I’ve worked in TV production for more than a decade and been fortunate to film all over the world and work with some brilliantly talented presenters. But I wasn’t remotely surprised to hear of Jeremy Clarkson’s recent assault of Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon; nor, sadly, by the avalanche of threats heaped on Tymon following Clarkson’s sacking by the BBC. Those who work in the TV industry know that difficult presenters are part of the territory, victims of their own fame and a society that has become too much of a slave to celebrity.
I’ve never been physically assaulted by a presenter but I have experienced some breathtakingly unreasonable behaviour. One morning, whilst filming in remote jungle miles from the nearest town or proper hotel, one presenter became incandescent about the standard of our accommodation. ‘I want you to clean my room and find me new sheets, or I’m leaving the shoot today,’ David* yelled, plump cheeks wobbling in fury. A few hours later the local fixer and I had exchanged filming kit for mops and marigolds and were furiously scrubbing floors, cleaning the loo and making the bed. As a producer, this wasn’t exactly part of my job description.
But our efforts were to no avail: the following morning there was an even more violent eruption. ‘Either we stay at a good hotel tonight or I’m flying home immediately’ David seethed, stamping one foot like a spoilt child. With 10 days of the shoot still to go, losing the talent wasn’t an option so, late that night, we drove hours out of our way to reach the nearest 4* hotel. The second we arrived he was on the phone to the broadcaster, complaining that we’d forced him to stay in brothels run by paedophile rings (an absurd lie), drive in the dark (at his insistence) AND run over a dog (an unfortunate accident arising from driving in the dark). Minutes later he was sipping a gin and tonic on the veranda, beaming at the crew with a sickly smile. As usual, when the programme was aired our demonic adversary was undetectable behind a gushy, caring on-screen façade.
A while later I worked with a presenter who made David look like Mahatma Ghandi. On the first day of a gruelling foreign shoot it became clear that our star was borderline psychotic. Flash floods had forced us to change our filming location at the last minute and John had to run through a stream he ‘hadn’t been briefed about,’ causing him to instantly lose it. ‘No one told me I’d get my new boots wet. Fire the fucking director NOW’ he screamed at his producer, a stoop-shouldered, knock-kneed, chinless sycophant John had insisted accompany us on the shoot. Turning to the director he continued, ‘I’m going to fucking chin you, I’m going to fucking knock you out.’ The matter was only resolved when we promised to take him shopping for new boots the next day.
By the end of the shoot John had threatened to kill the director so many times it became laughable, screamed that he was going to ‘fucking waste’ two innocent people he thought were following him at an airport and, in a fit of paranoia, ‘borrowed’ a stash of hunting rifles from someone we were staying with, sleeping with them under his pillow. It was like travelling with a live hand grenade and never knowing when you’d hit an unexpected bump and knock the pin out.
During another incident, his producer – whose only apparent job was to make the crew look bad and himself look good – insisted I drive sixty miles to get some petrol, in the dark, through an area notorious for robberies. When I reasoned that it would be better to go in the morning he went purple with rage. ‘I don’t give a fuck what happens to you, if you don’t get in that car NOW I’m pulling John off the shoot,’ he shouted. The message was clear, it didn’t matter if one of us was killed or injured, as long as John was OK.
Once again, when the series aired Twitter was awash with swooning praise for the star. I don’t think the viewing public would have believed what had happened even if we’d told them.
Why, you might well be asking, do crews put up with such behaviour? Firstly, it’s vital to point out that not all presenters are like this; many are delightful, hard-working, charming, humble, genuinely lovely people on and off camera. They carry their own bags, help the crew with equipment, charm the pants off contributors and send us thank you letters afterwards. If you’re reading this, you know who you are…
Secondly, on the most part, shoots are fantastically fun. You have extraordinary access to stories, people and places and work with wonderful crews whom you become tightly bonded to. I’ve trekked through the jungles of Borneo, been metres from rhinos, elephants, orang-utans and leopards, stayed with tribes, driven across the Andes and interviewed surviving Battle of Britain pilots. Who wouldn’t want to do a job like this?
Thirdly, most people in the TV industry are freelance – not kowtowing to the petty demands of talent could cost you future work.
Sadly, I can’t see how behaviour such as Clarkson’s, David’s and John’s is going to stop. Our obsession with celebrity means it’s near impossible to get programmes commissioned without a Big Name attached. And even though certain presenters are widely despised by crews and commissioners alike, as long as their ratings are high, they’ll keep getting work. The hordes of knuckle-dragging Twitter trolls attacking poor Tymon exemplify our society’s infatuation with famous people, but all of us are partly to blame, and perhaps us crews the most. We carry presenter’s bags, fetch their drinks, allow them to fly First Class and pander to their every whim. The more we do this, the more of these monsters we’ll create.
*All names and sexes have been obscured.