After a battle in the UK courts with the BBC, Ben Collins was officially ousted as The Stig. That scuffle was over Collins’ book, The Man in the White Suit, an autobiographical account of his racing career, time in the army, and what it was like to be The Stig during the meteoric rise of Top Gear.
I read the book and found it quite interesting, especially as a fan of the show. It didn’t reveal as many details about filming as I would’ve hoped, but there was one section that was particularly intriguing in which Collins discusses shooting a segment about a Porsche Carrera GT:
There were some funny looks from the cameraman, and the deep voice of experience boomed over the radio: ‘Not to be contentious — but are we actually gonna have a car left to film?’
‘It’s OK, Casper,’ Jim replied. ‘Stig’s just warming up the tyres; stand by to shoot in a minute.’
Jim let me drop the hammer without delay. I sawed at the wheel throughout a frenzied lap and the GT popped the record by just over a second, giving me plenty to fold my arms about.
Casper and Ben worked their magic behind the cameras, with Iain May shooting from an elevated mobile platform, or ‘cherry picker’, which boasted a maximum speed of 4mph. Iain’s thinning blond hair and hooded eyes gave him a distinctly mature look, but during the long pauses between takes he shifted its position with all the enthusiasm of a five-year-old on a Tonka Toy.
‘Don’t park it there yet, Iain,’ Casper hissed. ‘I’m on a big wide as he comes through the tyres so you’ll be in frame. Let me get one more shot, then I’m going tight.’
Camera-talk was slowly sinking in. If Casper was shooting a ‘wide’ profile it meant I needed to keep it fully lit for a considerably longer distance than if it was a ‘tight’ close-up moment in one corner. It was fascinating to watch the film crew work together and to be giving them the confidence to creep nearer the action. As the trust grew on both sides, the crew employed their superb skills to define the whiplash-quick shooting style that Top Gear became known for.
Iain ended up lying in the gutter less than a foot from the track as I howled past his shoulder at max speed. Most cameramen would press record and walk away. Top Gear crews put their necks on the line and operated manually in order to pull focus and pan with the car.
The lairy cornering shots were achieved in much the same way. Jeremy and I would fly sideways into the corner with the crew rotating through different positions, a hair’s breadth from our intended line of travel. The boys covered every angle within minutes. Having them so close to the gliding cars focused the mind as much as any motor race, and we never took our eyes off them.
We were expected to get it right first time, so I stopped asking for practice. ‘Fine to practise, Stiggy,’ became the refrain, ‘but we’ll just roll cameras anyway.’
The Spanish Yeti, Dan the cameraman, legging it across the track with a Steadicam stabilised mount attached to his torso, was the most unnerving sight of all. He sprinted to and fro, capturing tight gritty sweeps of the action, with his curly black mane flowing in his wake.
Here is the finished segment from the show that The Stig was referring to in the excerpt:
Purchase The Man in the White Suit by Ben Collins and read more about working on Top Gear.