Okay, so you may not have heard of him. But Andy Wilman, unobtrusive as he is in his baggy jeans and faded black T-shirt, is the executive producer of Top Gear, the man credited with rescuing the show from the scrap heap, and the backroom powerhouse who might be described as Jeremy Clarkson’s other half.
When Top Gear roars back onto our screens next Sunday it promises to be “bigger and better” and will no doubt draw even more viewers than the average 4.2m per show it clocked up last season. It is now the most popular programme on BBC2 and has come a long way since being axed in 2001 after a slump in viewing figures and a general consensus that the show had run out of steam. Relaunched in 2002, Top Gear is now shown in at least 20 countries, from Iceland to Singapore.
The face of what has now become a global brand is, of course, Sunday Times columnist Jeremy Clarkson. But Wilman is the one at the helm.
Wilman prefers to see it as a partnership, founded on a friendship that goes all the way back to when the two were pupils at Repton school in Derbyshire, where Wilman recalls Jeremy “always getting into trouble” and being good at “telling tall tales”.
“But we were two school years apart so we weren’t exactly best mates,” he adds. They went their separate ways before bumping into each other again when Clarkson, then in his twenties, was sharing a “filthy” flat in Fulham, southwest London.
“The ‘vomitorium’,” recalls Wilman with a shudder. “That place was foul. The carpets were so dirty they could move from room to room by themselves. I slept on the sofa a few times and somehow lived to tell the tale. It had springs that threatened to pop out at any moment and get you in the gut.”
Like Clarkson, Wilman cut his teeth on car magazines then switched to television and worked on several shows throughout the 1990s before hitting upon the idea of relaunching Top Gear — the programme that had originally made Clarkson’s name and which he first presented in 1989.
“Around about that time the BBC was struggling to know how to use Jeremy,” says Wilman. “He was being offered awful stuff like ‘Britain’s Biggest Cushions’ or ‘The Top 10 Nicest Curry Spices’, I forget what exactly. When Top Gear went off the air we saw an opportunity.”
Out went the tired old format and in came a live studio audience, the Stig, the racetrack, the Cool Wall and other madcap ideas, from caravan conkers (hanging caravans from cranes and smashing them together) to a messy race to Brighton in three spluttering old Porsches.
Highlights of the new season include a race between a Mazda MX-5 and a greyhound — “It’s about the second-fastest accelerating animal after the cheetah, but we were too scared to get one of those” — to a hill climb pitching a mountaineer against Clarkson in an Audi RS 4.
“The climber has to try to scale 1,000ft faster than Jeremy can drive 60 miles up a winding mountain road,” says Wilman. “These mountaineers are absolutely insane. I’m not telling you who wins but they were pretty evenly matched.”
Wilman says everyone involved has ideas for the show — “Richard Hammond is always coming up with new ways to kill himself.” And he compares the presenters to characters in Last of the Summer Wine — “James (May) is Compo” — who occasionally have spats “like three old dance troupe queens”.
Surprisingly for the man who transformed Top Gear, Wilman doesn’t exactly live the dream. He is the unabashed owner of a four-year-old Honda Jazz and claims “air-con and a decent stereo” are his only requirements for the motoring good life
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016