How to film a car show amid COVID.
When you're filming a show that needs a live audience, but social distancing is a thing, how do you do it?
How do you film a TV show where a live audience gives the show its energy when you can't cram hundreds of people into an enclosed, indoor space for a few hours on end? Well, that has been a problem for the brainboxes over at the BBC who have been working away trying to find a way to film Top Gear for its upcoming 29th series. The solution, to make it an open-air, drive-in movie style event. Guests come in their cars, we pull the studio outside and film it there. A simple-ish and effective solution.
Filming Extra Gear back in 2017, me and some bloke called Chris Harris.
Normally Top Gear is filmed in one of the hangers (2a, I believe, although I could be wrong) that line Dunsfold Aerodrome's northern edge. Guests park at the eastern end of the runway and are shuttled around to the studio on a bus, glamorous I know. You'd then huddle outside drinking scalding hot tea from a polystyrene cup until you're marshalled inside and told where to stand, if you're lucky, this is at the front of the crowd and within touching distance of James Macavoy, and close enough to realise that Joey from friends is actually very short indeed. You'll stand here for three hours or so while Chris Harris fails to read from the autocue as Matt LeBlanc stands behind it making off-putting hand gestures. Then if you're fortunate once more, you'd get to stay behind and sit on an uncomfortable bench for Extra Gear and try to not look gormless on camera, while also realising you've missed an entire day of lectures.
God my hair was awful then. It's still awful tbh.
But that whole shebang can't go on no more. Buses full of random people are a scary concept, and a crowd of masked people standing around in a studio would look less like a car show and more like a weird cult meeting (leap to your own conclusions about the similarities by enthusiast groups and cults). So the stage from the studio was dragged outside, and a massive concert-style scaffold erected too. Lighting rigs pulled out, the Russian-arm camera car dusted off, and many fingers crossed for a series of dry evenings to film on. And so it came together. All the backstage was assembled in the shadow of the Boeing 747-200 that lives on site. The plane, which served with British Airways until 2002 as City of Birmingham, G-BDXJ was also in Casino Royale as the Skyfleet Jumbo. Guests arrive and form a series of lines of cars arranged in height order across the runway and from there we're just left to mill about really. There are three portaloos, and a snack wagon, and that's about it. You then pass the time wandering about looking at other cars that have come along to the filming and question the modifying choices of sticking such a massive and no doubt ineffective wing on a stanced MX-5. Or if a diesel A4 really deserves a built-not-bought sticker if all the owner has done is put a "slammed" decal on the rear glass, and some wind deflectors. Still.
Time passed by walking and eating Pringles, you're then marshalled back to your cars and led off in lines from smallest to tallest down the runway from beyond Bacharach, the wrong way up to Bentley before pulling off at Chicago and into the parking space around the satellite stage and in front of the main stage. Now laid out like a drive-in movie you're in place for filming.
Literally driving on the Top Gear test track. I was ecstatic!
I won't spoil what is coming up on the new series, but all in Producer Ian and I saw several VTs from several different episodes and spent a lot of time turning the headlights on and off for different camera shots, clapping, whooping, cheering, and horn honking for transitions from video to studio feed. As well as getting to see Harris and co film trails for all the different nations and networks the show will be broadcast on. A pretty stellar evening, and something quite unique indeed. In the years to come, we may look back on that one series of Top Gear that was filmed outside and think "what a funny time that was?!". Or, "finally, the Jimny gets the recognition it deserved on Top Gear. What a machine!"
Turns out leaving the lights on with a classic Bentley does wonders for the battery as the dapper chap in the linen suit can attest. Thankfully the RAC had a load of starter packs.