deeper, nerdier side than he lets on.  Good to know.
 
What you’re not going to find in the book is scuttlebutt and nastiness, which is absolutely fine with me.  There’s barely a negative word about anyone and indeed Porter seems keen not to offend, but it doesn’t much detract from the stories.  Nor are car enthusiasts who don’t care about Top Gear going to enjoy the book because there’s not actually many words about cars – no “hmm didn’t know that” automotive tidbits to file away for later use as trivia winners.  And this isn’t a definitive, episode-by-episode list of Top Gear. You can find that here.  I also wouldn’t mind this book being longer, more considered.  There’s nothing about the Arctic Special, the Australian tie-up and many other major moments…I expect Porter wanted to get the book out quickly and that’s fine, but let’s hope there’s a longer version in the works for later with maybe a bit of input from others involved in the production. 
 
Nevertheless, the book is I think one that should be on the shelves of every Top Gear fan’s bookcase because it does give a very real sense of what the Top Gear team was like, how the series was made, what made it successful, and plenty of behind-the-scenes little factoids and anecdotes.  It’s a light, enjoyable read, well worth the money and would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who enjoyed Top Gear, which by the way, is definitely not the same as any car enthusiast.

Enjoyed the book and want more Richard Porter?

So who is Richard Porter?  Simply from reading his work I would describe him as a genius of car comedy, and for proof you need only to browse his superb website, Sniff Petrol.  It helps if you’ve lived in the UK for a while or at least understand British society and humour, and a more than passing knowledge of Formula 1 helps too.  I read Sniff regularly, mostly for the amusement but also to ensure my own writing doesn’t fall into one of the stereotypes that are so accurately lampooned.  Richard also helps make some rather good podcasts – well, again, good if you are a hyper detailed car nerd and/or F1 fan –  which you can listen to here.
 

Want more Top Gear?

If you’re reading this review and made it this far then I’m going to assume you are more than moderately interested in Top Gear, so in case you’ve missed them here are links to executive producer Andy Wilman’s blogs, which are superbly written and give you a bit more of a peek behind the scenes of Top Gear. I can also highly recommend any of Jeremy Clarkson’s books, and as an auto writer myself he is the benchmark for us all – I’d love to emulate him but I can’t so I’ll stick to my own thing of overly long, overly detailed car reviews and explanations instead of 485 words on my kitchen and 15 on the car, which somehow seem to be more than enough in Clarkson’s style.  
 
There’s also a book by ex-Stig Ben Collins, which I’ve read and I’d like to be say a few descriptive words about but can’t as I don’t remember much about it other than Ben relating an anecdote which indicated he was a better driver than ex-F1 person Mark Blundell.  And I can’t be bothered to re-read it for this review, sorry.  I do recall it had some interesting Top Gear mini-stories, once you got past all the guff about Ben.
 
The future of Top Gear on the BBC is presently unknown.  A fellow called Chris Evans has been recruited to be the lead presenter, but it’s not clear who else will be involved or what direction the show will take.   In the meantime, the original three presenters are over at Amazon spending vast amounts of money to make a new show.  We don’t know much about it yet, but my guess it will be vaguely Top Gear-ish but also incorporate brand new elements and themes – and for further insightful analysis on that subject come back to this site once the first episode is aired.
 
TG-presenters
 
You can buy this book at all the finest bookstores which you need no help to find, but you might like to know there is even an audiobook version.
 
Looking for a motoring sort of book but don’t like Top Gear?  What about Mark Webber’s autobiography?  Oh and what about these excellent books on offroading?


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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper