How Belfast bent over backwards for Top Gear
Hoist a vehicle to the top of a massive Harland & Wolff crane? You got it. Seal off a road, open up an underground sewerage system, supply a massive passenger ferry? Not a problem.
Who, might you think, would get this kind of VIP-and-then-some treatment from Belfast?
It wasn’t a member of the Royal Family. Nor had it anything to do with Hillary Clinton’s imminent visit to the city.
No, it was all for TV motormouth Jeremy Clarkson and his Top Gear mates. They were in the city’s docklands area this week filming a series of “wacky” stunts for the show.
The regal-like treatment even extended to something of a media blackout.
Don’t expect anyone in the BBC to come clean on what was going on. And as for how much it was costing hard-pressed licence fee payers — don’t even bother asking.
One of their most dramatic stunts involved trying — unsuccessfully — to fire a Renault Twingo off the docks and into the back of a Stena HSS passenger ferry. It plunged into the water instead and was fished out by a crane.
Bravely breaching the secrecy surrounding the filming, one source said the team had crashed “tons of Twingos” in the course of the last few days.
There had been plans to fly a stunt helicopter under one of the big cranes at Harland & Wolff shipyards but these were abandoned on health and safety grounds. Instead, a Twingo was hoisted up and parked on the top of the vast crane.
“They have service cranes which are used to bring up oil and parts for the big diesel electric engines in the crane and one of these was used to hoist up the Twingo — there was enough room up there to park. It was filmed over a period of a few hours; it didn’t take that long,” the source said.
“Harland & Wolff has just completed a complete offshore transformer platform for a windfarm and filming coincided with that, so they were in a position to help them out.”
Across the harbour, stunts was filmed at Ballast Quay and the old Stena Terminal, involving more Twingos and a milkfloat.
Referring to the HSS spectacle, a source said: “They were able to fit filming in between crossings. A bit of work needed to be done on the ferry anyway and it was held back to do that.”
Belfast Harbour Police, meanwhile, sealed off Heron Road at the Harbour Industrial Estate so that the Top Gear team could stage drag racing there.
It is believed that some filming also took place earlier this year at Thompson Dock, where RMS Titanic was built almost 100 years ago. And it’s understood that Top Gear was invited by Northern Ireland Water to drive a car along the giant state-of-the-art sewer pipe being built as part of the Belfast Sewers Project.
One industry insider pointed out that many of the services provided to the Top Gear team would have come for free. It’s also likely the army of Renault Twingos would have been supplied for free by the motor trade.
“A ball park estimate, counting crews, hotels, transport — you’re talking about at least £100,000,” he said. “If you’re to count the cost of support from car companies and other companies it’s at least double that — think of the cost of hiring a crane for the day.
“But there are always pressures on keeping the cost down and this will be viewed as wanton destruction of perfectly good property. It’s probably ill-timed and ill-judged considering the state of the economy.”
An overall cost of £200,000 adds up to the £150 licence fee paid by 1,333 households.
Like the show itself, the expenditure will divide opinions.
The whole visit could conceivably take up less than 10 minutes’ screen time when the show is finally broadcast.
For her part, a Belfast tourism official sees Top Gear’s visit to the city as great news. Anne McMullan, director of communications for the Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau, said: “The programme is fun, vibrant and exciting — much like Belfast itself — and will transmit to a massive audience of 350m people in 90 countries around the world, not to mention further publicity through online channels such as YouTube.
“The decision by the producers to film here shows that Belfast has come a very long way in the last 10 years and is fast climbing the list of Europe's most interesting cities and attractive destinations.”