Dunsfold Park: The Lost World of Top Gear

Between 2013 and 2017, I’ve had the privilege of watching the shenanigans of my work neighbours as they were racing all manner of weird and wonderful motor vehicles around the test track at Dunsfold.  I’ve seen celebrities come and go – many of whom I never heard of or recognised but were assured by my workmates that they were proper famous[1].

Despite not being able to drive (though I did start learning back in 2016 – and as I was on my way back to the office from a lesson, I passed the Stig on his way out – it’s absolutely true – he NEVER removes the helmet in public) and not being terribly interested in cars, I started watching Top Gear.  And I actually enjoyed it.  It was a car show, yes, but the style and presentation made it so much more than that.

So I had to become a member of the studio audience to finally strip away the final mysteries of this TV series that I was already witnessing being partly made in front of my eyes.

So that day was yesterday.  I met up with Simon, the taxi driver who used to ferry the likes of myself and my colleagues from Guildford to Dunsfold every day, who took me to Dunsfold.  We went through the usual entrance but had to make our way around to Compass Gate where I was dropped off having avoided a significant queue of cars making their way in.  It must have been odd for somebody to turn up to a TV show about cars who can’t actually drive.

And there lies the problem.  The ticket said to turn up by 12:30pm, but you weren’t getting ferried to the studio hanger (next door to my former workplace) until at least 2pm.

View from the Top Gear audience car park, looking over the Dunsfold runway.
My old employers (brown building) sitting in front of the Top Gear hanger
Food and drink were provided, as well as “luxury” port-a-loos, but no seating other than if you came in a car. There is a LOT of waiting about to be done.
Panorama overlooking the Dunsfold airfield. Spot the abandoned bottle of Dr. Pepper. So much for littering.

We were handed some paperwork on arrival, including a wristband which had to be worn if you wanted to get into the hanger.

It took quite a bit of time to load people onto the buses.  And when you did get on them, you were nose to elbow with other people – crammed in like sardines would be an appropriate description.

Our chariot awaits!
Bus Gear!

I’ll say this about the phone/camera situation: you can put whatever wording you like in these things, people will just ignore it.  I saw more than a few sneaky people snapping away as the audience was being loaded into the studio.  I was busy looking at one of the camera operator’s clipboards containing a list of sequences to be shot.  Also was checking out what kit they used.  It’s impressive stuff.

Dos and Don’ts of being at Dunsfold for Top Gear.
A quiz!

I also noticed that there more than a few taller/bulkier people at the front of the audience than behind which made it difficult to see much – yes, I was at the back of the studio – near the fire exit and near the “machine room” where much of the VT systems reside.  Ah, it brought back memories of MPC’s VT ops.  And in fact, I’ll say that my position in the audience was most advantageous.  More on that later.

Where I was standing I generally had a good view at the camera with autocue (powered by Autoscript) that was pointing to the guest, in this case, Countryfile and ex-Blue Peter star Matt Baker.  So when that interview comes around – probably in the latter half of this year as Top Gear are ahead of schedule and it seems the BBC’s new policy follows the American system and splits a series into two halves – one now, the other later in the year.  Doctor Who is doing this – perhaps the only other BBC show still actually made by the BBC and not an independent production company.

Anyway, before ANY of this all happened, the whole thing kicked off with a warm-up man.  It’s traditional for any TV show with an audience to have one.  Except I wasn’t entirely impressed – the jokes were rather crass and crude, and a bit too laddish.  Still, he connected with the audience well enough.

After the initial warm-up, the executive producer (to this day I still do not know the exact duties of an executive producer – it’s not quite a producer, not quite a director, but somewhere in-between) Clare Pizey came on stage to explain what was happening.  Essentially they’ve already completed the first batch of episodes which are airing now, and everything that’s been shot today would feature in the second batch of episodes airing later this year.  Today was going to be a bit special as we were going to be filming one and a half episodes with two guest interviews (first Matt Baker, the second is Westworld’s James Marsden).  She went on to ask people to smile, then explained we’re going to watch some footage from Norway that is yet to be graded (it’ll look a bit rough ‘n ready).

