The hosts of Top Gear and their entire production crew were kicked out of Argentina last week over what was, ostensibly, a license plate. Things got so bad, according to Jeremy Clarkson, that the three hosts of the show were forced to literally hide underneath beds to escape an angry and violent mob.
A mob which caused a riot so bad that it had the potential to be fatal.
Top Gear is known for sometimes thumbing its nose at civility, and pissing people off intentionally. When word first spread that something went wrong with the production of its latest Christmas Special in Argentina, it sounded like another one of their pranks.
Basically, Clarkson was driving a car whose license plate was seen as a reference to the Falklands War, fought in 1982 between Britain and Argentina, and thus a taunt towards the local populace. But then it came out that the plate simply read "H982 FKL," which is only sort-of-close to something if you're trying really hard to find something.
And then word spread of an escape from a violent, angry mob, with local politicians telling the team to get the hell away from Argentina. And then we saw the video. It sounded like the whole thing was misconstrued from the start, with false rumors of a much more mischievous license plate spreading than the reality of the situation.
Clarkson, for what it's worth, is insisting that this time, it's not their fault:
But even worse, Clarkson has implied that it was a planned incident. Just not by the Top Gear production team, but by local politicians at the possible expense of human life. He first took to Twitter to establish his baseline accusation:
But in his Sunday Times column, he took the idea a step further, saying that the offending plate had actually been removed before they even got to southern Argentina's Patagonia region. When a Twitter user pointed out how the plate could be read, it was lifted off the Porsche 928, and by the time they had re-crossed into the country, its new license plate was a random jumble of letters and numbers.
Knowing that residual anti-British sentiment ran high in Patagonia, the trio of Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May were actually on their best behavior as they filmed on a mountain near the city of Ushuaia, Clarkson wrote:
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 "radiant." Certainly there was no suggestion that we had walked into the middle of a war we thought had ended 32 years ago.
But then they started to hear from the bottom of the mountain that protestors were gathering. Immediately, they stopped filming and headed back for their hotel, but that quickly became a non-option as well, as members of a local trucker's union joined the protest:
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.
It was at that point that Clarkson, Hammond, and May realized they had become targets. They hid under the beds in a researcher's room when protestors actually entered the hotel and began to hunt for them.
And then the politicians showed up, saying that they could no longer guarantee the safety of the team and they needed to depart the country. They had let Top Gear in, according to Clarkson, to use them to rile up local sentiment, and hopefully score some points:
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' 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. "we sent the English packing."
Eventually they the hosts made it to Buenos Aires, and from there, they caught a flight back to Britain.
But 29 people from the production crew were still trapped down in the restive region. And they still had to make it out.
Clarkson gives a gripping account of what happened in his Sunday Times column. The whole thing is nuts, and it shows the power of what happens when you mix a lost war, disaffected locals, and politicians looking to find a villain.
It's going to be a good episode.
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