I have a confession: I love Top Gear. I know I shouldn’t, I know they’re reconstructed dinosaurs, who manage to offend all and sundry, and front such an unapologetically blokes’ show but I love it. I do. Let me count the ways.
I have come to the show late – so late it no longer exists in the Clarkson-Hammond-May format on the BBC. But, as you will know, that means nothing in the new era of TV where shows are endlessly repeated and on some days they run end on end on end. So Christmas was a boon period for anyone wanting to watch Top Gear for hours.
Top Gear, is as we all know, about cars. And I love cars. Have done ever since my second car, a 2.5 PI Triumph that caused all sorts of woes and troubles and expense but could drag off a motor bike at the lights. Then there were the Jags. Yes, dear reader, 3 of them. I am Three-Jag-Jac. The blue V8 saloon was the most beautiful car in the world but my favourite was the maroon V12 5.3 XJS. Which had more traumatic days than happy days, who cost a fortune but went like a rocket and dragged off the odd policeman. It also only started for me and even my mechanic was awestruck by the engine, if nothing else about the car.
So, it’s easy to see why I would appreciate a show that worships cars, their beauty, their style and doesn’t just give me a ‘guide to’ made mainly to soothe the manufacturers or sponsors. I’ll never own 95% of the cars on the show but I like to watch them being driven hard in differing conditions and I like that the boys are honest in their appraisals. Personal and quirky but honest and that actually matters these days.
The dynamic between Clarkson, Hammond and May is magic and it is why the show works and it is why Hammond and May jumped ship after Clarkson was fired. Okay, Jeremy should not have punched the producer, he should not have caused so much offence and so many complaints but surely that was/is part of the attraction of the show. It is the biggest money earner for the BBC, licensed all over the world. It’s impossible to think that Chris Evans can manage to make it work. But the world is a funny place.
The three men play off each other, tease other, bait each other, but the banter is what we love. They are horrid to each other, they fall out during their challenges and have a plethora of not-so-nice names for each other. James is Captain Slow, Richard is the Hamster and the Rural Simpleton/Idiot, Jeremy is the gorilla, the dinosaur and Jennifer. Hammond and Clarkson are Pinky and Perky. They revel in this and we love it too. The show works because they know each other inside out, have different knowledge banks, different approaches to motoring and somehow, just somehow they work together brilliantly.
I love the challenges. They are ridiculous and can’t possibly pass Health and Safety regulations. How on earth was Hammond allowed to be winched up the side of a damn in an old Land Rover? My favourite was the polar challenge. Clarkson and May living the life of Riley in the Toyota Ute (for those of us in Oz) with their meals of wine and foie gras while Hammond was on the dog sled and freezing in his tent. The differences are extreme but fun and of course Jeremy drove too fast and nearly killed the car and James nearly killed him too. I love that they genuinely fall out. But they forgive too.
So, they are offensive. Jeremy regularly says things he shouldn’t. I’m not sure that that’s such a bad thing. Increasingly we are being curtailed by the speak-police, the PC Nazis gone mad. Say something someone disagrees with on any sort of media and you will be trolled. Speak out about an issue and you will be vilified in the media, possibly receive death threats, be banned from speaking at universities (Germaine). So, in many ways, Top Gear is refreshingly unreconstructed in these terms and it is a shame there will be no more of this freedom of speech on free TV.
I have to mention the cinematography too. This is an amazingly shot show. You see the cars from every conceivable angle, but the close ups and angles and all of it actually are works of art. The camera guys, who are regularly mocked for their inability to shoot any wild animal effectively, are masters of their craft and clearly love cars as much as the hosts. If for no other reason you should watch for how beautifully filmed this show is.
But the main reason I love Top Gear is because these guys are literate, verbal acrobats, not always mangling a metaphor but speaking lovingly about the cars, about what they do. I love Jeremy most for this. I could listen to him for hours, with his poetic language, his historical and literary references, his inspired metaphors. These are not ignorant idiots on our screens, these are quite clever men, doing what they love, having the time of their lives. Perhaps that’s what the world-wide audience of men and women love.
Finally in the spirit of the show, where we decide which of these three cars are the best, we need to decide which of these three presenters are the best. Or, to take it down a level, which one would you sleep with? Many years ago when I was the only female member of senior staff I would, during the more boring moments, consider each of my colleagues and wonder what they might be like in the sack.
Who would you choose? Jeremy, lanky, expanding gut, thinning on top, but with words to woo and long artistic fingers: James, with his gentle smile and kind eyes, his tousled mop and gentlemanly ways: or Richard, with his impish smile, his sparkling eyes, his fit body, his joy in what he does, his vigour and cheerful disposition? (Top Gear picture from the Guardian, other pictures from private collection).