David Reviews

 "You're not an artist, Peggy. You solve problems." Don Draper.

NIGEL SIMPKISS MOTORS ON.
27 January 2019

When he arrives at our rendezvous, 76 director Nigel Simpkiss reveals that he's not been interviewed before. He uses the same tone you might employ to tell a nurse that you've never given blood before... hoping for gentler, kinder treatment at the hands of someone holding a sharp tool.

His plea is a reflection of his genuine modesty about how far he's come, blended with a slight hint of the imposter syndrome that follows all of us who've reached a role without venturing down the conventional path.

Nigel Simpkiss was living in London in his mid-twenties and a little aimless when he was offered a job as a runner at one of the editing companies which emerged to support the new tranche of programming being commissioned by Channel 4. His previous working life had included odd jobs on building sites and courier work so he knew it was a decent opportunity to break into something more interesting. And so it proved:

"Literally within about three months of going there as a runner, I was put in charge of cutting small documentaries. I started to learn the machinery offlining-wise, and then - in the evening - I'd stay there and I learn the new visual effects units that were coming in."


Just by pure fluke, I started to make a reputation for myself as a music video editor.

 ”

One opportunity led to another. He was asked to edit a music video which turned out to be 'Loaded' by Primal Scream and it became a huge hit. On the back of that, editing music videos became his new gig. It was a strong period for UK music... Creation Records was just kicking off and there were lots of interesting bands.


Simpkiss considers this timing very fortunate: "Just by pure fluke, I started to make a reputation for myself as a music video editor, and that led to directing music videos because I was cheap, and the editing came free with it."

Did he feel under pressure after making the big leap from editing to directing: "Do you know what? It didn't really feel like a big leap at the time. Strangely. I think that's the confidence of youth. You just don't realise the significance of what you're doing; it was just one more interesting thing to get involved in."

He made another leap when he was asked to fill in for a director who'd dropped out of an ITV programme. He was asked if he'd ever worked with cars, and because some of the pop promos he'd made had had cars in them, he felt able to tell them he had. Fortune favours the bold.


Thus began an enduring relationship between Simpkiss and carwork. The ITV show was called 'Pulling Power' and over a three month period, Simpkiss directed around ten car-based sequences for them, and this caught the attention of Andy Wilman who was about to relaunch 'Top Gear'. Simpkiss became the fourth member of the team which would go on to revolutionise the TV magazine format, and create a show which became a phenomenal global success.


I don't know a great deal about cars.

 ”

The new 'Top Gear' format wasn't an instant hit - in fact, Simpkiss feels it was two years before it properly found its feet - but its modest start didn't stifle a willingness to experiment and improvise, and he feels a lot of the chaotic energy which became the programme's calling card came from being prepared to break the rules in quite simple ways: "You don't have to put your hand on the door to open a car door. You can just jump cut. You don't have to follow continuity."


Simpkiss attributes the success of 'Top Gear' to its irreverence more than anything else, and he played his own part by not being a petrol-head: "I don't know a great deal about cars," he happily admits.

He slightly bridles at the suggestion that 'Top Gear' may have overplayed its hand when it comes irreverence: "I think that there's always been a dynamic there to push things, and if you don't push things, you don't really grow. And obviously sometimes, you could push too hard and make mistakes and cross a line... but if you play it safe, it's just going to be boring."


I have a huge respect for the people who can tell amazing stories in thirty seconds, but I come at it from a different perspective.

 ”

The move to TV commercials presented Simpkiss with a new challenge. In typically self-effacing style, he says he rather blundered into the advertising arena, and considers himself someone operating outside the usual template: "I have a huge respect for the people who can tell amazing stories in thirty seconds, but I come at it from a different perspective... and in a way, the industry seems to be moving in the direction where I'm coming from - the ability to shoot a great deal at a high quality in sometimes extreme circumstances or extreme environments."


He's fascinated by the way the outcomes can be the same even though they're achieved in entirely different ways:

"On 'Top Gear', you'll have a story, you'll have a journey, you'll have some sort of stunt, and you'll go there, and you'll shoot with multiple cameras, and you set things up and you want to create some space so that there's things that can happen that are random, things you're not expecting.

"The commercials world is different of course, in that you do the pre-thinking and the preconception of what you want this incredible moment to be, and then you create that moment. So they kind of both end up in the same place, but they come from different poles."


I'm more than happy to do either. And in fact, both actually inform one another, and feed one another.

 ”

Simpkiss has remained with 'Top Gear' itself rather than joining Andy Wilman, and the original presenters who now make 'The Grand Tour' for Amazon. Though he's quick to point out that he wasn't involved in the first post-split series which had Chris Evans at the helm: "I was busy doing other things, and - even now - I just dip in and out, to be honest."

He seems to verbally to pinch himself as he describes his life these days: "One day I'll be in Japan doing a special over there for Top Gear, and a week later, I might be shooting a Maserati for Maserati. And that's just what I do."

And he feels he feels his directorial skills have really benefited from the crossover: "I just kind of bounce between the two, and if I'm free, I'm more than happy to do either. And in fact, both actually inform one another, and feed one another. There's things you learn doing commercials, and there's techniques that I learn on Top Gear, and new technologies and so on and so forth... there's a symbiotic sort of relationship between those two, really."


Unusually for a dirctor from the advertising realm, Simpkiss harbours no ambitions to direct a feature, making him just about the only member of his profession who doesn't have a bottom drawer stuffed with scripts and ideas.

He seems to worry for a moment that this may make him sound dull but he warms to his 'conscientious objector' status when told that Jonathan Glazer once said directing a feature was like banging your head against a wall every day for three months:

"I mean, he's such an incredible director. If he's having to bang his head against a wall, what chance have the rest of us got?"

For more on Nigel SImpkiss or any of the directors in the 76 stable, contact Mark Murrell on +44 20 7287 1422 or via email using info@76ltd.com.

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David Reviews - Lovely Lenzie Ltd, Woodbourne House, Seven Sisters, Lenzie, G66 3AW. Telephone: +44 141 776 7766. Editor: Jason Stone.