Whether it is trying to blast a Lotus sports car off the road with an Apache helicopter, or using an RAF Typhoon to race the world’s fastest road car, no series of Top Gear would be complete without some sort of high-octane cameo from our armed forces.
With a regular audience of more than 5 million viewers (and a further 350 million worldwide) defence chiefs are more than aware of the BBC show’s potential as a recruiting sergeant at a time when new recruits are very much in demand.
Which might explain why the Ministry of Defence is so keen to help out on the show. The sheer scale of the MoD's cooperation with Top Gear was revealed last night in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Press Association which showed that military personnel have been involved in filming the equivalent of 141 man days, whilst civilian officials spent 48 days working on items for the programme.
Defence officials did not say how much money the stunts with Top Gear had cost the tax payer and have insisted that they took place within set training days at no extra expense. Over the past five years equipment worth billions of pounds has been used in a series of major setpieces which have usually revolved around soldiers firing at or racing fast cars driven by the show’s main presenter Jeremy Clarkson.
Ministry of Defence officials quickly defended their involvement in the show which they said was a valuable way of raising the public’s awareness of what the armed forces do. But the revelations come at a time when service personnel are becoming increasingly critical at what they believe is a lack of critical equipment on the front line in Afghanistan.
Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, questioned whether the Top Gear appearances were a valuable use of the armed forces’ time. “Given how overstretched the Army’s resources are, you have to wonder if this is the best use of time, troops and equipment,” he said. “These filming sessions may only cost the same as any other training exercise, but filming Top Gear is hardly the same standard of training as the troops normally have to pursue. Chasing Jeremy Clarkson round in a tank may be good fun, but it’s hardly the top priority for military resources at the minute.”
Last week there was widespread anger following the revelation through another Freedom of Information request which showed that civil servants at the Ministry of Defence were paid £47m in bonuses during the first seven months of the financial year.
Keen to avoid similar criticism last night an MoD spokesman insisted that “in no circumstances” were resources diverted from operations for the events.
“The filming utilised scheduled training hours and resources which would have been consumed irrespective of the BBC filming or not, and were therefore used at no additional cost to MoD,” he said.
“Having these events appear on one of the most popular television programmes in the UK was an excellent opportunity to raise public awareness of the Armed Forces and enable greater understanding and support for our sailors, soldiers and aircrew.”
Officials insist that involving the army in such a prime time show is actually a very efficient way of advertising the armed forces compared to a standard television commercial which would cost anything up to £50,000 per 30 seconds.
Top Gear’s most prominent presenter Jeremy Clarkson is a staunch supporter of the armed forces and became a founding patron of the Help for Heroes charity alongside his wife Francie and General Sir Richard Dannatt.
Last night the revelation of many military man hours have gone in to Top Gear was causing much amusement amongst personnel on the Army Rumour Service web forum. One soldier joked: “It’s good PR for the army…and a pity they can’t use real bullets against Clarkson and Co.”
* The armed forces’ Top Gear debut began in 2004 with Jeremy Clarkson racing a Lotus Exige against an Apache helicopter. The idea was to see if the Lotus could do a lap of the Top Gear test track before the Apache’s sophisticated missile radar locked on to it. The Lotus did manage to outrun the helicopter although the pilot later admitted in real life he would have simply switched to the Apache’s canon and cut the car in half.
n With a top speed of 253.5mph the Bugatti Veyron is the world’s fastest road car. So Richard Hammond decided to race the RAF’s newest fighter jet, the Typhoon, in a two mile drag race. The Typhoon won.
n Unable to decide between a Porsche and a Mercedes, in 2005 Clarkson decided to elist the help of the Irish Guards. He drove through an abandoned village, they shot at him (with blanks), and whichever car got him through the village with the fewest confirmed hits would win. In the Porsche Clarkson was hit six times, in the Mercedes he was hit 13 times.