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 day Netflix came to town..

Currently airing on the Netflix, the subscription internet TV streaming service is a title called The End of the F***ing World.  It is an adaptation of a graphic novel and was made by E4 and Netflix.

Sometime in early May 2017, I received the following letter – as did all my neighbours – about upcoming filming on our street.  For me, having worked on a fair number of Hollywood blockbusters in my time (granted, in the post-production sector – though I did do a bit of travelling and got to studios and even set visits on the odd occasion), the whole thing felt surreal.  I blanked out bits to protect phone numbers and locations.

I only started seeing them set-up for the filming on the day itself (one day after my 41st birthday!) as I had to head to work, but the final shots can be seen in the cafe sequence in episode one of The End of The F***ing World in which our two protagonists (or maybe even antagonists – it’s certainly not a black and white situation) are having something to eat – you can see the road I live on (but thankfully not my house) in the background.

As for the show itself?  It’s extremely dark.  Somebody compared it to a really messed up Wes Anderson film.  I kind of thought it felt like Harold & Maude, but except Maude being a teenager and a lot more antagonistic (at least in the beginning).  Whatever you compare it to, the whole thing is a very dark tale.  But it must be said that the performances from the two leads are outstanding, and production values are top notch.

Updates!

For my regular readers, I apologise for not updating this blog for a while as I’ve been very busy.  During the past month, I’ve passed my probation in the new job I started back in August and what with just having gone through the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the weeks leading up to it have been extraordinarily busy.

I’ve cancelled Virgin Media and gone back to Sky for TV, phone and broadband (well, the phone not so much – I’ll be using my EE mobile for the most part and just keep the Sky landline for incoming calls).  I can tell you right now, the difference between Sky and Virgin is like night and day.  Sky Q has improved considerably in the 8 months or so since I originally joined Virgin with their Tivo 6 box.  The Tivo has been a massive disappointment what with TV programmes regularly suffering from messed up imagery/artefacts and I’ve not been able to delete all programs I’ve recorded either – they just end up stuck.  The whole Sky Cinema SD/HD thing was just awful.  So Virgin Media has been given the heave-ho permanently this time.

I’m a tiny bit disappointed that Sky has done away with their Sky Fibre Broadband Pro package which offered a static IP.  As I also work from home on a semi-regular basis, having a static IP makes a big difference when configuring access control lists for various endpoints.  But the max package I’m on is nevertheless not shabby in the least, and the lease times on IPv4 seems long enough – plus IPv6 has been re-enabled (took around 12 days after activation), so I’m dual stack here.

Getting back to Sky Q – there’s a new remote!  Instead of giving everybody two remotes for the main Sky Q box, there is just one.  It doubles as a touch-sensitive remote as well as being a regular clicky one – controllable from within the Sky Q menu settings.  I really like this approach and big kudos to Sky for taking on board feedback from customers.  It’s a real pleasure to use now.  But the biggest thing for me is the voice control.  I ask Sky Q to change the channel (and it will automatically select the HD version of that channel if available) as well as fast forwarding and rewinding X seconds or minutes.   It matches up with the Apple 4K TV just nicely.  If only we had a unified remote that could control both!

Sky Q now offers favourite channels – something that was sadly lacking last time.  It still needs a bit of tweaking: ideally, there should be a favourites button on the remote to take you to the TV guide that compliments the (new) existing feature of allocating favourites to the remote buttons.

Sky Cinema is back in full HD, and still offers a not unreasonable number of ultra HD (4K) content.  Unlike the Tivo V6 which didn’t offer anything at all.  And the best part is that Sky Cinema is only £10 a month for the duration of my 18-month contract.  Let’s hope we can do a deal again when it comes to renewing it!

For me, while I have had a massive speed drop from 300Mbs to 76Mbs (on average around 65Mbs), this isn’t a big problem.  Rarely do I achieve speeds above 150Mbs anyway – mainly because many websites simply won’t go above 100Mb due to bandwidth throttling at the hosting company – take a look at a lot of hosting packages and you’ll see what I mean.  But I’d rather Sky’s speeds with their brilliant Sky Q Hub than Virgin Media’s Intel-powered latency inducing SuperHub 3.

(BTW, not being paid by Sky to say these things – just a very happy customer with one exception – I have continually received “please return our equipment” SMSes and emails over the past month with threats to charge me despite the equipment being sent back with evidence of posting.  I think this has finally been resolved by speaking to an operator who got me to upload a scan of the Post Office receipt to a special section of Sky’s website.  So hopefully that’s that.)

Oh, and I’ve also replaced my Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player with an Xbox One X – currently the most powerful console yet, with its 6 Teraflops of processing power.  It also has an UltraHD Blu-Ray player in it, and is much, much smaller than the Oppo.  I’ve been very impressed with it, but not so much with Microsoft Store who mucked up the extended warranty necessitating in two phone calls and a bunch of emails.  I’m not entirely sure the issue has been fully resolved as my account has weird XML related code embedded in the page where the warranty info is.  Let’s say that if I were considering a Surface Pro 2 which can cost up to £3k, I’d be very wary of buying it directly from Microsoft.  If they can’t get it right with an Xbox…

So that’s it so far!

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.

To boldly go.. where Klingons chew wasps

Star Trek Discovery is a rather interesting show.  It fits more within the J.J. Abrams Star Trek universe than it does the original Gene Roddenberry one – with fancy computers, holographic communication, and a decidedly non-kitsch set dressing.

Even the Klingons have been given an upgrade – long gone is the Cornish pasty forehead and in comes a ton of rubber and latex and extraordinary false teeth.  And while it looks good, the actors clearly can’t speak properly with their falsies in, so it’s just as well they’ve given the Klingon actors lines entirely in Klingon.  If you’ve never heard of the Klingon language, it’s has a very guttural sound to it.  Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog were naturals (well, Spit the Dog was – absolutely fluent in Klingon – he just never knew it). I’m quite surprised that none of the actors are covered in each other’s spit and drool at the end of each scene.  And as for the Klingon costumes – they’re so rigid looking, you might as well be dealing with Daleks.  Daleks with Austin Powers teeth.

The albino Klingon called Voq (pronounced *coughs up hairballs* Vochhhhhhh *spits*) partly resembles one of the Prometheus/Alien Covenant engineers.  The prosthetics defining facial muscle tone and shape that without the ridges and bumps, you’d practically get an Engineer.

As you may be able to tell, I think they’ve ever so overdone the Klingons this time around.  It’s as if they’ve put them in the oven, went off on a 24-hour bender, then come back to an overcooked dinner.  How the actors deal with all that stuff is quite remarkable.  The overall effect DOES look great – but practical wise, let the poor actors can’t form words properly without looking as if they’re chewing wasps.  There’s only so many teeth one can hold in one’s mouth.  And give them clothing that doesn’t make them look as if they’ve added 60 tonnes of starch to their laundry.

The latest episode of Discovery resembles a mash-up of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Dune.  At one point I was sure the crew of The Discovery were going to initiate the Infinite Improbability Drive and all end up as penguins or missing their limbs floating in space.  As for the “navigator” – very spice melange if I may say so.  Very spice melange.

All in all, it’s an interesting journey so far.  Well presented (albeit the Klingons do need to go to the dentist and look for better stylists) and entertaining.