By now you all probably know about the perilous adventure Top Gear went through in Argentina a few days ago. It started with an angry mob protesting the number plate on Jeremy’s car, which they said referred to the Falklands war, and escalated into a mini riot in which the presenters’ cars were damaged and they were forced to flee the country clandestinely.
Now Jeremy Clarkson decided to clear the air on this latest controversy he is said to have caused and tell “the only accurate account” of the story in his column in Sunday Times. Before he did that though, he published a couple of spicy tweets that could only make things worse:
We had planned a good ending for the show. But thanks to the government's foolishness, it's now even better.
— Jeremy Clarkson (@JeremyClarkson) October 4, 2014
So according to Jeremy, the incident had nothing to do with the H982FKL number plates, as it was removed from the car in Chile. Jezza believes the protest, which was followed by an ambush and a chase, was essentially a trap set by the local government to embarrass the British. The scale of the whole affair was also a lot bigger than previously known. Jeremy says lives were actually at risk and that they had to hid under a bed to avoid confrontation with the protesters.
Clarkson Speaks on Top Gear Argentina Incident,
IT ALL started to go wrong while we were filming on a mountain in the world’s southernmost ski resort, just outside the city of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.
We knew Ushuaia was the port from which the General Belgrano had sailed on its doomed voyage at the start of the Falklands War and we knew that anti-British feelings still run hard and deep, here at the bottom of the world.
As a result we were on our best behaviour. We were posing for all photographs, and happily accepting requests for autographs. The sun was out. All was calm. We were even referring to the slopes as “gradients”. Certainly there was no suggestion that we had walked into the middle of a war we thought had ended 32 years ago.
But then came word from the bottom of the mountain. Some protesters had arrived and were keen to let everyone know they were unhappy with our visit. Our producers tried to explain that we were there to film at the ski resort and then to host a game of car football in the city. England v Argentina. The Bottom of the World Cup we were going to call it.
They were not listening. They were angry. They said that they were not violent but that a group of men from the local truckers’ trade union were on their way. And that when they arrived things would definitely turn nasty. Our local fixers advised that we stop filming immediately, leave the cars on the gradients and go to a nearby hotel.
“This is a mafia state,” said one onlooker. “Best you do as you’re told.”
So we did, but going to the hotel did not work. A gang of people were waiting there. They said they were war veterans, which seemed unlikely as most were in their twenties and thirties. Bonnets were banged. Abuse was hurled. The police arrived and immediately breathalysed Andy Wilman, our executive producer — we’re not sure why.
Richard Hammond, James May and I bravely hid under the beds in a researcher’s room while protesters went through the hotel looking for us. The car park was filling up. More were arriving. This was starting to get ugly.
Back at home, newspapers were saying I had caused the problem by arriving in this political tinderbox in a Porsche bearing the numberplate H982FKL, which if you turned the H into a 1 and transposed the K and the L, could have been seen as a reference to the 1982 Falklands War.
This, however, was untrue. The car had indeed arrived in Argentina with those plates, but two days into our journey, when we were in Chile, a Twitter user pointed out the problem so we removed them.
When we arrived in Tierra del Fuego the car had no plate at all on the front and a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers on the back. And no, it wasn’t W3WON. Which it would have been if I’d been trying to ruffle feathers.
The numberplate then wasn’t the issue. But something was causing more and more people to arrive at the hotel. Twitter was rammed with messages from locals saying they wanted blood. One said they were going to barbecue us and eat the meat.
“Burn them. Burn their cars,” said another. Mob rule was in the driving seat.
Government officials then stepped in saying we were no longer welcome in the city, that our safety could not be guaranteed and that we needed to leave Argentina immediately. Plainly they had given us permission to visit simply so they could make political capital from ejecting us when we arrived.
The problem was: how do you leave when the streets are filled with mobs with pickaxe handles, paving stones and bricks? No one had an answer to that one.
Chile is a spit away across the Beagle Channel but we weren’t allowed to cross it because Argentina says it owns the land on the other side, too. We therefore gathered up as many possessions as we could, rounded up the girls from our party and made a dash for the airport.
That night we were in Buenos Aires among sensible Argentinians who couldn’t believe what had happened. And the next morning we were back in Britain.
We felt that with us three gone the situation might calm down. It didn’t.
We had left behind 29 people; cameramen, sound recordists, fixers, locals and producers. They had to make their escape overland in a ragtag collection of hired 4x4s, trucks and the three “star” cars that they had been told to remove from the ski resort.
They faced a long, bumpy and gruelling six-hour trek to the Chilean border and safety. But in the first town the locals were ready. A lorry was blocking the road and as our convoy approached, it reversed at speed towards them, forcing our guys onto the verges, which were filled with people who made it plain they wanted blood. Bricks were hurled, windscreens were smashed and two of the party were cut by flying glass. But they made it through.
And then they had a problem. The next city was Rio Grande. And the word from there was that 300 cars and thousands of locals were setting up an ambush. This turned out to be true.
The British embassies in Chile and Argentina were doing their best to get a police escort. And the nine of us who had escaped were in a hotel room in Buenos Aires working through the night to find a plane and an airfield from which they could get out because, make no mistake, lives were at stake.
Meanwhile, a chase had begun. Our guys were being herded towards the ambush.
So they abandoned the star cars, which were filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of camera equipment — and my new hat — at the side of the road. And took off across the frozen wilderness to a remote border post where there isn’t even a road. You get into Chile by fording a river.
We had to get a tractor there to pull them across. And it had to be a fast tractor because we knew our convoy was being chased by the thugs. And you try finding a fast tractor at 2am, in the middle of nowhere. All credit to producer Al Renton that he did it.
With the batteries dying in the convoy’s satellite phone, we lost contact and for six hours had no clue whether they had been caught. Whether our friends were alive or dead. That was a long night.
I still haven’t had a chance to speak to any of them but I know they were held at the Argentine border from 3am, when they arrived, until 11am. Why? To allow the thugs to catch up? Who knows? All I really care about is that they are now in Chile and safe.
Tierra del Fuego is not listed as a problem for visitors by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office but there is no question in my mind that we walked into a trap.
I know mischievous newspapers in Britain have said it was all my fault because of the numberplate. But that wasn’t even mentioned down there because the plate in question had been replaced.
No. We were English (apart from one Aussie camera guy and a Scottish doctor) and that was a good enough reason for the state government to send 29 people into a night filled with rage and flying bricks.
“Look what we’ve done,” they will say at the next elections. “Sent the English packing.”
That is true. We got our arses kicked. But there is a glimmer of a silver lining in the whole sorry affair. The game of football would have been a good ending for our Christmas special. But we’ve been gifted something even better by the region’s politicians and their rent-a-mob cohorts.
I’d like to say “Gotcha” at this point. But I won’t.