I just finished The Man in the White Suit by Ben Collins and I found it to be an interesting look into the life of a man that landed in an amazing job on TopGear UK, and a telling look at the life of TopGear behind the scenes.
I was one of the many people saying “why?!” after I heard that The Stig published a book about his experiences on TopGear and revealed his identity and effectively lost his job. It seemed like career suicide to do this and lose this sweet gig racing some of the rarest cars on the planet and hooning some of the funniest moments in car television for an audience of 350 million people worldwide.
After reading the book I understand his motivations a bit more. In the press Ben Collins has said that he revealed this information in order to better move on in his career rather than be taunted by Jeremy and the other presenters about the difference in pay and benefits. And, I agree that taunting or lording things over the heads of your employees will produce resentment that can’t be undone and eventually things always end badly.
Reading this book has surprised me though, about the man who was The Stig and about how TopGear UK is actually run on a daily basis.
I think the first thing people realized after hearing that The Stig had written the book (after they were initially upset to lose the stig on the show) was that they had never heard of Ben Collins and most of the speculation up until that point was about F1 drivers in this role.
The truth seems that while Ben Collins was talented and up and coming in the racing circuit ranks of England he did not make it to F1 or stay in any one race style for that long. His race story started late in life (teenage years) and was mostly considered too old for positions with teams or had bad timing/luck with the teams he was on. But that is the story for 99% of race car drivers isn’t it? We just never hear about them so it seems unusual.
So, TopGear coming up as an opportunity was a blessing in a way, almost as much as it was a curse. What it seemed to be was a very-very part time job that despite the risk involved, would not provide enough regular pay to live on. The calls for doing appearances seemed irregular and in order to make ends meet after ditching his marketing career in favor of race driving, he had to enlist in the army in order to pay the bills.
Something does strike me as slightly crazy about Ben Collins knowing that at one point he was working in Marketing, racing cars, doing stunt work on films, enlisted in the Army and doing TG all at once. Who does this? It isn’t possible. That is like burning the candle at four ends. Nobody can keep that up and not end up dead somewhere. (yes, marketing is deadly)
On the same note Ben has also had some amazing skill/luck combinations that have mostly kept him out of the hospital/emergency room with a racing, stunt driving and military career. He only details one serious crash injury and with all those miles. It seems amazing it has only happened once considering all the crashes in racing that you see on TV.
On other notes it is surprising that in the Top Gear early days many of the stunts and shots they want to get with the Stig are vaguely defined and not at all specked/planned out from a safety or logistical perspective before Ben Collins gets there. It seems to be all managers and idea people pointing at him to figure it out and do the stunts without killing himself. This knack for figuring it out and nicely working for people who don’t really know what they’re doing landed him in his fifth career as a stunt driver and that has worked out in providing some choice movie driving roles, but again not regular salaried work.
I don’t know if I identify with the side of Ben Collins that puts himself through grueling Army military exercises running marathons through the un-marked wilderness while practically starving… but the side that shows juggling act of career with ambition is one that most people face and can relate to, so that angle in his writing works. I think most people have genuinely appreciated the creativity, skill and tenacity that he has brought to The Stig role over the last six years (this was way longer than the time the last stig was able to remain anonymous).
Do I think Ben did the right or wrong thing in reveling his identity? I think he realized that this job like most had an expiration date on it, and with the press on his heels he would be fired eventually when they published some weird proof of his identity without his knowledge. I think he just wanted to get in front of that and get the real story out before it got ahead of him and he lost his job as a result. Everyone wants some kind of control over their career and he hasn’t been allowed any in the last 6 years by taking extreme measures to remain anonymous and it was hampering his ability to get legitimate work so I can understand the motivation on his part.
I’m not sure what the BBC, Andy Willman, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the TopGear staff should do about this. It is obvious that the unknown driver element is crucial to the Stig character but there are serious gaps in their understanding of what constitutes a full time job. Either find different drivers to freelance all the time or find one to employ with regular pay and benefits. Even if that means they have a desk job the rest of the time or something. You will have far less resentment between presenters if there is more fairness in the compensation structure of the show. That said, keeping secrets in a TV show that is seen by 350 million people in the camera phone internet connected world is going to get more and more difficult. The person tasked with this needs to be compensated/rewarded as much for their secrecy and confidentiality as their driving skill since that is half the work.
I hope that the BBC and TopGear can come up with a solution for this because I certainly can’t. It is weird from all angles and delicate for the BBC as well as the Driver and the fans of the show. I will still enjoy the show regardless though, because of the creativity and general nuttyness of what they continue to do.
Yet, we are dealing with a completley different issue here in our family this week so with a slight change of topic I’d like to remember our car past here a bit. We are mourning the loss of one of our dear friends here that was a hoon-tastic car loving, Granada driving part of our high school years back in the 90’s. This reminds me that there are guys (and girls) all over America that could and would be great TG presenters (and Stigs) because of their love of cars and of pushing the boundaries with them (and laughing at them).
In comparison, looking at the issues facing the BBC and Ben Collins, it is hard to identify with either side at this point, because they have both had so much success with their shows/careers already and probably have worked something out within five minutes. I’m not sure it is worth getting upset about.
We had just as many laughs with the guys from DGS high school and their Camaros, Mustangs, Fords and Imports over the years as TG has on a daily basis. Now years later it is sad that we’ve seen that some of them have had some serious issues in their lives and in this case we’ve lost one of the best guys to ever take apart a motor. We will miss Edgar Schuster and always remember his 8-track stayin-alive tapes, the 70’s white Granada and the snow tires with spikes doing sparky burnouts while driving my brother to school in 1994-95. Almost all of the four-corners guys showed up to pay their respects this weekend and say goodbye. For my brother, things just won’t be the same without his friend Ed. I’ve heard there is a VHS tape floating around of some hoontastic stuff, maybe worth uploading at some point. Maybe some car-sledding?
Why is it that the brightest stars go out the fastest?