8 Feb 2014

Wot Gear - How Hard Can It Be?

Sharon Endacotte and friends decided to film a Top Gear spoof.  Here's how it came about

If you read Top Gear Magazine, you may have noticed an article in the 20th anniversary edition about things the show has inspired its viewers to do. On page 51 there is a section entitled 'Spoofing TopGear'. This is the story behind the spoof.

It's about time for a new series of Top Gear, and Clarkson and co. have been busy travelling to remote parts of the world, and places closer to home, in order to put together the latest run of shows. Whilst it's probably the best job in the world, it certainly isn't the easiest – but no doubt the usual detractors will be out again, grumbling that they could do better. The chances are, they couldn’t.

I should know, because unlike most of them, I’ve tried.

Maybe I should qualify that a little. A friend of mine is behind Grime Team, a series of parodies of the popular archaeology show Time Team. She's also a big Top Gear fan. She'd been toying with the idea of filming a fourth instalment in the series, and one night – after a not inconsiderable volume of beer in a cosy pub in Hammersmith – we came up with an idea that had the boys from Top Gear try to 'improve' geophysics equipment, and the basic idea for the script was born.

And then we didn't get around to it for the next five years. Time flies when you're having fun.

Last year, it was announced that Time Team was coming to an end. That provided the kick to get Grime Team going again for one last show, both as a way of finally wrapping up the project and also of saying 'thank you' to the people from Time Team for all the pleasure they'd given over the years. The parodies are popular with the people who work on the show, who insist that Grime Team gets them right whereas people like Jon Culshaw tend to get it slightly wrong. The fact that my friend has a first class degree in Archaeology may have something to do with this.

The idea we'd had, which was by now old enough to be starting school, was dusted off, and it still worked. It wasn't a very complex idea – when you're doing a geophysics survey, you have to go over the same area three times (you can probably see why this had promise already) with three different pieces of equipment. What if you combined them all in one device?* What if that device was a small, electric not-actually-a-car?** Step forward the Reva Geo-Wiz...

So she wrote a plot that involved Grime Team carrying out a dig at Dunsfold Park in order to find some archaeology and head off the developers who wanted to turn it into a New Town.

And then I got a message that baffled me a bit. “So, when are you writing the script for the Top Gear parody?”

I'd thought there was going to be one film – but in a particularly ambitious (but potentially very rubbish) moment, my friend decided that if we were going to do this thing, we may as well do it properly, and that meant that as well as the Terrible Trio invading Grime Team, Grime Team would also guest on their show. Except that we didn't actually have one for them at that point.

And so Wot Gear was born.

Obviously, I was very familiar with the format of the programme, so I soon had a framework. We were going to bring in the Grime Team by having a 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car' tea party, so at least I didn't have to worry too much about scripting that bit (as I didn't know who would be coming in or what they would be doing, I decided we would wing it), but I still had a review and a two part challenge to write. And here's the rub: because none of the cast were actors, and some of them hadn't watched Top Gear, I was going to have to script pretty much everything.

Whilst my partner in crime took care of things like location scouting and casting, I needed to get an idea of what was achievable vehicle-wise, so I went back to London to see who would lend us what (we had no budget) and we managed to source three estate cars of roughly the same age and state of decay. One of the cast agreed that we could use his little hatchback as a camera car and a friend agreed we could use her 'Unreasonably Priced Jeep'. Another friend loaned us her Chrysler Ypsilon (which was what led to the rather less than flattering review I wrote a while ago). My friend's father had recently got a Ford Focus which was approximately the same as the Ypsilon, and the two of them were new enough to be passed off as 'ex-demonstrator models' so that gave us the basis for a sensible, comparative road test. And that was pretty much all I had to go on.

As there was an archaeology theme to the show, I quickly decided that the challenge should be about finding the best cheap estate car for an archaeologist, given that we had three elderly estate cars to work with. I also knew that we would be shooting that later in the summer, so I concentrated on the group test of sensible hatchbacks.

Firstly, I had to decide who to put where. I decided that I'd put 'Richard' in the Ypsilon, and as the real Clarkson's a confirmed Ford man, 'Jeremy' would go in the Focus. As we didn't have a very large airfield, but rather a modestly sized car park, as our test track, I quickly realised that I wouldn't be able to go head to head. We also didn't have anywhere to actually lay out a track either, but that at least wasn't a problem because we had some photos (shot through the fence at Dunsfold Park), a garden and a million miles of Scalextric track. So I split the test into two distinct parts – first of all Richard being in turn dewy-eyed about Lancia and not-terribly-impressed with the Ypsilon, demonstrating its capaciousness with the help of some small children, and wandering around in completely the wrong outfit.

The Ypsilon was the first thing we shot, and although it came out OK in the edit, much like the earliest episodes of Top Gear, I have to admit that the inexperience shows on screen. It wasn't helped by the fact that we couldn't actually drive it anywhere, because the owner wouldn't let us,*** so all the driving sequences on the road were done with green screen.

Still, we were allowed out with the Focus. This we did in the style of one of Jeremy's 'thorough road tests' – which let us break it into small enough sections for our 'Jeremy' to remember his lines. Like the Ypsilon test, we used small children – and their 'pet Hamster' – to demonstrate the capacity of the boot. Unlike the Ypsilon test, the small children and their pet Hamster were shut in the boot and then chased by a ninja in a menacing black Japanese car.

The ninja chase was an interesting challenge in itself, because pretty much until we started shooting, I didn't have an end to the segment. We knew it would need to be silly and over the top and slightly surreal, but we had no chase car and no budget to do anything that would leave any damage. However, when we did the first day of shooting on Grime Team, the chap playing our Tony Robinson character turned up in a rare, imported Toyota Celica. It was black. It was Japanese. It was sporty. It was, in short, exactly what was missing. 'Tony' was happy to let us use it, on one condition: he was to drive. As he was going to be dressed head to toe in black, with everything but his eyes covered, this was a condition I was only too happy to meet. And so we had a chase, with underground car parks, sneaky tailgating and a big wall of cardboard boxes, which in the final edit looks actually pretty good.

