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.