Top Gear filming in B.C. excites fans of popular auto show

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Top Gear, the hugely popular BBC programme that’s nominally about cars, is filming a segment in British Columbia for its upcoming season, which has Canadian fans all atwitter.

We say nominally because while the show, entering its 22nd season, features automotive rides ranging from the plebeian to the exotic, it’s really about three overgrown British schoolboys with the biggest allowance … in the world.

The series, co-hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, is shooting a segment featuring the Hennessy VelociRaptor, a giant luxury SUV (starting price about $150,000 USD) produced by Texas custom builder John Hennessy based on the Ford F150 Raptor crew-cab pickup truck.

Details of the shoot are sketchy, even secretive. Top Gear fan forums have reported some filming was done in and around Vancouver, as well the resort town of Whistler, north of the city.

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Okanagan Film Commissioner Jon Summerland told Yahoo Canada News they’re also shooting in the South Okanagan and the Kootenay region near the end of November, a combination of highway and off-road scenes. But he’s mum on the exact locations.

“I’ve been told to pretty much stop talking, to be honest with you,” Summerland said in an interview Friday. “They are getting a bit concerned that there’s going to be a crazy amount of people there.”

Summerland, a former location manager in Vancouver’s film and TV production sector, said he was vaguely aware of the show before becoming involved, but its popularity came as a big surprise. A news release on the commission’s Facebook page drew more hits than for when George Clooney and Anthony Hopkins were filming in the area.

“There’s 30,000-40,000 hits on my Facebook,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine how many people are going to show up if we say the exact locations and when they’re going to shoot.”

Top Gear’s per-episode global viewership is often reported at 350 million but BBC spokeswoman Tara Davies said that number is unreliable because of the different rating systems used in various markets. However, Top Gear is sold in 214 territories, apparently a Guinness world record, she said.

Davies would not provide details of the shoot, other than to say all three hosts would be involved in the segment.

Inquiries to John Hennessy, who’s supplying the vehicle, were also politely turned aside.

Speculation abounds over filming location

The silence of the involved parties hasn’t stopped a flurry of speculation by Top Gear’s fan base, starting when the show’s hosts started dropping hints on Twitter a few weeks ago they were coming to the Canadian West Coast.

Then this week, Hammond tweeted a photo of an event notice in a Vancouver-area hotel on Tuesday. That was followed by a Twitter exchange between Clarkson and May indicating they were headed there.

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Sure enough, fans were on hand to record Clarkson’s arrival at Vancouver International Airport and post a YouTube video of him signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.

Summerland said the production team’s main goal was to find a mountaintop.

“They need to go through different geography to get to that mountaintop and the Interior offers a bunch of different geography,” he said.

The question on every Top Gear fan’s mind is, of course, will hijinks ensue?

No one knows what the show has in store for the VelociRaptor but the trio have a reputation for testing vehicles to extremes.

Who can forget Clarkson driving a Ford Fiesta loaded with fully armed Royal Marine commandos off a landing craft into wheel-deep water as part of a beach assault to demonstrate its versatility? Or a Bugatti Veyron supercar drag-racing racing a Typhoon jet fighter – the 1,000-horsepower car speeding horizontally, the fighter vertically?

Then there was the time they raced a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and an Aston Martin through the tunnels underneath Romania’s People’s Palace, part of one of the show’s epic road trips.

Top Gear’s only other trip to Canada featured Clarkson and May driving to the North Pole from Resolute, Nunavut, in a souped-up Toyota Hilux pickup, racing Hammond in dog sled. The truck won.

These odysseys are mined for maximum comedic effect that more often than not makes the hosts look like buffoons, like the episode where they drove American beaters across the southern U.S. from Miami to New Orleans. One of the show’s trademark “challenges” involved dubbing their cars with slogans designed to upset the locals, such as “NASCAR sucks” and “Hillary for President,” which got them chased out of an Alabama town as they refueled.

Some of this stuff would come off as lame if it weren’t for the odd chemistry between Clarkson, the often sarcastic loudmouth; Hammond, willing to please and be pleased; and May, the studious eccentric. They’re distinctly different characters who never take themselves seriously.

Top Gear’s history of controversial gaffes

But others do sometimes take them quite seriously. The show has gotten into hot water several times over the years for comments that triggered reviews by Britain’s broadcast watchdog.

Clarkson and May were castigated for disparaging remarks about Mexicans and their culture during a 2011 episode. In 2012, the Indian government complained about Clarkson claiming “everyone who comes here gets the trots.”

The BBC has largely played down the verbal eruptions as part of Top Gear’s “irreverent” style. Clarkson has caught much of the flak over his occasional lack of verbal filtering. Politically incorrect? He makes Prince Philip look like a choir boy.

Clarkson was forced to apologize in 2009 for calling the U.K.’s then-prime minister Gordon Brown a “one-eyed Scottish idiot” when the show visited Australia.

During a challenge-filled journey through Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer) in an episode screened this year, Clarkson and Hammond built a bamboo bridge over the River Kwai. As they stood back to admire their slightly tilted handiwork, Clarkson commented “That is a proud moment, but there’s a slope on it.” Coincidentally, a Burmese man is walking across their bridge.

Regulators dismissed any ambiguity – Hammond had gone for the save by adding “It definitely is high on that side” – and concluded Clarkson’s remark was a racial slur.

And the show’s crew was forced to flee an angry mob in Argentina this year over the licence plate on one of the test cars that read H982 FKL, which a local mob interpreted as a reference to Britain’s victory over the South American country in the 1982 Falklands War.

Things got worse this year when a piece of unaired video surfaced that showed Clarkson appearing to mumble the N-word while reciting the old nursery rhyme that starts “Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe …” After initially denying he’d done it, Clarkson was forced to apologize when the outtake footage was posted on a British newspaper’s web site.

The BBC was under pressure to fire Clarkson but the apology and his abject plea for public forgiveness may have saved his job.

Or maybe it was the fact Clarkson helps anchor one of the public broadcaster’s hottest exports.

Whether the Top Gear crew’s Canadian junket produces another memorable gaffe, we’ll just have to tune in to see next year.