Michael Brunsden spends a day filming with Channel 5’s premium motor show
I arrive with Tom Ford, the main presenter, to meet the rest of the cast. He passed his driving test on the third attempt (like all driving greats), and after being told that he was “too mad” to work in the Top Gear office, “got drunk at a party, marched up to the Director of Fifth Gear and said ‘I’d be really good on telly.’ Three weeks later I was signed and I’ve been there ever since!” Tom is now a freelance journalist who works as a contributing editor for Top Gear alongside Fifth Gear. His favourite car that he has ever owned is a Vauxhall Monaro VXR.
At eight exactly, Vicky Butler-Henderson, who founded Fifth Gear in 2002 with Tiff Needel, arrives. She started driving at the tender age of 12 and was a Silverstone instructor by 17.
Tiff Needel, according to Tom Ford, “is like your dad, but a dad that can drive an Austin Allegro sideways round a corner.” Tiff co-presented Top Gear till the BBC cancelled it in 2001, after which he moved, along with most of the cast and crew, to Channel Five.
Jason Plato, a British Auto racing driver (who now lives in Monte Carlo) was British Touring Car Champion in 2001. Like Tom Ford, Jason was injured during the filming of Fifth Gear last year when driving a Caparo T1 (which goes from 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds) which caught fire at 150mph.
Finally, Johnny Smith arrives, who writes for publications including Car, Zoo, and Max Power and has owned over 50 cars despite being 28, ranging from a 1977 Mk1 Golf diesel to an Austin Allegro with a V6.
Filming started at 9am. To take advantage of the weather they decided to get as many of the outdoor links as possible filmed. The sound technician Gordon Nightingale, gave me some wireless headphones in order to be able to hear the dialogue throughout the day.
For each section, the director blocks the action for both the presenters and the cameraman so that everyone knows where they need to be (essentially walking slowly through the action whilst reading the script). It is the producer’s job to check for word accuracy; he spends the whole day with his headphones on and in a quiet corner so that he can follow the script meticulously. If they change what is said from one take to the next, he has to notice, as the wrong information could cause further repercussions down the line.
Three cars needed to be filmed during the course of the day. First up, two quite practical family saloons – a Mitsubishi Lancer and a Mazda 6 – in a head-to-head competition feature called, ‘It’s new but is it any good?’ The cost of the car, fuel economy and its stylying for it’s purpose are all considered.
The other car was a Corvette Z-06, a huge rear wheel drive beast that can catapult you from 0 – 60mph in 3.7 seconds, and with a price tag of £70,000 is fairly reasonably priced for a car that can reach just under 200mph. In essence it is a practical supercar: the engine is at the front, leaving enough room at the back for some light shopping, and the handling is good enough to trust it in an inner city high rise car park. When I was allowed to drive it, it did feel quite big and heavy, and the left hand drive found me opening the door every time I wanted to change gear. As a twenty year-old entrusted with the key fob to a supercar, I also struggled to trust its keyless entry system. Apparently when you walk a metre away from the driver’s door it locks itself, but with a car worth that much I didn’t really want to risk it.
By eleven o’clock we had finished the exterior shots and moved on to car-to-car tracking. This involves removing the back two seats of an MPV (multi purpose vehicle), clamping in a camera and harnessing a willing cameraman. The two cars for the ‘It’s new but is it any good?’ section are taken out onto the road and a sequence of shots of it overtaking the tracking car are filmed. The whole process only takes about 10 minutes for each car, and out of that they use short 10 second clips, interwoven with interior shots filmed on a mini camera mounted on the car’s dashboard. When you see the interior shots of the car being driven, you don’t realise that sitting in the car with the presenter is a cameraman in the passenger seat watching a monitor on his knee, and the producer in the back checking the dialogue!
After lunch we only had a few more links to film, all of which were interior shots to be filmed in Ace café, the Fifth Gear base. As the café was open for business during the day, we did get the odd person walking into the shots just to get themselves on television, but on the plus side the action in the background helps to give the illusion of an informal, relaxed environment without having to pay for extras to sit in a café all day! I was even privileged enough to be one of those extras (series 13, episode ten, six minutes in, that’s my right arm holding that glass of coke). The afternoon was much slower than the morning, and by the time we wrapped for the day at about three in the afternoon, everyone was tired and in need of a well-earned rest. That day they found out that the ‘powers that be’ had given them another series, meaning that in just under a month’s time they would be back again to film some more.