Tuesday 12 December 2017

Who was that masked man? We'd rather not know, thanks

Revealing the identity of Top Gear's The Stig has killed the mystery, says Deirdre Reynolds

Top Gear's The Stig. Photo PA
Top Gear's The Stig. Photo PA

You gotta hand it to the BBC; in an era when knickerless celebrities regularly reveal far too much of themselves, the broadcaster has attempted to prevent one of its top personalities from revealing anything at all.

While King of TMI (Too Much Information) Peter Andre jetted into Dublin at the weekend to sign copies of his latest tell-all tome, one man who won't be autographing his autobiography any time soon is The Stig.

At least, not in his trademark white jumpsuit and crash helmet anyway.

Top Gear's daredevil test driver was last week dumped by the channel after being unmasked as a 35 year-old dad-of-two from Bristol amid a legal battle over a book.

To the 350 million petrol heads across the planet who tune in to the telly institution, he's known only as the helmeted he-man who burns rubber alongside A-listers like Tom Cruise during the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment.

And while names like Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher swirled around the enigmatic motorist, only a handful of executives and hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond actually ever knew who The Stig was.

So when Formula 3 race driver Ben Collins reportedly decided to blow his own cover in an upcoming book about his time on Top Gear, the Beeb blew a gasket -- citing a confidentiality agreement in a High Court bid to gag The Stig.

With the cat out of the bag, Collins, who was a stunt double for 007 Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace, has been axed anyway.

Although, the iconic character has at least been spared the fate of the first Stig, Formula One star Perry McCarthy -- who was "killed off" by being shot off the end of an aircraft carrier in a rocket-powered vehicle when his ID emerged in 2003.

Perhaps more pointedly, the BBC instead showed that the anonymous revhead is easily replaceable; by last Friday, a new unknown had donned the white suit and blacked-out visor for a Top Gear Live event at the Nürburgring racing circuit in Germany.

So just why the did the BBC lose the plot over protecting the secrecy shrouding The Stig? And why would a no-name race driver jeopardise a £10,000-per-episode meal ticket for 15 seconds of fame anyway?

In today's Twitterised society, the power of anonymity should not be underestimated, says image management expert Anton Savage of The Communications Clinic.

"Modern celebrities tend to go from zero to hero overnight," says Anton, who's set to front TV3's The Apprentice: You're Fired this autumn.

"We seem to know absolutely everything about them; they're Tweeting about what they had for breakfast and so on every eight seconds.

"But how brightly they burn also defines how long they last. The public can become so saturated with someone within the space of a year that they decide they never want to see them again.

"With The Stig, there was always this whiff of mystery," adds the car enthusiast, who presents a motoring slot on Today FM's The Last Word. "You wanted to know more."

And peeling back the façade to reveal a married dad who drives a boring £15,000 family car was only ever going to disappoint, he argues.

"The BBC knew what it was doing when it created The Stig," Anton adds.

"Take some washed-up race driver, pop a helmet on him and turn him into a total legend. You don't have to pay him as much as the presenters and he's totally replaceable with 300 other guys who never made it."

Alas, like the Cavan man who takes his child to visit Santa's grave before Christmas, the fantasy has twice now all ended in tears for grown men across the globe.

"The problem is that now people know who he is, the bubble is burst. It's like discovering that the person who has the job of your dreams is some zitty teenager."

"And apart from a couple of petrol heads, who's going to want to read the autobiography of some regular guy?

"There's a cynical side of me that thinks: 'Isn't it funny how this story coincides with the new season of Top Gear?'

Of course, Top Gear isn't the only television programme to toy with audience fascination with the nameless.

Afternoon quiz show Deal or No Deal hinges on offers of money made by the ominous figure of The Banker, who is never seen or heard -- and in reality, he is probably just a junior researcher making Noel Edmonds' tea.

And from George Orwell's 1984 right up to Channel 4's answer to Big Brother, the hypnotic effect of the tease is nothing new either.

The identity of the man in the iron mask -- a prisoner kept in a French jail beneath a black hood in the late 17th century -- has fascinated France for 300 years. Some say he was Oliver Cromwell's son; others Louis XIV's brother, but unlike The Stig, we may never know.

Meanwhile, throughout history, authors such as Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen and the Brontës were forced to write anonymously for more austere reasons than simply fuelling speculation.

Other smoke-and-mirrors stars whose legacies endure because of the things you never found out --rather than the things you did -- include Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson.

Actually rejecting fame may be a notion that's foreign to today's generation of X Factor wannabes, but it's precisely what's propelled British street artist Banksy to super-stardom.

Playing cat-and-mouse with police, fans and media for the past decade, the guerilla grafitti artist has become one of the most lucrative and lusted-after celebrities alive; one of his works fetched $355,000 in an online auction earlier this year, and he counts Brad Pitt and Kate Moss among his collectors.

Despite satirising the age of surveillance we live in (one mural which he ironically sprayed without detection reads: One Nation Under CCTV), the story goes that he's so anonymous not even his parents know who he is.

'They think he's a painter and decorator who's done very well for himself," says agent Steve Lazarides, who claims that even he isn't certain who's behind the balaclava.

It's a far cry from a new Facebook feature which makes it possible to track the whereabouts of your friends.

"I get a note telling me which B&Q car park he's going to leave his latest box of canvases in," adds Lazarides. "I collect them and leave a cheque in their place."

Big Brother may be watching, but the likes of Banksy prove he's got a blind spot.

"There's probably a lesson there for celebrities today," adds Anton Savage of The Communications Clinic.

"In an Irish context, I think Grainne Seoige is quite good at managing her image -- you get these carefully selected bits of publicity.

"Internationally, George Clooney is a good example -- you get bits and pieces of his love life, but you're not sodden with it in the same way you are with Brangelina."

Heck, even children's puppet Bosco seems to have mastered the art of 'Less is More'.

After years in the wilderness at RTÉ, the Lambert Puppet Theatre star is jumping ship to TV3 for a new three-part series on the story of kids' TV in Ireland.

And despite being born in 1978, the elusive Mick Hucknall-lookalike -- who had his own Facebook page calling for his return -- still doesn't look a day over five.

"When it comes to publicity, as your mother might say: 'Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?'," adds Anton. "The message to celebrities is to ration the milk."

Irish Independent

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