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

The Shape of Water & Black Panther: Two films you don’t want to miss

Last weekend I went to the local Odeon – the one where I had a lot of fun collecting tickets from an online booking for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

ALAS!

While I initially booked The Shape of Water without any difficulty, I decided, while I was having a coffee at Costa coffee at Guildford station, to book to see the much-hyped Black Panther afterwards.  I got my phone out and attempted to make the booking, except, well, I’ll let the screenshots speak for themselves:

Did they try hitting the server repeatedly with a mallet? Works for me!

So I tried again.  ALAS!

Given the misadventures of last time, I now have no idea whether (a) they’ve taken credit from the gift card and (b) whether I have a seat or not.

So I made my merry way across the road and across the river, muttering under my breath how much the quality assurance of modern technology drives me insane, and went up to the box office, which – being Saturday – was open.

I explained the situation to one of the box office folk who had a look at the booking and presumably having given my name was able to confirm the seat.  Only he had to handwrite it for me:

Proud owner of one of only a few handwritten cinema tickets..

Now, two things happened here.  The first was that the ticket I had ordered for The Shape of Water had a seat reservation.  What you see above is NOT the seat I had reserved.  Had I paid for the premium seating, I would have flipped my lid.  The seat I ended up with wasn’t brilliant, but perfectly adequate.

Cinema escapades aside for the moment, The Shape of Water by Guillermo Del Toro is everything that people say it is.  It’s a stunningly beautiful love story that just happens to feature what is presumably the Creature from The Black Lagoon.  Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa is nothing short of extraordinary – conveying her emotions physically and communicating entirely in sign.  Doug Jones as the Creature is otherworldly, yet is still capable of great kindness and compassion to those who are not out to kill him.

(Be warned, cat fans, as there is one unsettling scene which is really a bit of a misunderstanding (though the poor cat which is at the receiving end of said misunderstanding would hardly say that was the case.))

The film is brutal, romantic, lovely and surreal across the 2 hours it plays for.  It’s an adult fairytale and Del Toro took risks making it (including turning down the sequel to Pacific Rim amongst other projects).  But it pays back in spades.  It is well deserving of the BAFTA awards it has picked up (Soundtrack, Production Design and Director), and well worthy of picking up even more at the forthcoming Oscars.

So, after a stonking good two hours of fishy romance, I pretty much went straight into Black Panther.  I took my seat and waited.

ALAS!

Odeon double booked the seat.  Whatever happened at the Box Office didn’t properly reserve the seat, and whatever happened with the web app also failed to reserve the seat.  So I went back to the Box Office and explained what happened.  Thankfully seating was still available, and decent seating at that, so it was all booked without any fuss and I was able to go back into the cinema to enjoy the film.

Black Panther, it must be said, is perhaps Marvel’s best ever effort at making a superhero movie.  Not only does it feature decent character building of the good guys, but gives the main villain a decent background from which you can actually understand where he’s coming from.

The story centres around the kingdom of Wakanda, a central African nation that is technically superior to any other on Earth thanks to a mineral called vibranium which fell to Earth from a meteorite millions of years ago.  It leads to the people of the region to embrace its properties, which, thanks to the enrichment of the soil due to the mineral, grows a particular plant which if imbibed, gives the person superhuman strength.  Thus Wakanda was born, and of the 5 tribes, 4 yielded to the Wakandans and were given protection and access to the vibranium, with the fifth deciding to go their own way and live up in the mountains alone.  The subsequent rulers of Wakanda have become the Black Panther – a protector and warrior.  However, Wakanda remains hidden from the rest of the world.  To us, Wakanda remains a poor country – though in all its history, refused any aid.  While Wakanda’s neighbours were colonised and taken as slaves, Wakanda did not intervene – they stayed hidden.

