Top Gear fixer on show's crazy world and how Clarkson was the love of her life
- Credit: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo
In rural Hertfordshire, close to the hamlet of St Paul’s Walden, Phillipa Sage is clearly in her element. We’re chatting in the garden of the 500-year-old cottage she rents, surrounded by an eclectic menagerie basking in the spring sunshine. Four dainty whistling ducks, a white chicken, and a magnificent cockerel are mingling happily with Phillipa’s two dogs, while over the fence, Tonto the pony and Kitty the cob are rhythmically chewing at their hay nets.
It’s an idyllic country existence for an animal-lover like Phillipa, but a far cry from the lifestyle she led as ‘PA, goffer and fixer’ to the presenters on BBC Top Gear Live. For two decades, Phillipa worked hard and played hard, even becoming fodder for the paparazzi.
Now she has laid bare their supercharged lifestyle in a book, Off- Road with Clarkson, Hammond and May: Behind the Scenes of their ‘Rock and Roll’ World Tour. Think super cars, luxury yachts and private jets; five-star hotels, extravagant holidays, and a serious amount of alcohol. No stunt was too outrageous, no demand too excessive, as the motoring theatre roadshow rolled on from London to Cape Town, Moscow to Sydney. And when single mum Phillipa was outed by the press as Jeremy Clarkson’s girlfriend, the paparazzi had a field day.
But five years on, Phillipa is firmly rooted back in the Hertfordshire countryside where she lives with her 15-year-old son Alfie, and can look back on the Top Gear days with huge affection as she embraces a new lifestyle focused on family and helping others through horses.
‘I was 11 when I shared my first loan pony with a school friend,’ says Phillipa who grew up around Welwyn Garden City, her engineer father part of the Comet design team at De Havilland, and her mother a PA at Smith Kline. ‘I was always a tomboy and struggled academically, but I just think I hadn’t found what I was good at. I think the school system fails so many children with low self-esteem and now, as mother of a teenager with special needs, I’m passionate about giving children confidence.’
A Saturday job in a hairdresser led to formal training with scissors and comb, but it was a chance invitation from a friend to help with a motor sport event that set Phillipa off on a new career, supporting three of the highest profile, love-them-or-loathe-them, presenters on television.
After working with the original Top Gear team back in late ‘90s, Philippa was asked to help out in 2003 at the launch of the first MPH Show. The start of Top Gear’s new motoring theatre shows, it later evolved into the Top Gear Live tour with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May - ‘my boys’ - as Phillipa affectionately calls them. The male-dominated motorsport world doesn’t immediately sound like a job for a young woman who readily admits she could often be shy, even if she does stand nearly six-feet tall.
‘I was quite nervous, but I loved cars, I loved the buzz of live events, and I just silently repeated my mantra: “they’re only human beings”. I’d learnt to stand my ground having grown up with two brothers, so I approached the presenters in just the same way and it worked.’
And the more she was asked to do, the more Phillipa discovered she could do. Booking hotels and transport. Arranging celebrity guests. Organising stunts and evening entertainment. And, equally important, making sure that ‘her boys’ had every possible comfort.
‘I always had a bag of essential items with their individual preferences for medicine and sweets, cigarettes and savoury snacks,’ she laughs. ‘And I always had a lighter, a corkscrew and an e-cigarette in my handbag. In fact, I still do! Jeremy always wanted his favourite organic rosé on tour so we’d all carry a couple of bottles in our suitcases for him, and I had to make sure I had a certain brand of hair wax for James.
‘I had no formal training as a PA but I discovered a talent for communications and an eye for detail. There was a tremendous work ethic amongst the whole production bubble. The show always went ahead, no matter what went on behind the scenes.
‘I’ve always believed that there’s a way to do anything if you look hard enough I was certainly tested when it came to end of tour presents. A seven-foot high cuddly moose for Richard Hammond in Norway. Framed cricket bales from a match with AC-DC in Australia. And some cuddly pandas and real bamboo in Turin. The boys had become so demanding about creature comforts after an intense two-week European tour that we nicknamed them The Pandas’.
Ask about Phillipa’s favourite tour destinations and she immediately mentions Croatia - ‘Lovely people and a fabulous excursion to Plitvice Lakes', and South Africa - ‘Enthusiastic audiences and no paparazzi culture.'
After so many years with the cameras turned on the presenters, Phillipa suddenly found lenses pointing at her when in 2011, a national newspaper splashed her affair with the married Clarkson. But apart from asking whether they should now call her The First Lady, her colleagues carried on as normal. ‘It just meant I got to travel in first class as The Maharaja’s companion,’ she laughs.
Touring took Phillipa away from home most months. A long weekend for European venues, but a week or more for long haul events. But life in rural Hertfordshire was no less hectic. As a toddler, Alfie was diagnosed with fragile X syndrome, a chromosome disorder unwittingly passed on by Phillipa and involving a complex combination of autism, communication problems, and other developmental issues.
Thanks to help from a local carer and from Alfie’s father, now living in America, Phillipa was able to continue her career. But when she came home, life had to revolve around Alfie 24/7 - a challenge made harder by her own health issues, a by-product of carrying that rogue X chromosome.
In 2015, the Top Gear Live roadshow came to an abrupt end after a well-publicised assault by Clarkson on a producer of the TV show. The BBC pulled the plug but the presenting trio continued to tour independently while negotiations for a similar show, The Grand Tour, were finalised with Amazon. Phillipa was still involved, but in January 2017, her world crashed as her relationship with Clarkson ended, shortly before her father suffered life-changing injuries in a fall.
‘We were all burnt out and the stress of it all caused my worst breakdown ever,’ she openly admits. ‘Truly the lowest point in my life. But it was to prove the glorious turning point.’
Always keen to find new ways of stimulating Alfie, Phillipa contacted Learning to Listen, an equine facilitated therapy centre at Easthall Farmhouse in St Paul’s Walden that specialised in children with autism. Alfie already enjoyed sitting on Phillipa’s cob Kitty, bought from Richard Hammond’s wife Mindy, so she was optimistic.
But what started as a visit on Alfie’s behalf ended with a flood of emotions that led Phillipa to seek help for herself. And now, back on her feet, she has qualified as a transformational equine facilitated coach, working with both adults and children with learning disabilities, post-trauma and confidence issues.
Organising a promotional event for an author also put her in contact with publisher Ad Lib who urged her to write a book on her Top Gear days..
‘The boys always encouraged me to take pictures on tour so we could one day publish a photo book, but Ad Lib wanted me to write the full story,’ she says with delight.
‘Have the boys seen it? I sent it to all of them. Richard wrote a line for the cover; James gave it his blessing; and Jeremy said: ‘Well done for remembering everything I’ve forgotten!’
She shrugs tactfully. ‘Jeremy was the love of my life and I thought it would be forever, but it wasn’t to be. And I’m actually grateful for my breakdown because it put an end to that mad life. I needed to go through decompression. Nobody has been enjoying travel or social events this year, but I don’t miss the life at all, although I’m very grateful to have done it.'
So what's next? ‘I never plan for the future. I’m living the dream right now, surrounded by my animals and working with horses, but I would love to write another book, perhaps a guide for parents of special needs children. My experience managing horses, dogs, and three Top Gear presenters has certainly made me very calm. Now I think I am ready to share the techniques!’
For information on Learning to Listen, visit learningtolisten.co.uk and follow Phillipa and her adventures with horse power of all kinds on Instagram @P.J.Sage
Off- Road with Clarkson, Hammond and May: Behind the Scenes of their ‘Rock and Roll’ World Tour is published by Ad Lib, is out now, priced £8.99.