royal family a ‘soap opera’. He once also said that there is no more wretched occupation than trying to make the British laugh, and the following Muggeridge quote, to me, encapsulates the true meaning of comedy:
“Bad humour is an evasion of reality; good humour is an acceptance of it.”
Apply this tenet to the evolution of Top Gear during the Clarkson era, and you soon become aware that by Muggeridge’s definition of amusement that the show drifted from the realm of good humour into the bad. The beautifully-staged races between cars and other forms of transport began to degenerate into travel specials designed to mock, embarrass or antagonise the citizens of the countries travelled through. It was like the central theme of the Top Gear pre-production planning meetings had become ‘who shall we piss off this week?’
The Argentina and India travel specials were low points that almost stopped me watching the show. But I kept coming back to Top Gear whenever there was a rerun featuring May at his most insidiously laconic, and Hammond at his pre-head injury height of offering lucid counterpoints to Clarkson’s bullying arguments, which all used to concern subjects that I could instantly relate to. I once got to talk to JC after one of the Top Gear Live shows, and was immediately impressed by his off-camera personality. We banged on about cars like two enthusiasts talking in a pub, and he apologised for not having more time available so that the conversation could continue (it was about 2am by then).
The young Clarkson certainly made an impression on Clive James, the multitalented Australian-born raconteur who gave JC his first break in TV.
“He was that rarest thing in England, the articulate bloke. He was too big, too burly and he was full of bluster, but he could write it and say it. I was very proud that he made his first couple of series under our logo ( Watchmaker, a TV production company owned by James and Richard Drewett).”
“Thus the Watchmaker office became the launching pad for a globegirdling career that left mine looking the size of a game of marbles, a clear case of television as a new kind of British Empire. I didn’t resent his success and I still watch his programmes with a professional admiration for how he can pack so much into a paragraph, although few of his opinions are congruent with my own.”
There’s no doubt that the coming BBC vs. Amazon motoring show battle will be an absolute spectacle from both media channels. But behind all the explosions, skids, crashes, and spews it’s my wish that the humour will be real rather than contrived. Let’s hope that the trio of former presenters can recapture what once made them excellent viewing, and that the BBC can come up with a replacement show that is as compelling to watch. Otherwise, that well-reported punch and everything that has taken place since will have all been for nought.