Doubtless you’ll have read that the BBC and the book publishing people, HarperCollins, are now in a big legal battle over HarperCollins’ wish to publish an autobiography of the person who wears the Stig suit to work. The BBC has responded with a polite statement, but I must say I feel the urge to add my ten penn’orth about how we see things down at the Top Gear office.
First off, I had to laugh when I read the bit of the HarperCollins statement where it says: “We are disappointed that the BBC has chosen to spend licence fee payers’ money to suppress this book…”. “Disappointed??!!” Give me strength.
“Disappointed” is the word viewers use when they think Top Gear has wasted licence payer money on something stupid or rubbish, and when viewers use it, they usually mean it from the heart. Big book publishing companies worth hundreds of millions do not sit in their boardrooms going: “We are so disappointed”. If I could apply my patented Reality Check (It’s like Spell Check but I haven’t quite invented it yet) to their statement, it should actually read: “We are deeply irritated that the BBC has chosen to spend licence fee payers’ money trying to protect something that belongs to them, as we were hoping to cash in on it in time for Christmas, even though in the eight years the Stig has existed, we’ve contributed absolutely bugger all to the character’s creation or development.”
The fact is, the “waste of licence payer’s money” argument gets trotted out many times as a way of attacking the BBC, but the reality is this: the BBC is a massive organisation. It’s naïve to think it can only ever spend money on cameras, tape for the cameras, Daleks or anything else that contributes directly to what ends up on screen. The BBC also has the right to spend money on protecting the intellectual property it created, because the truth is that all that stuff – the Stig, the Tardis, the Blue Peter dog – does belong to the licence payer, and not to some opportunists who think they can come along and take a slice when they feel like it.
As you can tell I’m quite cross at the moment, but there’s plenty to be cross about. Last week, instead of working on the next series, I had to go to court. If you go to court you have to look smart, which meant I had to dig my suit out of the back of the wardrobe, and the last time I wore that suit George Michael could still drive in a straight line. So on Monday there I was, dressed like somebody who works behind the till at NatWest, having to listen to people from HarperCollins telling me that they have the right to reveal who the Stig is. Well actually, that’s tosh. The whole point of the Stig is the mystique – the bizarre characteristics he has, the wonderment created about what he might think, feel, do or look like. Kids adore the conceit, and I believe adults, although they know it’s a man in a suit (or is it?), gladly buy into the whole conceit because they find it entertaining. Even the papers, who love to make mischief, have kept everyone guessing over the years because they acknowledge that viewers like the Stig secrecy thing.
Anyway, HarperCollins have decided none of that is as important as their profits, so if you get your Christmas ruined by one of the best and most harmless TV secrets being outed, you can rest easy in the knowledge that by contrast, HarperCollins’ executives will be enjoying a fantastic Christmas.
So why are we fighting in court? Well, obviously we want to protect the Stig’s anonymity for the reasons I’ve just outlined. Also, it’s an issue of trust. Everyone who’s ever worked on Top Gear has kept the Stig thing a secret, and the person who wears the suit has signed confidentiality agreements to do the same. So talk about what you like in your own life, but not the bit you agreed not to. Your word is supposed to mean something.
Some of you will say we’re also trying to protect a brand the BBC makes money out of. You’re right there too. The Stig does make money for BBC Worldwide, which is a business, and some of it is invested back into the business, some of it is paid out in dividends, and crucially, some of it goes back into funding the TV show. And the show needs that money, ‘cos this ain’t a cheap piece of telly. And actually, while I’m on the money point, BBC Worldwide are also picking up half the tab for this case, so it’s by no means just licence fee payers’ money being spent.
Inevitably, Fleet St has endless opinions on what BBC Worldwide should do with its money. Only yesterday morning Stephen Glover wrote a very robust piece in the Daily Mail about Top Gear’s commercial affairs. But since he can’t actually count up how many shows we make a year (it’s 14, not 8 Mr Glover), I’m not sure I’d trust the rest of his maths. Besides that, like every outsider he doesn’t know the details of any confidentiality clauses we have going, he doesn’t know about Top Gear internal relationships, and he doesn’t know who the Stig is, and sadly I can’t help put him right because we’re in the middle of a load of legal tussles, and I wouldn’t want to anyway, because it’s a secret.
Speaking of which, I’ll be back in court sometime soon, looking once more like an office junior at Foxtons, and we’ll be fighting our corner. If we lose at this stage, it won’t be over but the book will be published and the papers will have a field day with a barrage of headlines about “Humiliating Climbdowns” etc. But so be it. Bring it on. Do you want a BBC that runs away from a snidey headline, or one that fights to protect its belongings? What’s the saying? “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees”. A bit dramatic I know, but the fact is, the ramshackle, dysfunctional family that is the Top Gear team, from the newest runner right up to Jeremy, Richard and James, has worked bloody hard for many years to make the Stig something worth caring about, and that includes protecting it from a bunch of chancers.
PS Normally we love it when you give us your comments, but as you can imagine we’re in legal land at the minute so I’m afraid it’s a one-way street on this one. Anyway, now you know how we feel.