The likes of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ mean you can interact directly with your audience with a frequency and immediacy that would have been impossible only a few years ago
When it comes to engineering and technology, television has the power to captivate the public imagination like few other mediums. High production values coupled with access to the latest innovations continue to enthral audiences both young and old.
BBC's Top Gear
and Channel 5's Fifth Gear
are two giants of the motoring magazine format in the United Kingdom, and broadcaster Jon Bentley has produced both. What is more, he is credited with launching the careers of Jeremy Clarkson, Quentin Willson, and Vicki Butler-Henderson, and has a corner named after him on the Top Gear
Jon, who can currently be found performing deeds of derring-do and putting the latest technology through its paces on Channel 5's Gadget Show
, tells Science Omega
about his passions for engineering and technology, and recounts his career highlights so far...What first sparked your interests in engineering and technology?
I've been interested in cars since before I can remember. I used to tinker with computers, old TVs and electronics while I was at school where I also discovered an unused darkroom and became keen on photography. These school activities probably mark the start of my interest in what has become the world of gadgetry.Did you enjoy maths and science lessons at school?
I really enjoyed the statistics part of my maths A-Level. I also looked forward enthusiastically to my O-Level (the equivalent of GCSE) physics lessons. Physics was one of the subjects I regretted having to stop studying because of the need to specialise in such a small number of A-Level subjects.Do you think that you were a good pupil?
I think I was a good pupil in academic subjects but not such a good one when it came to sport. However hard I tried I rarely showed any sporting talent.Was it always your plan to work in the media?
I always had a keen interest in the media. I enjoyed working with the school magazine and university publications. However, my main ambition was to work in manufacturing industry. It was the 1970s and Britain seemed in a state of terminal industrial decline back then. I really wanted to play a small part in trying to reverse this. However working for Ford wasn't that stimulating – everything was broken down into small areas of analysis and you never could appreciate the complete car – so, when I had the chance to be a researcher on Top Gear
in 1984, I seized the opportunity.Have you consciously striven to promote public awareness of STEM related activities, or is this simply a positive side effect of your work?
Most of my TV work has been at the lighter, consumer end of STEM coverage. But if it promotes more interest in the subjects, I'm delighted. I guess things like the Gadget Show
's reporting on robotics and interfaces, plus some of the crash test items I made for Fifth Gear
encourage greater awareness of STEM developments.How have technological advances helped you to communicate more effectively with your audience?
The likes of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ mean you can interact directly with your audience with a frequency and immediacy that would have been impossible only a few years ago. This can directly influence the content of programmes. On the Gadget Show
we did a series of items called 'The Wall of Fame' where I had to decide which out of a pair of gadgets should go on the wall. Both were usually worthy of the accolade and the decision was often too close to call – iPod versus Walkman for example. I asked followers on Twitter to help decide in some cases. I also spend quite a bit of time answering questions on what products people should buy, particularly through Twitter.
Another way technological advances have helped is that consumer technology is now good enough to be used professionally. 25 years ago you had to use a professional camera with camera crew to record the smallest of sequences. Now you can record voiceovers for items at home in an emergency on a digital audio recorder that costs less than £100, and good quality video footage on camcorders costing under £500.Could you choose between motoring and gadgetry, or do they occupy equal spaces in your heart?
Probably equal.Is there a particular experience that you consider to be the highlight of your career so far?
This is tricky because I have enjoyed virtually all of it so far. I particularly like the opportunity to meet the celebrity guests who often feature on my Gadget Show
tests – I have been privileged to meet people like Jamie Cullum and Brain Blessed, for example. Working on the Gadget Show
has also made me do things I would never have tried under my own volition, like tandem hang gliding, paragliding and bodyboarding. The best in this regard was the opportunity to be a passenger in a stunt plane flying under bridges in Romania while testing camcorders. I was apprehensive initially but soon relaxed and enjoyed it once I realised the pilot's extraordinary level of expertise.
One of my most enjoyable shoots was spending the day driving a delightful classic Citroen 2CV round Paris testing sat navs. One of the TV series I enjoyed producing the most, and which I'm most proud of, featured classic cars – a series of 20 minute films on different classics called The Car's the Star
that I made in the 1990s.
Probably the greatest highlight overall however has to be achieving a Guinness World Record for the fastest speed in a power tool-powered vehicle at Santa Pod on 22nd August this year. Even though it was horribly frustrating, I think only three out of the six engines were working by the end, and I was actually hoping for about twice the speed of 72.74mph, it's still a fun achievement.Are there any goals that you have yet to achieve?
There are lots of things I would still like to do – exploring my entrepreneurial side, doing more writing and painting, becoming a better photographer, raising money to save some of our threatened architectural heritage.Who or what has inspired you during your career?Car Magazine
of the 1970s and 1980s inspired the approach to cars I wanted to achieve on Top Gear
and my other motoring shows. I was also inspired by the brilliant architectural historian, Alec Clifton-Taylor. He used to present enthusiastic yet politely opinionated architectural programmes on BBC2. I thought the same levels of honesty, knowledge and enthusiasm should be brought to motoring TV.1 http://fwd.channel5.com/profiles/Jon_Bentley