Top Gear - Series 1: Episode 1 (lost unaired pilot episodes of BBC Two television series; 2002)
The only surviving footage of either of the pilots, appearing briefly in the Series 1 finale.
Following the announcement of its cancellation in August 2001 and subsequent final episode in February the following year, BBC's motoring show Top Gear underwent a significant revamp and relaunch in October 2002, which focused more on being a light entertainment show rather than wholly factual. The pilot episode which would eventually air on the October 20th, 2002, featured Harry Enfield as the show's inaugural guest star, reviews of the Citroen Berlingo and Mazda 6, as well as an attempt to beat a speed camera using three sports cars. Although it only attracted 2.43 million viewers on its debut outing, Top Gear would soon rise to the top of BBC Two's programming and become an international sensation in the years that followed.
As revealed by director Richard Porter in his 2015 autobiography And On That Bombshell: Inside the Madness and Genius of Top Gear, there were two earlier pilots filmed in August 2002 which never saw the light of day as they were deemed unwatchable and almost led to the voluntary dismissal of presenter Richard Hammond.
Following the announced return of Jeremy Clarkson in March of 2002, on top of his return to the show's associated magazine in late 2001, filming for the relaunched series of Top Gear began early in the Summer of 2002, with a road test of the Renault Vel Satis.
The initial pilot featured French footballer David Ginola as the Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car, and contained the aforementioned review of the Vel Satis, which was later delayed until the sixth episode of Series 1. According to Porter, the initial studio set was comprised of a large, round steel cage which separated the presenters from the audience. In addition, an autocue was used to keep the presenters on-track with relevant discussion, rather than allowing them to speak their mind. As the format was yet to air and the presenters had not yet settled into their roles, Ginola was under the impression that he would be a permanent presenter of Top Gear rather than a one-time guest. He would chime in with his thoughts on each segment, though this was something he was instructed to do. Vestiges of this can be seen in the eventual series premiere which went to air, where guest Harry Enfield was asked his thoughts on a vegetable-oil fuelled Volvo before his lap in the Suzuki Liana was screened.
After watching the pilot, it was decided to reshoot the episode from scratch, without Ginola, an autocue, or any of the set pieces from the first pilot, with cars being the only objects inside the hangar. The camera work on this was deemed substandard by Porter due to the lack of studio lighting and resulted in Richard Hammond walking out halfway through production, exclaiming that he didn't want to continue filming. Filming eventually concluded and Porter deemed it as worse than the original, meaning that by September of 2002, a definitive pilot episode was yet to be shot. Series 1 of Top Gear would premiere a month later.
As he was not a presenter for the first series, James May would continuously ask to watch the pilot episodes after several years of having served as a presenter, and was always told no. The tapes containing the pilots were locked in a drawer and never seen again.
It is possible that parts of one or both pilots were included in Series 1, Episode 6 which featured the Vel Satis review, along with members of the Renault Owner's Club. However, neither pilot episode has seen the light of day since their initial filming. Since the pilots' public disclosure in 2015, it is increasingly unlikely that they will ever be seen due to the majority of the crew who worked on Top Gear at the time having left the BBC following Clarkson's dismissal.
In 2020, LMW user AlexGRFan97 discovered that around 5 seconds of the first pilot episode's footage was included in the Series 1 finale. During the Awards ceremony for the "Weirdest Renault" award, a brief clip of a red Renault Avantime is shown. If one looks to the background, a round steel structure housing the audience is visible, matching Porter's description of the first pilot's set pieces.
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- BBC News article on the cancellation of Top Gear. Retrieved 22 Sept '19
- Genome article on the final episodes of Top Gear. Retrieved 22 Sept '19
- Porter, R. (2015). And on that bombshell. Orion, pp.31-37.
- BBC News article on Jeremy Clarkson's return to Top Gear. Retrieved 04 Oct '20
- Magazine Exchange page on Top Gear's October 2001 issue. Retrieved 04 Oct '20