Once Clare had finished, Matt LeBlanc was brought on and he welcomed us to the studio and gave a good intro speech.  Then it was Chris’ turn to come on, and again, he gave a good speech and then the show began in earnest.

Starting off with Matt Baker’s interview.  He turned up during the week of the Beast from the East and the conditions were such that he just skidded around the track.  So they hastily arranged a digger challenge instead.  We, the audience, watched both VTs on the lovely big displays they have in the studio.  I kept my eye on the VT and the reaction of both Matt and Chris’ face throughout – it’s likely this was the first time they’ve seen the footage too.  Some priceless reactions from Matt, I have to say.

Getting back to the interview, I was reading the autocue (yet trying to look as if I wasn’t).  Matt and Chris’ questions came up on the autocue with associated links to pictures and VT when necessary.  It was a great interview, but it was followed by a bit of surprise – they brought Matt back to perform on the test track.  It was probably what we saw being shot whilst we were waiting on the other side of Dunsfold.  If so, major kudos to the editors for compiling the footage so quickly.

The Stig, having given advice to Matt Baker, leaves for the portacabin.

There was a stop-start for members of the crew to bring in the leaderboard.  I won’t say how well or how bad Matt done.  After this, filming stopped and the unit photographer took a photo of the lads together.  It was then announced that they now needed to do a pick up over the other side of the hanger (furthest away from me).  Warm-up man came back up stage, and this is when my knees and back started to complaining that it really ought to be moving – having stood still for several hours, my body wanted to get moving.

With the horrific prospect of having to hang around for the shooting of another episode – including watching ungraded footage of an entire segment – I decided that as soon as they let us out to re-arrange the studio and bring in more cars, I’d leave and go visit my former employers next door to say hello.

While they were setting up and filming the pick up, I noticed the machine room door was open and I could see the current feed being visioned mixed in real time on a monitor there.  Certainly, I could see more from that monitor than I could from where I was standing.  Whenever a retake was needed (and there were several – mullets were involved), I saw the wide angle shot followed by medium shots, finally locking in on either Chris or Matt.

They opened the hanger doors afterwards (watching them close from the inside is nothing short of magical) and let us out.  We all spilled into the area outside, but I decided that I had seen enough – I’d come to see the hanger and see what a typical Top Gear show looked like from the PoV of the audience, and went around to meet up with my former colleagues before taking their shuttle bus back to Guildford.

So, was it a good experience?  I’d say that I wasn’t overly impressed.  Not because of the show or lack of professionalism. The floor manager was excellent as were the rest of the crew in getting things moving along as fast it can be.    There is a heck of a lot of waiting involved.  An awful lot of standing, mainly alongside and close to other people.  There is a significant number of people being bundled into a big hanger.  It is what it is.  I don’t like waiting.  I don’t like standing still.  That’s just me.  But if you’re willing to put up with it, I’d say you should go for it and get tickets.

I think I’ll just be happy watching the show (or any other TV show) on my 60″ TV at home from now on.  That said, I’m hoping that if Red Dwarf is commissioned for another series to get some tickets for that and go along to that with some chums.

Continue reading Dunsfold Park: The Lost World of Top Gear

BBC’s digital store to close in November

My biggest fear with buying digital only copies of films and television shows is if the provider goes away – whether it’s due to bankruptcy, change of direction – whatever.  As I’ve been sticking with the iTunes ecosystem for the majority of the time, I trust Apple to do the right thing and ensure I am able to download and watch my movies regardless of whatever happens to the movie or TV studio that supplied them with the content.  So far so good.

But, alas, the poor old BBC has announced that it’ll be shutting down its all digital BBC Store from 1st November 2017.  I’ve used BBC Store a number of times over the past 18 months, amassing a few titles here and there.  It was relatively cheap, and they often had many titles on sale.  My biggest complaint with the BBC Store, however, is actually watching the titles on my TV.  What a pain in the arse that was.  The BBC iPlayer baked into my LG TV, Apple TV, plus the games consoles I used to have, never supported BBC Store titles.  And there was no native BBC Store app for them either.  Thus I had to buy a Google Chromecast to be able to cast the content from my mobile phone to it.  No problem watching the content on my phone or tablet, but it’s not ideal – and this is why I think the BBC has failed – it felt as if it didn’t put enough resources into developing the BBC iPlayer integration or BBC Store apps across multiple platforms.

