Top Gear, sour grapes

It was last January – Jan 2010, that is – when I first heard that a BBC researcher from Top Gear was interested in having a chat with me about a Christmas special they were planning, where the three presenters – Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May – would drive across the Middle East. Fine, I thought, sounds interesting.

The researcher and I exchanged emails and had several long chats on the phone – she asking me about the logistics of travel across the Middle East and possible points of interest for a driving show, me bending her ear at length about how wonderful the region is and throwing lots of ideas at her about how and where the trip might run.

I can’t remember whether it was her or me who mentioned the idea of the show following the route of the Three Wise Men, travelling from “the East” to Bethlehem. But it was probably her. Almost certainly her. I mean, let’s face it, it must have been her. Must have been.

Anyway, so there were more emails, and more long phone calls (“I wondered if you would be free for a chat about the Golan Heights?” “Do you know if it’s possible to drive through the West Bank now?”), and I passed on specialist contacts in Jordan, in Palestine, I sent her links for theories of where the Three Wise Men originated – perhaps Iran, perhaps elsewhere – I explained what frankincense and myrrh are, and where they come from… the whole thing. We got on alright, I thought.

Perhaps I was naive in freely sharing knowledge without fixing terms, or without discussing the possibility of being involved in the show (or at least being acknowledged somehow).

Perhaps she thought I was doing it for the love of the Middle East, or because she thought images of Clarkson in the desert would instantly cause a soaring rise in sales of my Rough Guide to Jordan, thereby recompensing me through vastly increased royalty payments at no cost to the licence-fee payer.

Either way, the emails stopped in May, and I heard nothing more.

Then, this appeared: a Top Gear Christmas special, broadcast on 26th December, centred on a trip whereby Clarkson, Hammond and May follow the route of the Three Wise Men, travelling from “the East” (Iraq) to Bethlehem, via Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel, with attempted detours via Iran (not possible with a BBC crew), across the Syrian desert, and into the Golan Heights.

Iraqi Kurdistan came off rather well, with lots of epic scenery and enthusiasm about the friendliness of the people. Turkey was portrayed as shabby and dangerous. Syria seemed rather fun. Jordan was dismissed as a basket-case. Israel was glossed over, and Palestine didn’t exist – we saw nothing of Bethlehem. Top Gear’s not my favourite show, and I’m the wrong demographic, but all that burqa-wearing stuff struck me as particularly stupid.

And, of course, I got no credit. Perhaps I’m over-estimating my input, perhaps my info was utterly tangential, but I think that stinks. Sour grapes? Of course it’s sour grapes. I’m wallowing in sour grapes. They chewed me up and spat me out.

I’ll leave you with an email from me to the Top Gear researcher, dated 1st February 2010:

hi again
Struck me over weekend that this might also be of interest:
Can just imagine the 3 of them racing, Ben Hur-style, around the Roman hippodrome…

On the right is a still frame, taken from the sequence where the 3 of them race, Ben Hur-style, around the Roman hippodrome at Jerash, Jordan.

Great idea, BBC.


  1. atkinsondavid

    Typical. Memo to all freelancers: get tough for 2011 and charge for your time. We’re worth it.
    I leave you with an email from a PR company to me dated mid December:
    “I just wanted to pick your brain about Wales as I know you wrote the Lonely Planet guide and it would be great to get some insight from someone who has a real knowledge of the destination. We are looking at an analysis of UK destinations and what they have to offer as well as what they are perhaps lacking in. It would be great if you could shed some light on Wales in terms of what its key attractions are as a tourist destination and what it has to offer in comparison to places such as Cornwall, the North East etc, and why other places might attract more visitors.”
    My reply:
    “Thanks for your email. I have written the LP guide, plus lots of spin-off stories. Have a look at my blog,, for some background.
    I’ve also done some consultancy work with agencies pitching for business or ad campaigns but on a paid-consultancy basis.
    Could I clarify a bit more, please, what the enquiry is leading towards and whether you would be looking for some kind of discussion or presentation on a day-rate basis?
    Best wishes, David”
    Thereafter radio silence. ‘Nuff said.

    1. Matthew Teller

      Thanks, David – you’re absolutely right, but that’s a particularly egregious example of travel-phishing. There’s clearly absolutely nothing in it for you – so good on you for slamming the door.

      With Top Gear, I was working on the principle of ‘you have to speculate to accumulate’. Unfortunately, in this case, I speculated while the BBC, the Jordanian tourism authorities and the viewing public accumulated. It’s neither the first nor probably the last time it’ll happen. I could bore everybody with how a magazine took my idea for an article and turned it into their glossy, high-profile, end-of-year calendar – or how chatting to a newspaper staffer at a travel event led to a string of articles in that staffer’s paper about places we’d just been talking about… You come across these people every so often. Everyone does. Part and parcel.

