The Stig and I
Chris Evans of BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show revealed he's working on a "secret 'Top Gear' film" despite having vehemently denied he was set to take over from Jeremy Clarkson after the motoring journalist was sacked for punching producer Oisin Tymon earlier this year. In order to get the inside line, I spoke exclusively to the man with no voice and no phone number, a man who naturally faces magnetic north, never blinks and roams around the woods at night foraging for wolves. Some say that he has no understanding of clouds, and that his ear wax tastes like Turkish Delight; all we know is he’s called the Stig, or Ben Collins to his friends.
It was bizarre to watch Ben Collins wearing his famous white overalls without the iconic, white, Simpson helmet guarding his identity, as we met in Dublin earlier this week. For those of you who don’t know what I’m on about, here’s a little explainer: BBC’s Top Gear employs an anonymous, silent, racing driver to test super cars on their track and coach celebrities for their turn in the reasonably priced car. Collins was the Stig for eight years until an alleged leak from the BBC led to an article identifying him in Radio Times magazine. Now he works as a movie stunt man, racing driver and still makes the odd appearance in the Top Gear live shows.
When asked about Chris Evan’s recent revelation Collins appeared completely unfazed as he said: “I predicted that Chris Evans would be the man for the Top Gear job, he’s a car expert, he’s a great bloke, he’s funny, he’s a strong enough character to anchor a show like that.
“I think in terms of the interview part, if it was a format remotely like the old one, I’m sure he would be fantastic, and he is encyclopaedic about cars.
“He knows more than anybody I have ever met, old cars and new.
Collins coached Evans on the Top Gear test track in 2005 and 2009. “He has a genuine passion", said Collins.“He is also completely fearless, when it comes to the driving. When I coached him he was fearless. He was the only person I know who doesn’t try to slow down while spinning at 100 mph backwards, he just laughs. I said to him, you have no sense of self preservation, which he said “yea I agree with that as a life statement. “
Collins then made the point that in order to be a successful Top Gear host the viewer must feel your passion for the job. “I think he would enjoy it as much as anything and I think it’s key for the audience to engage with that.
The former Stig sees a big future in store for both Top Gear and its previous presenters. “If we’re thinking positive we might get two new shows out of it because Top Gear will carry on, it’s been running since the 70s, since the days of Noel Edmunds. “It existed before the current presenter line-up and it will exist in some new shape or form. I just hope they make a show as good as or better than the last one. I think Top Gear as a brand is amazing, one way or another they will make fun with pretty cars and it will be a good show in another format. Meanwhile I think Jeremy and the other two will go off and form a new group and get filming on an American network or something like that.”
The former Stig was adamant that he had “not been approached for the new show” although he had appeared with the trio in the recent Clarkson, Hammond and May live shows. “I played the tramp Stig, who they found me sleeping rough drinking Methylated Spirits. I was rescued by the presenters and we made quite a funny film.
When questioned about Jeremy Clarkson’s recent sacking by the BBC Collins’ point was stern but fair. “Filming can be very intense, but it’s not an excuse to do what he did and I think he knows that, he knows it was a mistake.
An alleged leak from the BBC to Radio Times magazine sparked the end for Collins career as the Stig. “I never wanted to leave the job, it was too much fun” admitted Collins, “but in the end I knew that since my identity was in the papers it would be the end and by the time I’d been there six or seven years.” The rumours were starting to gather and things like Wikipedia had formed.”There was loads of stuff out there linking me to the show and then in the end the Radio Times broadcasted it with a front page splash. It was a BBC title, meaning it was a real own goal. At that point all the other papers ran the story thinking that if the BBC were happy to leak it then it was fair game. I stayed on for a year after that, but really the writing was on the wall, if I didn’t leave my days were numbered. I thought I’d rather walk out with my head held high and have fun with it rather than let it just happen.”
The original black Stig, Perry McCarthy, quit in 2003 and his character was shot off the end of an aircraft carrier in a modified Jaguar XJS. Collins had wanted a similar send off for his Stig, but it wasn’t to happen. “I’d have been well up for being shot off the end of a carrier,” he gleefully exclaimed. “I approached the subject with my boss and I told him that I planned to leave and I said ‘look lets work this out, kill me off in a spectacular fashion or whatever you want to do, but let’s come up with a plan. Unfortunately that’s just not the way it went down and the BBC decided to go legal, which was horrendous and silly. But in the end I won that case and I got to move on, I’ve had a great time since, I’ve rebuilt my bridges with the BBC and the guys I worked with.”
Life as the Stig wasn’t all roasted tyres and white jumpsuits as the realities of keeping a secret identity could at times be a touch isolating. “At the beginning nobody knew except for two people, Andy Wilman the executive producer and Jim Wisemen, my good friend and, well, handler I suppose, or my wrangler, every Stig has to have a wrangler and he was great . He was one of the young guns that created the show in the first place and I used to wear a balaclava to work, so genuinely the camera crews had no idea who this voice was. They were always going to find out, once you’ve been there for up to a year and everyone can recognise your voice a few key people started to know. Then you get in to accounts and insurance and signing documents and all this other junk that burdens human day to day existence and I was not immune from that so that eventually there was over 100 people at the BBC who knew who I was and it started to get a little leaky. Going to work as the Stig I would have to check the mirrors to make sure I wasn’t being followed, I’d drive a fairly innocuous car and I would park somewhere away from where I was going to work. We had a security gate at the track in Dunsfold, but I would never go in if I was being followed by another car. I’d always plan my route. I’d bang the balaclava on, say good morning to the security guard, who used to laugh and wave me through. Then I would park in the middle of nowhere. The test area was a former Harrier test and development centre back in the day so there was lots of pilot changing rooms and whatnot, so I found a good one, which was remote and I used to get changed in there and just loiter. If I was not being filmed I would go and hide in there. I’m kind of antisocial, so it was okay. I enjoyed the job, what can you do? I had a great time there and I’ve got no regrets, I had to go, and I left, and maybe someday I’ll get to go back, you never know.”
Collins knows the identity of the new Stig Mk 3, but wouldn’t reveal who was faster. “The new Stig is good, I’ve raced with him. "I know who it is and bless him I read it in a newspaper within a couple of months of him taking the job, which is tough, but there’s always the rumour mill. I do know him and he’s a very fast driver and he does a great job there."
Ben Collins is not stranger to secrecy having allegedly served in the SAS-R (reserve), the same ultra-secret regiment Bear Grylls was in. (Pauses….) “Well, I was a member of the TA (Territorial Army) and so that’s what I can say about that, and my experience of the army, which was limited really, was great and it taught me a lot of lessons and I got to get involved in some interesting things.
Collins was stumped when it came to who was the fastest Top Gear host. “I honestly don’t know which of the three, now former Top Gear presenters, would be the fastest. “I would like to see them all in the Suzuki Liana at the same time, but I think if you did that there would be a crash at the first corner and that would be the end of it and we’d still be none the wiser."
If you’ve ever wondered what supercar the Stig would own and use as his daily driver, the answer is the mid engined, V10 powered Porsche Carrera GT. It wasn’t the first time the 40-year-old race driver had graced Irish shores, having raced a Le Man’s car at Mondello and appeared with Top Gear for the live shows in 2012. “Mondello is awesome, I love the track, and I’ve been here a few times with GT cars”, he said.
Morgan Flanagan Creagh