What’s Wrong with Top Gear?

Whats worng with top gear


Top Gear is one of the world’s most successful TV franchises. So any critique of this brand has to doff its cap to that fantastic achievement. But after the final episode in the series I began to wander what we are watching?

I don’t have any sympathy for the idea that it should be a straight consumer advice show. Cars don’t really do it for me. As far as I can tell there are only two types of people who buy Ferraris: People who have inherited their wealth, and old men who have spent their lives amassing a fortune who have bought one to vanquish memories of being bullied at school (e.g. the wonderful Dave Fishwick from Channel 4’s Bank of Dave.)

I like the current Top Gear format. Given how I feel about the most exciting and sexy cars, I think having to watch a show that compared the minutiae of affordable cars would be enough to want to make me stick my head in the oven.

I like the current format even more now my interest in the show has waned to the point where I never bother to watch it live. Top Gear has become something I ignore while I have coffee and look through e-mails in the morning. I don’t know what proportion of their audience is ambivalent like me.  I remember being in a rugby mini bus about three years ago and saying to my team mates that I thought the format was exhausted and that it would soon be over. I was thoroughly rebuffed. It turned out at that point there were still plenty of dyed in the wool Top Gear fans.

Equally, I know there are people who hate them and rejected the brand a long time ago, most because they disagree with Jeremy Clarkson’s politics. So if you watch it, you either agree with his right wing views or you can tolerate them. Watching on iPlayer, I tend to fast forward all the studio scenes and A Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, and just watch the contrived races. That way the only thing left that grates on me is Hammond having to laugh awkwardly at his boss’ jokes. Although I am always fascinated by the fact that James May doesn’t really laugh at Clarkson’s contribution. I assume this is because he can’t bring himself to?

The point where I really lost interest was a few years ago when they were driving trucks into walls made from various materials and Clarkson got hurt. It really didn’t sit well with me at all. It made me feel bad because I have been laughing at these escapades. I saw an old man hurt himself and felt partly responsible.

So what is the issue? When young men hurt themselves it is funny. It’s funny because you assume they are not doing any long term damage to themselves. You may claim to not have any interest in slapstick, but the success of everything from Jackass to Laurel and Hardy, shows that it is enjoyed by many people. Slapstick is also a very televisual form of humour. Dialogue comedy can be performed on the radio, but slapstick really needs the pictures.

For the slapstick to be funny, you have to feel it is real. For it to be real the men have to willingly put themselves in harm’s way and get hurt. You can then laugh at them for their stupidity, but admire their physical robustness. So young men doing slapstick, are demonstrating how tough they are. Old men who play this game have two choices. Either they permanently damage themselves, or they fake it.

If they damage themselves permanently then what are we watching? Basically an old clown, in floppy shoes, and white face make-up being beaten up for public enjoyment.

If they are not damaging themselves, and they plan to do the show indefinitely then what are we viewing? Well, basically a format we have seen before and it’s called “Last of the Summer Wine”.

Now I don’t have any problem with Top Gear/Last of the Summer Wine but please don’t tell me that it is cool, or aspirational or even relevant. It is just a bit of bland harmless fun, with enough casual racism and misogyny to keep people talking about it.

I am about to turn 30, I am married and I have my own home, so I am not a kid. Although “stars” my age that get on the show are spoken down to, in order to make old men Clarkson’s age feel good. To be honest that is fine. It goes out at 8pm on a Sunday and in years gone by, my two brothers, my father and I would sit and watch it together. I would even go back to my family home on a Sunday to watch it with them because it was a fantastic bonding experience.

We all aspired to be like these wealthy, macho mates, who did what they wanted. But my life has moved on and they aren’t really talking to me anymore. I suspect they may still be talking to my father, but what they are saying seems alien and irrelevant to me. As my Dad’s cohort, the baby boomers is the biggest one, they are entitled to the 8pm Sunday slot. But let’s face it: the UK’s population is getting older and our most popular TV show is starting to reflect that.

The last show of this series finished with a procession of British made motor vehicles on The Mall. The trio told us that “people say we don’t make anything anymore”. Let me stop you right there. I grew up in the 80′s and the 90’s. Heavy industry and manufacturing was gone already. I never expected to work in manufacturing and my only friend who does, makes components for Volvo engines which are exported. He may as well be in a service sector job. When I go to the pub with my mates, we don’t lament the loss of British industry, because we never saw it.

I don’t care if we produce cars for export; I want to know how I am going to move from my two bedroom flat to a family home without having to relocate area for the fourth time. I want to know how I do that and start a family before my wife and I are so old that having a kid with Down’s Syndrome becomes a legitimate concern. I can only imagine, what an 18 year old weighing up their options thinks when they are asked to be proud that somewhere in the UK we still make sit on lawn mowers?

Nobody has said to me “We don’t make anything here anymore”. Only people who don’t need to work have the luxury of thinking that operating a plant machine is better than operating a switch board. I would like to see the BBC do a buddy show that reflects my life. Maybe the format could be a couple and their best male friend. That might better reflect the fact the people my age rarely hang out in single sex groups. This format wouldn’t be as popular as Top Gear, because it will take time to pull the indoctrinated away.

Top Gear now seems to be a Zombie show. It hasn’t done anything new for at least 5 years. It has recycled ideas like the aquatic cars a few times and nobody seems to mind. Could it be that the BBC needs to let the Top Gear machine roll on regardless, because it is a cash cow, but shouldn’t we also be asking the BBC: What’s next?