Why a ninja would be out doing his shopping in east London is anyone's guess.

The challenge was actually fairly easy to write as a series of events, but I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't actually writing Top Gear and that all the cars would still need to be functioning and undamaged at the end of it. As we had no budget, I had to re-use existing props where possible too. This turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse, however, because I knew that there was a fake Portaloo from the previous Grime Team knocking about somewhere, and I was sure I could incorporate that into the plot.

It starts to get tricky when you start working out the exact story you want to tell with a challenge. We knew early on that there would be a fire at some point (we actually ended up with two), and that the portable toilet would end up on top of one of the cars, and that we would have a sequence where they had to load as many improbable objects as possible (we managed to source a statue of an angel, a mini Easter Island head and a six foot inflatable dinosaur for that, without spending a penny... it's great that my friends are as weird as I am) into the boot. What we didn't know was what else they could do to demonstrate the cars. Eventually I wrote a sequence where 'James' starts waffling about egg and spoon races, and they apply that idea to cars.

This is where another complication came in – you can never rely on the weather. For almost every day we were filming, the weather was obligingly dry, warm and sunny. Our first full shoot was on the hottest weekend of the year - which meant a lot of moaning about wigs - and things were well underway by the time we were ready to film the race. Unlike other driving sequences, this couldn't be mocked up with Scalextric, so we secured the use of a field a friend of a friend usually uses to graze her horses. And then it pissed down, monumentally, for ages. The ground was waterlogged, we lost a whole shooting day waiting for it to stop and the ground was too wet to drive on without destroying the field for quite some time.

Actually, filming driving sequences generally was quite entertaining, and with the aid of two way radios, not too complicated. We had to do a lot of going on and off the M11 with me and other people sticking cameras out of windows, but we got some lovely three-abreast shots, and various bits we could drop in to make journeys look more interesting. There was a lot of shooting the same few roads from different angles, and a quite an audience gathered when the infamous 'ninja driving through a wall of boxes' was shot.

And that was fun in its own right; Mr Ninja was only supposed to clip the edge of the box wall, just enough to bring it down. However, he decided at the last minute to aim directly at it. Boxes went flying, the shot looked great and my friend (who was shooting that sequence as I was on my way back to Cardiff and my real job) was very pleased.

Mr Ninja was still shaking an hour later.

Once all the necessary location sequences were shot, we realised we were going to come up short. We needed a filler piece to bring the episode up to time, so we scratched our heads. We'd pretty much used all the cars we had at our disposal. As it was, given that we couldn't get hold of a G-Wiz for Grime Team, we'd had to build a life sized model out of cardboard, so we couldn't do another mock-up. So we decided to review the Bentley Mulsanne.

We didn't have one of those either, but then again, neither did Top Gear when they tried to review one. But we did have one of those Brompton folding bikes, and grudging loan, for about five minutes, of a Fiat Panda. So 'James' reviewed the bike instead, complete with an interesting diagram of a system of planet gears.

Which just left the studio segments to sort out. This, in some ways, was my favourite part of the filming process. We managed to gather together a few volunteers to act as the audience, and the college where my friend has her real job agreed to let us use their theatre. We dressed this with large cardboard cut-out cars (including one of the Triumph Herald birthday cake I made a couple of years previously), black and yellow banners and Wot Gear logos, and built the News set from some classic Mini seats we picked up for 99p on eBay. Even though we didn't have the films to insert as they weren't finished, filming took almost as long as the real thing, but it was the first point at which it really felt like it was actually happening. I took the decision to make it as 'real' as possible, so used actual motoring stories as the basis for The News, and found some ridiculous things for the 'boys' to wear/laugh at/get indignant/inappropriately excited about. Directing three people who were by now just about getting the hang of what they were doing, plus an audience who mostly didn't have a clue what was going on was fun but exhausting, especially given that I'd not been able to get the day off work so had to go directly from my office to the studio via the wonders of the railway network. By the time we were finished, I was pretty much dead on my feet, but feeling pretty satisfied with what we'd achieved.

And then we didn't meet again until November 22nd, when we held a glittering(ish) premiere in the theatre where we'd shot the studio sequences. People laughed. Probably because we got them drunk.

It was a long journey – five years, two house moves, countless hours of script writing, scouring the internet for stories and props, taking three men who'd never done anything like this before and putting them in bad shirts, wigs and inappropriate situations, persuading bands to let us use their music and then somehow trying to turn it all into a coherent narrative in the edit. And you know what? It's a hell of a lot harder than it looks.

In the final cut, there are moments where it really works, and moments where it doesn't, and moments where it would have worked well had we more experience. If we do another one in the future, it will definitely look better because we learned a lot of lessons on the way. Then again, this will be something in common with Top Gear – the early episodes look decidedly rough around the edges compared with the show it has become. And yes, we have wonky shots, wobbly sets and a big blue box that turns up in places it shouldn't. But so does Doctor Who, and that hasn't done too badly for itself.

Still, could we do better than the real thing? Not even close.

Some of you might like to see the fruits of our labours, which can be obtained via www.wotgear.co.uk. For those of you of the Time Team persuasion, we believe that a cameo in Wot Gear turned out to be the late Professor Mick Aston's (yes, the real one) final filmed appearance.

* It wouldn't work.
** It definitely wouldn't work because the metal bits would interfere with the readings.
***Ironic, as she didn't actually like the car either, and it was written off a couple of weeks later when she didn't park it securely and it rolled down a hill.