IN THE THICK OF IT
‘ 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