IN THE THICK OF IT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

‘ IBE­LIEVE there is a load of rea­sons why Top Gear is pop­u­lar,’’ the show’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Andy Wil­man said re­cently. For one thing, fam­i­lies like it; for an­other, ‘‘ girls like to watch men be­ing thick — and we do that with aplomb’’.

He’s right of course but, more than that, the loud, abra­sive, nanny state-hat­ing Top Gear is fun­nier and zip­pier than most TV sit­coms.

Its three pre­sen­ters, Jeremy Clark­son, Richard Ham­mond and James May are TV nat­u­rals (or have be­come so with years of prac­tice), able to make clev­erly scripted lark­ing-about seem like nat­u­ral bon­homie. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

Se­ries 20 premieres on Fox­tel’s BBC Knowl­edge on Sun­day (and will even­tu­ally turn up on the Nine Net­work, which has the so-called sec­ond win­dow as far as rights go). It comes to us, as they like to say, ‘‘ ex­press from the UK’’, which means we ac­tu­ally get it the week af­ter it is broad­cast there. There are no preview tapes but from the clips I’ve seen the new sea­son re­veals the pre­sen­ters in typ­i­cally ir­rev­er­ent form, launch­ing a ‘‘ highly sci­en­tific process’’ (they are good at dead­pan) to find the world’s fastest taxi and do­ing their bit for Euro­pean eco­nomic tur­moil by blast­ing across Spain in three ‘‘ af­ford­able’’ su­per­cars.

The boys, as they like to be called, also de­sign a ve­hi­cle that can turn into a hov­er­craft and in­ves­ti­gate the pop­u­lar­ity of ‘‘ soft roader’’ cars by turn­ing into car­a­van en­thu­si­asts. In the first episode, Clark­son and May drop in to visit our Kiwi cousins, piss­ing them off no end, it seems, rac­ing a car against an Amer­ica’s Cup yacht up the coast of New Zealand, one of their typ­i­cal over-the-top stunts, filmed and edited like a short fea­ture movie. Back in Bri­tain,

Top Gear has evolved into one of the clever­est for­mats

on (and off) the track

mean­while, Ham­mond at­tempts to find a hot hatch hero from a trio of new­com­ers, the Renaultsport Clio 200, Peu­geot 208 GTi and Ford Fi­esta ST.

Top Gear has evolved into one of the clever­est for­mats on the track: a com­bi­na­tion of travel show, car pro­gram and science demon­stra­tion, wrapped in some ter­rific com­edy. The show has re­ceived ac­claim for its vis­ual style and pre­sen­ta­tion, and, in­evitably, a great deal of crit­i­cism for its con­tent and the of­ten mis­chie­vously aimed po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect com­men­tary. May sim­ply calls the show ‘‘ three blokes push­ing the bound­aries of au­to­mo­tive ac­cept­abil­ity’’, and their con­stant bark­ing at the es­tab­lish­ment seems like the cal­cu­lated wind-ups of pro­fes­sional stir­rers.

The show loves ram­ming and bash­ing headon into con­tro­versy, whether it’s rough-house jokes about pros­ti­tutes and sui­cide, Clark­son claim­ing that strik­ing work­ers should be shot in front of their fam­i­lies, or Ham­mond brand­ing Mex­i­cans ‘‘ lazy and flat­u­lent’’. And the con­stant ac­cu­sa­tions that Top Gear is sex­ist, en­vi­ron­men­tally reck­less and glam­or­ises speed­ing are all true. The se­ries in its re­vamped for­mat has al­ways been what Wil­man calls ‘‘ an un­fair show’’, de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive and com­i­cally, school­boy­ishly of­fen­sive.

It’s a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of how pro­fes­sional TV is cre­ated, a tri­umph, re­ally, of pro­gram-craft­ing and of es­tab­lish­ing and main­tain­ing an au­di­ence and a huge fan base, even if it orig­i­nated as a fairly con­ven­tional auto show in 1977. The BBC for­tu­itously re­vamped it in 2002, spurred on by Wil­man and Clark­son, who had ap­peared in the ear­lier ver­sion, as a com­edy fam­ily show — and the for­mula is sim­ple and highly ad­dic­tive even if cars are not part of your ge­netic make-up.

When the new se­ries was first broad­cast in 2002, in­stead of us­ing a con­ven­tional set­ting, Top Gear’s stu­dio was lo­cated at the Dunsfold Aero­drome, an air­port and busi­ness park in Waver­ley, Sur­rey. Top Gear uses a tem­po­rary rac­ing cir­cuit that was de­signed for the show by Lo­tus and is laid out on parts of Dunsfold’s run­ways and taxi­ways. A large air­craft han­gar is used for stu­dio record­ing with a stand­ing au­di­ence. The in­ter­ac­tion with the crowd is part of the show’s rough-house, spon­ta­neous ap­peal. ‘‘ The au­di­ence are Tro­jans, they get a cup of tea and a Kit Kat, they never get to sit down,’’ Wil­man says.

He de­scribes the now well-worn for­mat this way: ‘‘ A race or two will oc­cur, su­per­cars will slide from the left of your telly screen to the right of your telly screen in a cloud of tyre smoke, and a man in a white coat bear­ing a gold en­ve­lope will trig­ger a se­ries of comedic and ju­ve­nile ad­ven­tures.’’ And he and his as­so­ciates, Clark­son prom­i­nent among them, wran­gle it with pol­ished as­sur­ance.

Its suc­cess comes down to three mid­dleaged chaps en­thu­si­as­ti­cally shout­ing at each other about wheel sus­pen­sion sys­tems, pis­ton­type shock ab­sorbers and the re­silient mo­tion con­trol of hub plates. When not shout­ing, they en­gage each other in blokey ban­ter about multi-func­tion steer­ing wheels, do-it-your­self trans­mis­sions and the re­silience of ring-and-pin­ion gear­ing. That’s when they’re not be­ing thrown around in some ex­tra­or­di­nary, of­ten char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally stupid, ex­pen­sive stunts.

They’re in­cor­ri­gi­ble, bom­bas­tic, of­ten ju­ve­nile, but no mat­ter how hard they try they can’t com­pletely mask their clev­er­ness. As a Top Gear edi­tor said re­cently: ‘‘ Thick peo­ple do­ing thick things is not funny. Clever peo­ple do­ing clever things is not funny. But clever peo­ple do­ing thick things re­ally is funny.’’

Some­times there is so much comic glee, it’s like watch­ing a re­con­struc­tion of some bizarre vaudeville act built around cars. No other TV show con­tains more splut­ter­ing or shame­less­ness. You need no knowl­edge of cars to en­joy it ei­ther, the an­tics of the pre­sen­ters are enough, along with the well-staged stunts and set­pieces. It pro­vides the kind of watch­ing that for­mer Bri­tish pro­ducer John El­lis calls ‘‘ con­so­la­tory view­ing’’: the kind that we do when there is noth­ing else hap­pen­ing, not par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant but reg­u­lar.

Th­ese days the show’s au­di­ence is es­ti­mated at eight mil­lion a week on the BBC, and about 350 mil­lion world­wide in more than 212 ter­ri­to­ries. It is the world’s most watched fac­tual TV show, with more than 19 mil­lion Face­book fans, a mil­lion in Aus­tralia alone.

Clark­son, Ham­mond and May — they even sound like a glam rock band — are all

Pre­sen­ters Jeremy Clark­son, Richard Ham­mond and James May wade in once again

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