Newly released titbits of government emails have revealed the chaos as a diplomatic row was sparked by Top Gear’s controversial Christmas special in Argentina. The two-part episode saw Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond travel to Patagonia, where things then went down hill when a number plate (referring to the Falklands War) sparked violent protests and much fury, eventually resulting in the filming of the show being suspended and the crew to flee the country. Clarkson later wrote that they had “walked into a trap”, sparking a complaint to the BBC from the Argentinian ambassador to the UK as producers denied any deliberate reference to the conflict.
As the presenters were flown out of the country and producers drove to Chile on 3 October, the British Ambassador to Argentina wrote an email to his colleagues saying limited contact with the BBC had been “part of the difficulty”, a Freedom of Information request has revealed. Dr John Freeman said there had been a “lack of information…as to when they intended to come here and what their itinerary or purpose/objectives were/are.”
Providing background in an email to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Americas deputy director, he said Top Gear representatives had contacted the embassy in August but had not replied to follow-up phone messages and emails.
“We therefore had no knowledge of the BBC programme’s plans for Argentina until we saw local media reports about the team’s presence in Bariloche late last month,” Dr Freeman wrote to Archie Young.
“Thereafter there was no further reporting until the incidents in Tierra del Fuego played out last week.”
He said the embassy was contacted by FCO’s Global Response Centre as a mob chased the Top Gear team, and high-level diplomats intervened to help the presenters and crew leave the country safely – one group by air and one by road. But the saga continued as the BBC attempted to recover the abandoned Porsche 928 GT, Ford Mustang Mach 1 and Lotus Espirit, left near the Chilean border as the crew were chased by a mob.
“I remain unclear as to why the BBC considers it so vital to recover the vehicles (even if in scrap form),” Dr Freeman wrote.
He said the FCO’s assistance for the BBC was limited and wrote that they needed to contact an Argentinian lawyer, adding: “We cannot give any guarantee re the safety of BBC personnel or agents.”
Andy Wilman, then the executive producer of Top Gear, wrote at the time that any references drawn from the H982 FKL number plate were not deliberate and that baiting Argentinians over the Falklands War was “most definitely not the sort of stunt we’d pull”.
He said it was replaced with the registration H1 VAE before the team entered Ushuaia, where he described Argentinian veterans “kicking off”.
“We apologised (and) explained they were now gone, and that they had not been a deliberate act, they didn’t believe us, told us to leave town or face the consequences, we did that very thing and drove into a night of violent terror.” Wilman wrote.
Clarkson said he believed “someone could have been killed” as protesters banged on their cars and threw missiles, causing the presenters to hide in the hotel.