Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections

I should know, by now, that when an old TV chum calls and begins, all a-fluster, “I need your help…”, I should:

a. Run away. Or, failing that:
b. Insist on a contract before saying anything even vaguely helpful.

Having not learned this lesson, a show on which I did a bit of ad-hoc (also: mostly unpaid and entirely uncredited, ahem) consulting is on BBC2 tonight, Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections. 2030. It’s also on at 1900 tomorrow, oddly. Or you might have seen it last year on National Geographic.

It’s not half bad, actually. Certainly, compared to where they were a couple of weeks before shooting, it’s ruddy amazing. Props to director Kenny Scott, firstly for calling foul on the turgid script he inherited, and secondly for pulling off what was more-or-less a completely different concept, in a month.

I may be miffed with the production company, but in their defence they did let Kenny go ahead with his piano-and-bike-pump concept that became the show’s centrepiece. Eighteen months on from my involvement, what really smarts is that somebody else thought of that before I did.

Watch the show. They need the ratings, and who knows, they might get the format right if there’s a second series.


  1. Blimey, I thought it was rubbish, though Kenny is a good writer, I remember him from the ‘heap.
    Surely Nat Geo / Discovery / everyone must want to get away from engineering by now?
    But no, we must ride it until it dies. See Smash Lab – hours of hilarity reading the Discovery viewers comments on the show site.
    What’s the next Mythbusters and why are formats so hard to get right?

  2. Woah. Hadn’t come across the Smash Lab forums. Blimey, you’re right. 600+ replies to a thread titled ‘Petition Discovery to cancel this show’ is hardly a ringing endorsement.
    I actually don’t think formats *are* hard to get right, really – I think they’re hard to *sell*. A good format is rather simple, the sort of thing you can summarise very briefly, that gives you enough flexibility to actually make a show but enough recognisable structure that people have coherent expectations. However, simple formats require a huge leap of faith from the commissioner, and in this sort of ‘specialist’ field they’re simply not going to ‘get it.’
    Mythbusters is actually a prime example of this. A whole bunch of us (including yourself, Nick, I’m sure) spent years trying to convince commissioners to do a show like that, with several projects reaching the pilot stage. Nothing made it to series. Then when Mythbusters came along, of course the same commissioners slapped their heads and screamed ‘Why didn’t you bring me something like that?’
    Well, er… we did, actually. But what got commissioned was stuff like the execrable Mechannibals, which surely marked a nadir of the whole engineering genre (I can say this, because both Kenny and I worked on it. Also because it was, inexplicably, BAFTA-nominated). Mechannibals was never a good idea, even on paper, but it sold.
    These days I’m more philosophical than bitter. I can see that while there’s a huge catchment of people who like watching folks building cool stuff, none of them end up as TV commissioners. Hence, it’s bound to be a struggle. What I’m more focussed on is finding ways of funding the same sort of thing but without the huge costs of broadcast.
    Nailing that funding model is much harder than nailing the format for what one would deliver.

  3. I agree formats can be simple, but when they rely on treading old ground it TX’s already feeling tired… The reason that Mythbusters worked so well is the size of the budget, which allowed them to achieve the initial vision without comprising, something very rare these days.
    I’m not knocking popular science / engineering. I like working in this area because it’s a lot (generally) less exploitive than most TV (like Wife Sluts or the other crap churned out by the Rubbish Documentary Factory) and I like the people I regularly work with. It’s also bloke’s TV and Lord help us, most TV isn’t for us…unless naked fat women trying on clothes / being hosed down by Gok Wang is your thing.
    What makes me weep is the obsession with scale, pointless explosions and the staggering lack of money available to achieve anything. A friends being asked to produce the manufacture of 50 ‘science demo’ props in 6 weeks for £15k! I have barely more money and I’m trying to do the same on the BBC’s new flagship science show.
    Most TV companies have no idea how complicated it is to build engineering / stunts from scratch and unfortunately it seems no one ever listens or learns.
    Sadly for producers in this area Discovery have now pulled out of the UK completely. They got their fingers burnt so badly on Smash Lab, Fearless Planet and Breaking Point you can’t blame them. Ok ideas but they suffered from a lack of credible science, a strong format and people willing to stand up to the insane whims of execs.
    Obviously I am still in the bitter stage…but surely the broadcasters could hire people who understand and ‘get’ popular science. It can’t be that hard.
    I’d like to see a simple ‘Engineering Glossary’ format. Where you just visit the best example of H for Hydraulics and explain how they work. Maybe that’s an idea more suited to the web? Over to you.

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