Fast forward to modern times, and events after Avengers: Age of Ultron.  King T’Chaka is dead, and his son, T’Challa is to become king of Wakanda.  Meanwhile, a South African arms dealer (played by Andy Serkis) has just stolen a weapon from the British Museum, unbeknownst that it is made from vibranium (and hence originates from Wakanda).  Along with the South African, an American (Michael B. Jordon) shows a keen interest in the weapon and its origins…

And so begins a well-paced movie that explores multiple themes.  One of which is belonging, and another being whether Wakanda should share its technology with the rest of the world.  The result of the secrecy is one of the reasons behind the American finding Wakanda and, well, it becomes a feud of epic proportions.

The film features a gadget sequence that would be Q to shame.  T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (played magnificently by Letitia Wright), would put Tony Stark to shame.  At point in the film when Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, Everett Ross, awakens in her laboratory, she greets him with, “Hello, coloniser”.  We can pretty much assume not many western white people have been this way..

The women of Black Panther are fierce as heck.  Special mention must be made of Okoye, played by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, who is the general of the Dora Milaje, the elite (female) bodyguards that protect the royal family.  She wields a very pointy and shiny spear which she uses to great effect.  No more so than the casino sequence in which hits, stabs and throws people about like rag dolls.

The entire film is absolutely wonderful.  The Afrofuturism is well done, and most importantly, believable.  I’m about to start reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, about a young Himba woman who is the first of her people to be accepted into a prestigious galactic university.  If Neil Gaiman loved it, I’m sure I will to.

But getting back to Black Panther – this is definitely the best Marvel film to date, and long may we see sequels.  We’ll be heading back to Wakanda for quite a spell in the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War, so it’ll be nice to see some familiar faces.

Long live King T’Challa!  Long live Wakanda!

Porgy and Mess: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

I finally went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week after waiting it out and trying very hard to avoid internet spoilers.  My patience was rewarded (of sorts) as I went to see it outside of peak hours at the local Guildford Odeon.

ALAS!

Using my Odeon Limitless pass to book the showing was one of the most difficult things I’ve experienced so far during the time I’ve had the subscription.  I wanted to go to an earlier showing, but for some reason, the Odeon’s website was playing up.  I wasn’t able to book the same slot again, or the later slot.  For some reason, Odeon’s website locked off all uses of the Limitless cad and refused to let me use it.

More error codes then there were stars in heaven.

As the Odeon is now very heavily reliant on the website for bookings, the availability of customer service via telephone is rather limited (9am – 4pm Monday – Thursday, 9am – 5pm Friday at all other times).  I was booking this on Friday evening.

What really got my goat was that Odeon does not publish email addresses.  Internet standards are ignored – an email to [email protected] bounced.  This is extremely bad practice, Odeon.  Let me, as a customer, choose how to contact you.  Web forms aren’t always appropriate.

I had to wait until the following morning to call and try and sort this out – and even then, not much could be done.  The system enabled me to book for the later Monday performance, but there wasn’t confirmation that credit I used from an Odeon Gift card to upgrade seating would be refunded immediately.

I popped along to the Odeon on Monday and found this:

As I didn’t use a debit or credit card for this booking, I usually pick up tickets at the Box Office.  So I had to go to the confectionary counter to figure out what was going on.  I was told that the ATM machines can dispense tickets with a booking reference, but it’s not entirely obvious from the choices on display:

Perhaps Odeon needs to reword that third option – just say that if you have a booking reference, you can pick up tickets using that rather than implying it may only be for Tesco and Business Voucher holders.

The third complaint was that it appears Odeon do not sell Butterkist Toffee Popcorn.  I’m not a fan of the sweet or regular flavoured stuff served in buckets the size of my head.  In the end, I chose Aero mint balls and the smallest Coke Zero at the extortionate price of £6.68.  I’ll pay it, however, because I do like the Odeon and would still like to see cinemas remain in business.  But if I had a family, kids and all, this would definitely bankrupt me if we visited regularly.

As for the film?  It was alright.  I think the sooner the main franchise moves away from the Skywalkers, the better.

Apple gadgets update: October, 2017

iPhone 8 Plus

Still happy with the phone.  Does what it says on the tin.  The beauty of it is that when paired with an EE contract, you’re getting a good all-rounder.

