Parts 1 & 2 of the Top Gear Special Burma aired this past fortnight – and what a joy it was to finally see the end product. As the Fixer on the latest Top Gear Special, it was an amazing experience - all of the hard work and many hours of footage, cut into a hilarious 2 part series – it was a real joy. But it does leave me wondering if I’ll be allowed back into Myanmar, with all the ‘horse-crop’ references throughout the show.
The first appreciative – ‘skin-pinching’ moment was being introduced to the Top Gear family by Nick Springate, a senior world producer with the BBC. I was pretty chuffed, because if I was on Nick’s radar, I was obviously doing something ‘right’ in the region. Then to be asked by Alex Renton, the Top Gear series producer, to come on board, embed yourself in Myanmar for three months and take the lead on local support, government liaison, scouting, research, logistics and production support, was an utter buzz in itself.
But it is a double-edged sword – being offered this gig, you know exactly what spoils await, but to get there…phew….you know there will be blood, sweat and tears shed to make it all happen. And in a split second, the initial doubt and pressures starts to set in, before you’ve even had a chance to utter the words ‘yes’.
My mind was racing – “I can’t believe the BIGGEST TV show in the world has asked me to help them!?” “Can I really do this?!?” and then the silence is broken by “yes, of course I can” (Still freaking out from the role you’ve just committed to) – From that moment on, the following 12 weeks were a complete blur…
It was immediately evident to me, that Asia Film Fixers, was not going to be able to handle this job alone. The complexities of the Itinerary, the requirements for remote food/parcel drops – It was going to require an experienced local partner. I immediately engaged our travel and logistics partner at Khiri Travel www.khiri.com to assist Asia Film Fixers with the production support of the Top Gear Special. For the best part of 12 weeks, we jointly managed the requirements of the job, drafting letters of request from numerous government departments, attending dozens of meetings on behalf of the production, scouting locations and assisting with the purchase of those special ‘trucks’ – it was an amazing team effort on behalf of all at Asia Film Fixers and Khiri Travel.
Sam Wallaston, from the Guardian (UK) wrote: It must have been a vast – yes, almost military – operation: commandeering vehicles, fixers, setting up stunts, paying people off, clearing up, the spilt fruit, the bricks, the trees, the snapped overhead lines, the horses. But the result is, I’m afraid (I keep apologising, sorry), a very entertaining hour of television. Two hours in fact – there’s more next weekend and it looks equally fabulous, I’m afraid (again!). You can see his article here - http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/mar/10/top-gear-review-jeremy-clarkson
It was decided by the executive producers for the show, that this year the presenters would drive trucks. “Great” I voiced, but deep down knowing that they would be a complete ‘pain in the rectum’. Trucks?!? – a form of transport that I know completely nothing about… Within a couple of hours of checking ‘used-truck’ prices in Yangon, I couldn’t believe how a forty year old truck, could retain so much of its value. The prices were ludicrous! It was quickly explained to me by Khiri Travel General Manager Edwin Briels, that due to the trade embargoes placed on Myanmar decades earlier, that any type of vehicle was a huge capital investment, and as such, retained their value, not matter how many panels, fan-belts, gaskets and/or pistons had been replaced.
Additionally, one of the first tasks was to work out the route – how to get presenters from Yangon, into the Golden Triangle, and then off to the River Kwai – to build a bridge…and hopefully get over it.
There were numerous meetings, suggested routes, and the one we all felt was the most appealing and interesting, but also the most difficult to arrange, was a route that took the presenters and entourage through central and east Myanmar, directly through the Shan State – an area which has been in an intermittent civil war for decades. And a cease-fire had only been in place for less than two years – the perfect ingredients for an interesting location for the Top Gear team. Could we even get the permission from the Burmese government? How would the Shan state army react? Would we all end up as hostages? Would we get access at all?
During the scouting / recce stage of the Top Gear special planning – I had to travel with my local translator Dicky and photographer J.P. Klovstad, into the teak forested area of the Bago Plateau – we had to find a suitable road to travel from the western side of the plateau to the eastern side, an area of the Bago state where very few, if any, westerners had traveled before - this is the part of episode 1 where Jeremy, Richard and James have taken the wrong road. Clarkson “We’re on the wrong road, we are heading to Bangladesh!”. Over the preceding 10 weeks of the shoot, i traveled this area 3 times in search of suitable roads, overnight locations and river crossings. If anyone is wanting a ‘real’ raw and authentic journey in Myanmar, I thoroughly recommend this sidetrack.
The most amazing part of the Top Gear Special was getting the final approval to access to the Shan State – an area that has virtually been ‘cut-off’ from the rest of the world for decades. An area known for its fierce rivalry with the Burmese Army, and is also home of the ‘Golden Triangle’, It is an area of around 367,000 square miles (950,000 km2) that overlaps the mountains of three countries of Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Along with Afghanistan in the Golden Crescent, it has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas of Asia and of the world since the 1920s. Most of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle until the early 21st century when Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer.
Bragging rights – I can say that myself, Chris Hale (Top Gear Producer), Kit Lynch-Robinson (Director), Mr G (Security and spiritual advisor) and Bob Ives (Truck and vehicle specialist) were the first ‘ever’ foreigners to be allowed access and travel through the Shan State since the end of WWII! How were we the first? (I hear you ask – and state the fact that the presenters claimed to be the first) – Well in television, you need to know where you’re going – and also, once you get there, what’s going to be good T.V? The five of us were the advance party – the scouts! We recce’d the Shan State for a week, finding the best locations and ensuring that we could safely travel from one side to the other…. but please keep that one to yourself.
More in Part 2 next week.
Terry Gordon – The Film Fixer