Brian Klein for JC August 2021
At the last count, he says, Brian Klein had owned (not all at the same time), five Aston Martins, two Ferraris, four Maseratis, and eight Porsches.
And this should surprise no-one familiar with the ebullient Klein, the award-winning director, for 25 seasons, of the car programme of car programmes, Top Gear. He admits, however, that the attraction for him lies not under the bonnet but in the way the cars look — he loves the aesthetic of a sleek vehicle.
But today we are not here primarily to talk about Top Gear, but about the unexpected effect of the pandemic and lockdown on Klein, who used the time to do something entirely different when his television work dried up.
“Everything fell off a cliff”, he says of March 2020 when lockdown began. “I lost all my work and my back went into spasm. I thought, I’m going to have a go at writing this story.”
This was an idea that Klein had been nursing for years, since his days as a student reading history and politics at London University. “I always wondered why Hitler didn’t take the escape route followed by so many senior Nazis. I thought he wasn’t the sort of man to kill himself, and he had at least two doubles. So I figured, they could have switched bodies”.
The result is a rip-roaring thriller, a counter-factual imagining called The Counterfeit Candidate, Klein’s idea of the ultimate “what-if” — in this case, what if Hitler had survived. The idea is bolstered by Stalin’s genuine suggestion to Churchill, at the post-war Potsdam conference, that Hitler had escaped from Berlin and was potentially hiding in Spain or Argentina. It is, astonishingly, Klein’s debut into novel-writing, as he had always thought he would engage someone to write up the idea with him.
Instead, the pandemic and lockdown provided him with the luxury of time and fierce dedication to writing 2,000 words every day for 10 weeks, flitting back and forth between time-zones, from April 1945 in Hitler’s bunker, to February 2012, which would have marked the 100th birthday of Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun.
The book opens with a spectacularly confident bank robbery in Buenos Aires, planned to the nth degree. “I lay on the couch, and before I had written a word, I thought, I need to get the name of a bank in Buenos Aires which is a proper safe deposit bank, to give it authenticity. So I typed into Google, ‘Buenos Aires, safe deposit bank’. Up came dozens of listings about the world’s biggest safe deposit robbery on Christmas Eve 2011, where thieves tunnelled into a bank and got away with $100 million.I started to read the police reports and discovered that the robbers had worked in from an office block” — Klein’s fictional thieves tunnel from an invented local cafe —“and they had put shagpile carpet down in the tunnel to deaden the noise of the digging”.
It was an intriguing real-life detail which Klein promptly lifted for his book, together with other aspects such as the installation of air-conditioning for the tunnellers and the amount of earth which needed to be shifted. The timing of the real-life robbery was perfect for Klein’s time-line, too.
Nobody, it’s fair to say, is more surprised that he has written a book — which has received plaudits from not only Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, but also from admired thriller-writer Peter James — than Brian Klein himself. It was plainly not the master plan when he left Queen Mary College, intending to go into law.
The son of a black cab driver from Leyton, (though he admits he has never been tempted to drive a black cab himself), Klein, whose mother was a legal secretary, had a sudden change of heart and decided that what he really wanted was a career in television.
He got a job as a researcher on This Is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews. “It was a dream job. I got to travel the world, I met all my idols, Ginger Rogers, Kirk Douglas, Sean Connery, Ursula Andress… and I was only in my 20s”. The sports-mad Klein met many of his sporting heroes, too. He was particularly happy when he could take his parents backstage at the theatre where the programme was recorded.
Aged 25, Klein changed tack and became Thames TV’s youngest ever producer — at a time, he says, when most were in their 40s and 50s. “I was fast-tracked to do that and then I was trained as a director” — he even worked as a director on This Is Your Life for a time.
When Thames lost its franchise, Klein decided to go freelance and began his own production company, On The Box. After initial success with Christmas videos of stand-up comedy, Klein approached Jeremy Clarkson with the idea of making annual car-related videos with him, too — and they also sold well.
Top Gear first appeared on TV in 1977, a somewhat dull motoring programme for which fans shed few tears when it was cancelled by the BBC. But in 2002, Jeremy Clarkson told Brian Klein about his idea for a new show, “Carmaggedon”, which would feature, he said, a disguised (and non-speaking) racing driver in black leather gear, to be known as “The Gimp”.
A week before the now revived Top Gear was due to air, Klein, Clarkson and the production team were told that film director Quentin Tarantino had a character in Pulp Fiction, dressed in black leather and known as The Gimp. “He’s very litigious,” the team was told. “You’ll have to change the name”.
It was Clarkson who came up with the now famous replacement name, The Stig, denounced by Klein at the time as “the worst name I’ve ever heard”. But, “in typical Jeremy humour, he only wanted a handful of people to put two and two together as to what the name meant”. In fact, says Klein, new boys at Clarkson’s old public school, Repton College, were routinely called Stigs.
The revamped Top Gear quickly became one of the biggest TV shows in the world, garlanded with awards, massive global audiences and devoted fans. Klein is full of anecdotes about the show, which once even featured Rabbi Pini Dunner in a segment with other religious representatives entitled “The Fastest Faith”. (Spoiler alert — Rabbi Dunner was not the swiftest on the track.)
On one occasion in 2010 the programme’s most passionate fan, Tom Cruise, turned up with Cameron Diaz, his co-star in the film Knight and Day, due to premiere in Leicester Square that night in the presence of Prince Charles.
“It was,” says Klein, “a typical English summer — pouring with rain”. Cruise was desperate to be top of the leader board but drove in the rain, making his time slower. After lunch, however, Cameron Diaz took her turn — and the rain had stopped. “Tom Cruise watched and I could see he was furious, she was going to be faster”. He complained to Klein, who said that Clarkson would put the letter “W” against Cruise’s name, to show that he had been driving in the wet.
Biut that was not good enough for the superstar, who demanded the opportunity to drive again. Klein explained that all the footage of Cruise driving showed him in the rain, and would take another hour to re-shoot. “Fine” said the film star. “Put the programme back an hour”.
Cruise’s PR girl turned pale. There was a helicopter on standby waiting to take Cruise and Diaz to the premiere. “You can’t be late!” But Cruise, an obsessive Top Gear fan who tuned in in California with his friend Matt Damon, got his way and drove again in the dry — becoming, of course, top of the leader board.
Klein was — and remains —at the top of his game as a TV director, but he is less confident about his ability to direct either a feature film or a mini-series, about both of which he has had early nibbles for The Counterfeit Candidate.
The book has obvious filmic qualities and — for Jewish readers — has the added bonus of a widowed police detective whose late wife was Jewish, allowing Klein to depict a bittersweet Friday night dinner, complete with disgust at kiddush wine, which Klein himself hates.
Klein’s Hitler is a means to an end in the book: Martin Bormann, who accompanies Hitler on his fictitious escape, is portrayed as much more evil, but there is a strange absence of antisemitism from his Nazi characters, particularly in the modern sections when they are more likely to have encountered Jews on an equal footing.
The first-time author is being begged to write a sequel and, in time-honoured TV fashion, has left the door open to do just that. But at the moment Klein is thinking about a new book, whose first page he has just written. “We hear a Zoom conversation, in German, among four people. One of the voices is saying, ‘we’ve got to use the pandemic to our advantage, to bring forward our plan’, while a prologue explains the ins and outs of Israel’s Law of Return”.
Ooh. Can’t wait.
The Counterfeit Candidate by Brian Klein is published by Level Best Books at £7.99