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.


[1] Some exceptions to this.  One was Will Smith and Margot Robbie who flew in and out by helicopter, then there was Aaron Paul, star of Breaking Bad who attracted a lot of attention from just about everyone on site.

Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad and BoJack Horseman takes a turn in the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car (circa Clarkson, Hammon and May)
Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad and BoJack Horseman takes a turn in the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car (circa Clarkson, Hammon and May)
Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad and BoJack Horseman takes a turn in the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car (circa Clarkson, Hammon and May)