      Depressing, isn’t it?

  2. atkinsondavid

    It is. I really do sympathise. My first rule for freelance life in 2011: show me the money and say no more.

  3. Sakhr

    Well, there are a lot of people in this business who will use a friendly face for personal gain. There are those editors who will publish interns’ work without a byline or payment. There are newspapers that will try not to pay freelances until you threaten legal action (I just won…!). And then there are producers who will pass off your knowledge as their own to score in an editorial meeting.

    The most optimistic scenario I can imagine is that the producer simply moved on. 6 months is a very very long time in the BBC. Almost everyone is on attachment, and no-one stays on one programme for long. By the time the post-production credits were written, the person you spoke to had probably moved on long ago.

    Also, the BBC has a strict set of producers guidelines to adhere to. I honestly think you should be speaking to the editor of TG next Tuesday. Tell them what happened, tell them you loved the show, and forward a few emails to prove your role. Do it as a point of principle.

    (If that doesn’t work, take it to the BBC Trust – although I’m almost certain it won’t get that far).

    A while ago I did some work for the BBC (I won’t say which part). I was sent on a wild goose chase across the UK, didn’t get the goods, and was told that I wouldn’t be paid. I chased, politely, and won.

    You deserve better. Good luck.

    As for the programme – Clarkson said that Damascus immediately went into his top 5 fave cities (brownie point). But then said the Golan Heights “used to be in Syria, now they’re in Israel.” Errr, no, they’re not “in” Israel, idiot.

    He also managed to make a programme about the roadtrip to Bethlehem without mentioning the word ‘Palestine’. Incredible, that. Although it was the “disputed West Bank” (there’s no dispute, it’s occupied – have a read of the BBC guidelines, moron). Rant over!

  4. Andrew Sanger

    Oh dear, Matt – you have fallen prey to a very typical bit of “brain-picking” activity. You have been generous and helpful, and from what you say, it sounds like you will be again. Why though? After all, no one else involved in making a TV programme would work for nothing.

    Often over the years I’ve been phoned and asked for a few minutes of my time – with no fee. At first I thought there might be some advantage in helping people with their projects. But then I realised that for programme-makers – radio, TV, regional and national, and not just BBC – plundering the experience and expertise of freelances is just a normal part of their research.

    I think in future you should just say no.

  5. Hal Peat

    This one resonated with me for a number of reasons – although all your blogs resonate with me. 1) Something I’m similarly experiencing about the final week of a year and tying up loose ends in work and business that leave that sour taste in your mouth. Yet you have to take care of it, one way or another, 2) About the wise men, still laughing here at that one but also admiring your sense of humor in the face of an interchange with people gone sour, 3) Yes, as others have pointed out – unfortunately you have to speak out instantly in terms of the word “consultant” when you’re approached by media researchers, it instantly alerts them that the conversation going forward has been “monetized” and they’re on notice, 4) Why on earth did they go if everything except Kurdistan didn’t sit well with them on the road?, 5) Wishing you a much better start to 2011, and may your consulting adventures be more lucrative than the 3 wise men.

  6. Matthew Teller

    @Sakhr – thanks so much for coming by: what a pleasure to see you here! And with a characteristically generous perspective. The researcher I spoke to is still on the programme – but I will consider approaching the producer, as you suggest.

    As for the programme – well, I didn’t waste space on Clarkson’s political perspective, or the prominent reluctance to mention the word “Palestine”, or the blunder on “disputed” WB, or the nonsense about having to race across Turkey to the safety of Sanliurfa, or the idea that Israel will refuse you entry if you have a Syrian stamp, or the bizarre dogleg detour which took them from the Sheikh Hussein Bridge into the Golan Heights, etc etc…

    It would be like pointing out factual errors in Tintin. Top Gear – its capers, its outlook, its characters – is effectively a live-action cartoon. It’s about as true to life as “Die Hard”. That’s its appeal.

    And thank you, too, @Andrew and @Hal, for sympathy. Much appreciated.

  7. Anzac

    I like it…

  8. Barbara Rowell

    Hi Matthew,
    and I only thought this kind of thing happened IN the Middle East. Indeed get tough in 2011, put the tin vest on and deflect the snide comments from those ‘researchers’ not getting the freebies they want. Linmited free advise is great, and agree with your theory that‘you have to speculate to accumulate’but some have to respect the years of experience and research that YOU have done. Good luck with the 2011 resolution!

  9. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, Barbara – so nice to see you here! May well take your advice…

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