Top Gear was one of 80 shows BBC Studios was forced to shut down in March after the coronavirus ripped through the business at break-neck speed. More than eight weeks on, the BBC is now gearing up to put the keys back in the ignition and get the wheels turning again on its global brand.
Top Gear producer BBC Studios began project restart almost immediately after the filming hiatus took hold. Now, after the industry received the green light from the government to return to production, this work will be put into action as the show hits the road again in mid-June, with presenters Andrew Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness clearing their summer diaries to get back in the driver’s seat.
Season 29 will be one of the most important in Top Gear‘s history amid plans to promote it to BBC One for the first time (as revealed by Deadline). It’s a prize for the show’s rejuvenated ratings, but brings with it a bigger audience and higher expectations. This alone would have been on the minds of showrunners Alex Renton and Clare Pizey, so when you couple the new home with coronavirus complications, it is clear Top Gear is entering unchartered territory.
Luckily, it’s a show built for the unexpected, as its presenting teams have proved during misadventures at home and abroad over the years. Social distancing seems surmountable when you’ve been chased out of Argentina by an angry mob pelting rocks at your cars, or when one of your hosts runs out of tarmac while drag racing a motorized trike.
Around 50% of the new season was shot before production was halted, including a centerpiece international adventure in Cyprus. Renton and Pizey would like to have done more overseas shoots, but have accepted that this is not going to be possible this year, so they are instead turning to local storytelling, with films showcasing British locations. Presenter McGuinness has often talked about making a Top Gear film from his hometown of Bolton — well, Season 29 will make this possible.
“It does look like most of our filming will be in the UK this year. Luckily for us, we had filmed some international and domestic mayhem before the lockdown started, and already have some really funny footage — footage that we absolutely could not film now with all three presenters in a car together,” Pizey says. “Just because we’re filming in the UK, it doesn’t mean less ambition. In fact, quite the opposite is true. We’ve got one film planned for July which is already giving me sleepless nights.”
Anchoring production on the rest of the series will be Top Gear‘s test track at the Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey. The team will not be quarantined prior to cameras rolling — an idea that is being intensely discussed in the drama community — because producers are confident that the majority of filming will take place outside, or within cars, where presenters are naturally self-isolating and captured on remote cameras or drones.
Producers explored the idea of erecting perspex dividers within cars if more than one presenter was required to be in a vehicle at one time, but they now think they have enough of this kind of footage. Hair and makeup is another potential complexifier that has been sidestepped as Flintoff, Harris and McGuinness don’t require this level of preening. They will, however, have to get used to putting on their own mics, which will be sanitized and prepared for them prior to filming.
Pizey says the whole team is excited to return, but acknowledges it will not be straightforward. “We’re all really looking forward to getting back to filming — although in my case with a certain amount of trepidation because you never ever know what’s going to happen when you get Paddy, Freddie and Chris together. It’s like herding cats. But very big naughty cats,” she jokes.
Perhaps the most complicated piece in the Top Gear puzzle is the studio shoots. These will be filmed very close to transmission in the autumn and normally involve gathering an audience of up to 600 people in a windowless air hangar. There will almost certainly be a reduction in the number of people permitted on the set, but producers are keen to maintain some sort of audience. This is seen as being particularly important with the show moving to BBC One, where scale is vital.
A plan of action for studio shoots and celebrity guests will be made closer to the time. And of course, BBC Studios was keen to stress that government advice will be followed at every step on the journey. For Pizey, such obstacles are a breeding ground for new ideas. “[It’s] a challenge — and we love them on Top Gear,” she adds.
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