In many areas I’ve visited, I often get between 40Mbs – 100Mbs 4G connectivity.  When connected to Wi-Fi the device switches to Wi-Fi Calling which is a significant battery saver (unlike Three’s implementation of Wi-Fi calling which will only kick in if there is insufficient cellular strength).  Plus there is the new higher quality HD voice calling – available only through EE at this time.  Haven’t had a chance to give that a go as yet since it requires the other person to also have another iPhone 8 (or better).  Plus EE fully supports Visual Voicemail too.

I had a chance to give the free inclusive London Underground calling function which kicked in automatically as soon as I got to the platform at Waterloo’s Bakerloo line station.  Wi-Fi just kicked in automatically – no need to configure or select the Wi-Fi hotspot – It Just Works(tm).  Really handy.

The quality of the camera is something I’m still undecided on.  Yes, it is better than the iPhone 7 Plus, but many photos are still very “painting-like” in comparison to say, the Galaxy Note 8 or the forthcoming Google Pixel 2 XL.  I’ve enclosed a small sample of unedited photos, shot in the new HEIC format and exported to JPEG.

(Click any of the following photos to get full-size image – but a reminder – all these photos are copyright and I have all rights reserved on them – if you want to use them, please get in touch first)

The video quality looks okay, but I’ve found that with the release of MacOS High Sierra, Photos does not automatically import videos.  If I AirDrop a video to my Mac, it inexplicitly saves it as H.264 – especially odd as one can only shoot in HEVC at 4K 60fps.  I’m hoping that whatever is causing the block in automatic video importing via Photos/Photostream will be fixed in an iOS or MacOS update shortly.   I will say I am particularly disappointed in Apple for not releasing an update to Final Cut Pro X to enable HEVC before or after iOS 11/iPhone 8 was released.

Battery life is good – especially if the phone is using Wi-Fi Calling – and having bought a Belkin induction charger, I just plonk it on the charging pad each evening that sits just under my monitor.  And I can continue to use the phone while it’s charging – and just pick it up without entangling myself in wires.

Oh, and EE’s 6 months free Apple Music and streaming data is good.  One has to make sure that if you have let your direct-with-Apple Apple Music subscription expire, after applying the EE offer, you’ll need to log out of iCloud Music Library and log back in otherwise weird stuff will happen within your desktop iTunes application.

Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular (LTE)

Very happy with the new series 3 watch.  It’s faster than its predecessor (app switching and general app usage is now usable!), has more storage, and the new cellular capability means that I can make and receive phone calls in the toilet(!) or on the way to the local supermarket to pick up lunch whilst leaving my phone at my desk.  Yes, the watch is still tethered to one’s iPhone, but it gives the watch a much bigger range away from it.  One problem I’ve noticed is that whenever I enter and leave the Wimbledon branch of Sainsbury’s, I always set the alarm off.  It can’t be the watch, surely?

Apple TV 4K

As a 4K/UHD owner, getting access to 4K content can be a little tricky.  So Apple’s foray into the 4K space was always going to be welcome.  Especially the free upgrade to 4K streaming of existing iTunes Movie library content.

The first thing I noticed was that ALL video had significant motion blurring.  This was because my LG 4K TV has a number of picture “enhancements” that I had to find and turn off.  I’ve had the TV for over two years and I hadn’t even noticed them buried within the myriad of options.  But turning them off – including disabling 4K upscaling on my amplifier/HDMI switch – did the trick.

I don’t have HDR, so the video output from the Apple TV 4K is always 4K SDR.  And with the TV’s motion enhancements out the way, the picture quality is excellent to the point I’m using the Apple TV’s Netflix app as my default, along with NOW TV (whose app is now looking a little decrepit now and isn’t near as useful as that on the LG TV, but Apple TV’s performance is far better) and BBC iPlayer.  Like NOW TV, the BBC iPlayer too is looking a little long in the tooth and really should get an interface update to make it more like other platforms.  That said, Apple probably enforces UI policies on these things, so there’s that.