(Ironically, as the mega corporate AT&T is set to buy Time Warner, Inc. and take over HBO – AT&T’s boss has been semi-joking that he wants to provide 20 minute mobile friendly episodes of Game of Thrones – this sort of thing horrifies me – I’m all about choice, but the important thing is that television is television and should be viewed as (and on) such)

Another problem with BBC Store is that many of BBC’s titles are available on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.  The BBC has said that it wasn’t able to compete with these services, but I still say they just did not put enough effort or resources into making the content available across platforms as easily as Netflix or Amazon Prime (which, BTW, should be coming to Apple TV next month if rumours are true).

Ultimately it’s a slap in the face for digital TV and movie consumption.  But I also ask: is TV and film going the same way as music?  Do people actually prefer to pay a monthly subscription fee to consume as much content as possible, rather than simply buy a title outright?   While the BBC is refunding those of us for the content we’ve paid for (plus, very ironically, a £20 Amazon voucher for similar digital content), it doesn’t make it easy for us to be able to repurchase the content elsewhere.  With content providers bemoaning that piracy is ruining the entertainment industry – it forgets very easily that if more effort was made to make the content available quickly and cheaply, and across as many platforms as possible, their rhetoric might be a bit more believable!

The Great British Bog Off

The BBC has just lost one of its flagship shows to Channel 4.  This is terrible for a variety of reasons, but on the other hand, the way the BBC finances its shows, it is is also to blame (via the government’s recent interference).

Since the BBC license fee affords some, but not all, programming costs, the BBC often turns to independent production companies – along with its own BBC Worldwide commercial division – to make up any shortfalls.  Costs are shared between private and public funds.  But the downside is that if a show that’s produced via a third party decide it can get a better deal elsewhere, it will.  But it also questions the loyalty of said production company at the BBC.  Will the Beeb likely to commission any more shows from these companies?  I wouldn’t.

The BBC has made some terrible decisions in the past – the most recent being the cancellation of the British version of Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency only to resurrect it in the US via BBC America.  BBC America is a joint effort between BBC Worldwide and AMC (which in turn is owned by Sony).  The only saving grace has been that Netflix has bought it, which means that it’ll be seen.  But will it last more than the commissioned number of episodes?  Who knows.  It’ll be an enormous waste of time if the show is subsequently cancelled if it is.  Why recommission a show (of which the original was partly funded by the  BBC license fee) to have it cancelled again?  Big risk of the BBC’s limited funds.

Regarding the Great British Bake Off, Love Productions & Channel 4 are gambling an enormous amount of money.  Will it get the kind of audience as before, given that it’s moved to another public broadcaster – albeit it one that is funded entirely by adverts.  The main presenting team and judges have yet to confirm whether they’re going to move.  £25 million is a lot to risk for a public broadcaster regardless of however it is funded.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering why the BBC have commissioned a number of TV comedies shot in 2:39 aspect ratio.  The kind of ratio that’s reserved for films.  The impact of this is that you’ll see much bigger black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.  This isn’t too much of a problem If you’re watching on a reasonably sized TV.  But if you’re watching on a mobile phone or tablet, you may be squinting a bit.  Sure, you’ll be able to get some beautiful landscapes in, and you can frame things in an interesting way – but it’ll still look ridiculously small on smaller devices.  You’d think these people are making a Western in Super 70mm/Cinemascope.  But nope, they’re 30-minute comedies.  Made for TV.  I’m not convinced it’s a good ratio to be using for the multi-platform device generation.  Not unless smartphones are bigger than 20″, and tablets are 40″ and require two people to carry them. Not until everybody has access to 80 inch super widescreen TVs.  Or run everybody watches everything at the cinema.  Or TV projectors.

1.85 is a much better ratio.  I’d even go as far as saying that, given that a lot of money is made from video on demand and physical media from films, you’d be better off shooting 1.85 for movies too.  That way, you’ll get a wider (but not too wide) frame that’ll make the best use of today’s multi-device consumption.

Or maybe it’s just me.  Art v. practicality.  Difficult choice.

