Into this tumult steps the former script editor of Top Gear at its prime, Richard Porter, with a slim volume of silly asides and unusual insights. You can see him speak about the new book in the video below.
There were a lot of bits I really liked in Porter's book, which is titled "And on That Bombshell: Inside the Madness and Genius of Top Gear." Without giving away the farm, did you know Ben Collins was the first white-suited Stig? Perhaps I should have hidden that behind a spoiler alert. Ah well, it's done now.
More to the point, Porter's comments about Collins are fascinating and complex. After all, Collins' book stole the thunder of the Stig's anonymity, caught the Top Gear team by surprise, and clearly ruffled their feathers. On the other hand, Collin's impressive devotion to the character while he was on the show is incredible, as Bombshell clearly shows. When the Stig was supposed to ride the subway in London for a bit, anyone could have worn the costume for the trip, crossed their arms, no one's the wiser. Porter tells us it was Collins, in the suit, on the Tube. Collins owned the Stig beyond the mere driving parts you'd expect – filling out the white track suit and Simpson helmet, metaphorically, to make what could have been a throwaway gag into a lasting and beloved character. So did Michael Schumacher, later and much more briefly, but you'll have to read the book for that story – worth the price of admission in and of itself.
In much the same light, easy way, Porter's deft handling of the "scripted" aspects of the show, often lobbed around as fatal criticism by computer chair critics, is sort of incredible. "I'll let you into a secret," Porter cheekily confides in us, "Top Gear was scripted. Of course it was. All television is scripted." Leave it to the script writer, adorably defensive in the light of what he reveals to be a nonsensical denunciation of the show, to lead us to a bit of a forehead-smacking moment. Read the book to figure out what constituted a script in Top Gear terms. Unsurprisingly, it's as much of a script, generally, as May's Triumph Herald was a boat in the famed Series Ten maritime segment.
Can you discuss a book about Top Gear without bringing up Clarkson's oafish propensity to stuff his large feet directly into his equally large mouth? Mostly, Porter leaves Clarkson's controversies to the end of the book, and makes a fair and balanced case, I think, of the man's vision and hard work that proved essential to the show's lasting success. Which by no means makes Bombshell a hagiography. Porter lays plain his sense of betrayal and loss that the show ended because of a pointless, thoughtless assault on a well-liked producer – and to twist the knife in further, it was the show's architect and star who was the agent of destruction. An unfortunate chapter, but Porter gets it right, and that's a relief.
Where Bombshell disappoints isn't the structure itself, which is a parade of little vignettes that paint a picture of the culture and camaraderie behind the show. Taken together, these build a fuller and more rounded view of the personalities involved, and in particular the massive effort it took to produce even the throwaway skits. Porter's book is clever, often very funny, and at times conveys some twinges of surprisingly potent feeling. All good there. The missed opportunity was to do more than catalogue, however amusingly, the tribulations and triumphs. The anecdotes could have been woven into a slightly richer, and tighter narrative, rather than weaving about from bit to bit much like the (rigged) Reliant plowed through corners on its side. I can't let Porter off the hook on this count, but don't let this stop you from reading. It's a shambles, but an enjoyable one.
With that criticism aside: Good news! The Dacia Sandero gets more than a few pages, and readers get a peek behind the curtain of many of the greatest segments, often packed with unexpected twists. For those moments, which you can't get anywhere else, Porter's book is worth the price of admission. Meandering through the book is almost like a self-guided tour of the drafty Dunsfold set, liberally peppered with moments of intimacy or silliness involving the raffish hosts.
The hosts are, of course, what made Top Gear work. And through the lens of Porter's everyday familiarity with them, they make Bombshell work. I think it's safe to say that everyone who enjoyed the show thought they'd enjoy hanging out with the hosts, who were truly the show's main attractions. To listen as Clarkson related some politically correct hogwash in the office hallway that the BBC was attempting to cram down the show's throat. A pint with May, perhaps, and a curry while laughing at Hammond's tale of a broken-down tractor back at his farm. Since Porter had exactly this kind of access and relationship with the hosts, Bombshell is at its strongest as a vicarious fulfillment of this chummy fantasy. It's Stars in a Reasonably Priced Book, and you've got the track all to yourself.
Want to read it? If you're in the US, there's a Kindle version available. Live somewhere else? Porter has a handy cheat sheet for what versions are available from which sellers.