Are 4K iTunes movies worth it?  The answer is: yes.  They do look better to my eye than HD.  I do not care about HDR.  My TV doesn’t support it and even if it did, given the age, it probably wouldn’t support the right type.

I’ve relegated my forth generation Apple TV to the bedroom which is ruddy useful as I can pick up where I left off upstairs or downstairs – whenever or wherever I feel the most comfortable at the time.

MacOS High Sierra

It’s okay-ish, but shutting down the 2017 MacBook Pro attached to the LG UltraFine 4K monitor results in the monitor showing a cyan screen every time.  Automatic Time Machine backups are rather spurious – I have to untick and tick the automatic backup flag to get it to work, only for the backup to complete and the Time Machine Systems Preferences panel telling me the next backup will only happen when the disk is next connected.  It’s almost always connected!  Then there is the issue of Photos and iCloud Photo Library’s Photostream.  Not all photos transferred automatically from the phone, and absolutely no videos transfer.  I have to AirDrop them and import.  And using AirDrop to High Sierra does not result in HEVC video files for some bizarre reason!

High Sierra is not Apple’s finest moment, I have to say.

Digital video: renting vs buying, and why Apple is best for buying

With news that iTunes’ share of video sales and rentals are falling against competitors such as Amazon (Prime) Video and other services, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on why iTunes is the better platform for buying movies digitally, despite my brain screaming at me, “Look what happened to the digital BBC Store.”

iTunes offers iTunes Extras of which an increasing number of titles are including the same features as physical media.  Audio commentaries are regularly included, for example.  No other service offers this.

iTunes has one of the best device allowances of any service – and this includes the ability to download the content to a Mac, Windows PC, iPad and/or iPhone.

The UI of iTunes is much better than that of the competitors.  The Apple TV, not so much, but still considerably better than most.  Therefore it’s easier to manage existing titles.  And in all the years I’ve been buying movies from iTunes, I’ve never lost a single title due to film studios deciding to withdraw from the platform.  This could change, of course, but I’m sure if that happened, consumers would be lining up to lynch whoever decided it was a good idea to do so.

In terms of renting, Amazon (Prime) Video very narrowly outshines iTunes. There’s almost always a promotion which allows me to pay far less for renting an HD title via Amazon (Prime) Video than iTunes.  For example, I’ve just rented Hidden Figures (*superb* film) and T2: Trainspotting (also very good) – both in HD – £2.49 for both titles.  Amazon Video is baked into my LG television, making it very easy to access.

Don’t get me started on the UltraViolet digital platform.  It’s a completely useless pile of sputum devised by the film studios to make them look kind and generous by providing a non-physical digital copy of a film.  The truth is that it’s a massive pain in the arse to manage and I don’t bother with it anymore.   TalkTalk’s app (TalkTalk having bought Blinkbox which in turn is an UltraViolet partner) for LG televisions is awful.  I accept that one has to log in again occasionally, but the process is just stupid.  Look at what Google is doing for logging in to YouTube – much, much easier for televisions.  Entering a password via a remote control is the epitome of piss-poor user interface design.  But TalkTalk isn’t the only one guilty of this crime (NOW TV, Amazon, and even Netflix are guilty – but their TV apps allow for significantly long log in times).

BTW, I also hate the Amazon Prime Video UI too – it makes discovery difficult and it seems so random that I rarely watch anything on the service other than the really big TV productions.  I watched the German comedy, Toni Erdmann the other day (very, very funny – especially the nude party scene), but I had to manually enable the subtitles (found under CC for closed captioning – usually referencing subtitles for the hard of hearing – in my case, hard of not knowing enough German to understand the film without English subtitles).

The only other service I’ve purchased films from is Google Play.  I can watch the films on a tablet, my phone and even my TV through the YouTube app.  But those titles are generally either freebies or were heavily discounted.

Otherwise, I’ll be sticking with iTunes for future film purchases.  The next one, in fact, will probably be Hidden Figures because it was just such a great film, and there’s an audio commentary included in iTunes Extras which should give the film even more value.