New Top Gear: Not bad if I do say so myself

Oh boy.

This was always going to divide opinion, but I actually liked this newly revamped Top Gear.  But here’s the thing that people must remember: it’s the first episode.  It’s the first episode of a new series which required significant changes in staff both in front of and behind the camera.  And they’ve had about the same preparation time as the old series.

So I think Chris Evans and chums have done a spectacularly great job given the circumstances.  Given that I can see what’s going on at the Top Gear test track and studio as I worked next door to them, the amount of effort being put into the show is no less than 100% – in fact, I’d say there’s more staff (security and crew) and more kit than previous series.  They even had the production office (a cabin) spruced up.  As we’ve seen, there’s now a dirt track to liven up the segment formally called Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.

Try trawling Twitter, and you’ll come across all manner of opinions – all the way from knuckle dragging idiots that are calling the new presenters all names under the sun, through to “boring”, through to thinking the BBC could simply produce animatronic puppets of the original presenters and keep exactly the same show as before.

One thing that irritated me was Carole “Countdown” Vorderman’s comment:

which is silly.

Carol Vorderman has worked extensively on many TV series, including revamps, she should know better that you’re not going to get things completely right in the first episode of a new series – and a new series that has been given a bit of a revamp and was extremely popular beforehand. It took Clarkson and chums 10 years to get the format to what is was.  The camaraderie between the presenters took a while to build as well.  The point is, the expectation that the team were either going to be clones of the original team, or that there would be super witty un-PC “banter” right off the bat was presumptuous and wrong.

So I tweeted her to say as such (I was not rude or disrespectful – I like the lady). I was immediately blocked, and Twitter informed that my account was suspended temporarily as they suspected something bad had happened. So I reset my password and got back in.

Miss Vorderman is completely entitled to her opinion, and she’s entitled to block or report whomever she pleases. But it suggests to me that she’s not receptive to anybody thinking that maybe – just maybe – one should give your fellow industry colleagues a bit more of chance and not write the whole thing off instantly.  She didn’t like it – fine.  We get that.  But to be so dismissive.. sigh.

Also, unless she’s been privileged to watch unfinished episodes of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, she can’t make assumptions about that until it airs. Just because it features Clarkson, Hammond and May doesn’t mean it’ll immediately be brilliant.

In any event, I don’t think we can expect Carol Vorderman to turn up on the new Top Gear show attempting the improved test track…

In the mean time, let’s give peace a chance. Let’s wait and see what the new Top Gear team has up their sleeves in future episodes. I’m sure they’re monitoring social media, the newspapers, and so on, and maybe (because the show is recorded two weeks before it airs – obviously except for the big VT pieces), adjustments can be made. But don’t write the show off completely yet, please. It’d be an insult to the very hard work that’s gone into this thing.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell pick up a couple of BAFTAs

I thought to myself, after I attended the BFI screening of the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, that this show should pick up a good few BAFTAs – even Emmys – for the hard work that’s gone into it.  This was a really well made show.

The critics and viewers clearly agree with me!

Popular with critics and viewers alike, JS&MN is now officially an award winner.
Popular with critics and viewers alike, JS&MN is now officially an award winner.

Well, JS&MN picked up Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects as last night’s BAFTA TV Crafts ceremony.  Well done to David Roger, the production designer, and to Milk VFX for their magical visual effects (who were also nominated in the same VFX category for their work on Doctor Who).  Speaking of VFX, JS&MN is still up for a VES (Visual Effects Society) award – so fingers crossed there.

It’d have been nice if Peter Harness, who had put some seriously hard work into adapting what is a very complex book (not just the story, but having to deal with the substantial number of footnotes that expand on the story’s characters, places and situations) had picked up a BAFTA too.  And Toby Haynes should have picked up best director – again, because this isn’t an easy story to tell – or even to show.

On a separate note, it’s been nearly a year since JS&MN first came to our screens, taking over 10 years to get made ever since the rights were first bought by New Line Cinema.  It was well worth the wait – I’ve bought the Blu-Ray, the YouTube/Google Play edition, the iTunes edition AND the BBC Store edition so that if one service dies a horrible death, I’ll still have something to watch.