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Petrolhead Purgatory: A counterblast

Monday, October 9, 2006 by

Friend of OTT Ian Sparham has contributed this fantasically well constructed counterblast to Paul Stump’s Top Gear demolition which is currently gracing the front page of the site. 

The thing that Paul Stump completely fails to see with current Top Gear is that there are only three things which it has in common with the program I used to turn over when I was a lad. 

1. It’s called Top Gear
2. It has Jeremy Clarkson in it
3. It has some cars in it. 

Modern Top Gear is essentially the good bits out of Clarkson’s chat-show, mixed with a hint of The Goodies, a sprinkling of Last Of the Summer Wine, and yes, a bit of arsing about with cars. Of course if you want to know which Vauxhall is for you this is not the show to watch, and it’ s now very much a vehicle (no pun intended) for Jeremy Clarkson. 

He is a very divisive figure – the living epitome of Marmite – but I would happily refute claims of those who bracket him with the Gary Bushells or James Whales of this world. For one, Clarkson is a very intelligent journalist, as anyone who has read the compilations of his Sunday Times articles will be able to testify, and for another, he justifies his opinions and stances in a way which at least has logic to it. That’s not to say you necessarily agree with him – I vehemently oppose his views on the environment for example – but I do always find him entertaining and thought-provoking both in print and on television. He’s certainly a figure who, in my eyes, deserves a vehicle, and it would seem that several million viewers and various international award panels agree. 

But yes, Top Gear is unashamedly, unreconstructedly and unapologetically laddish. This is not a show for the new man, for those still living in a 1980s haze of political correctness or for those Rethian purists who feel the BBC should not spend any money on entertaining us (or more accurately, money on entertainment with which they personally disapprove) This is a show, as Richard Hammond put it, which is, “on the cutting edge of cocking about”. This is a show which is about male friendship and playground rivalries. In short, this is a show about three overgrown schoolboys and their entertaining adventures. It’s also a show which I can sit down and watch with my wife – and there a very few of those these days. 

I’ll put my cards on the table here too – no petrolhead am I. My car history is one at which Clarkson would hang his head in shame. Lada, Proton, Citroen, Fiat (Multipla – you know – the one that looks lika bug-eyed frog). Cars generally bore me. As long as mine goes and doesn’t burst into flames or hit any others (or stationary objects) I am relatively happy. 

So what’s the appeal of Top Gear? Well it’s no coincidence that last christmas saw a show called James May’s Top Toys where one of the presenters took us through a nostalgic and leisurely trip through the playthings of his childhood. This just supports the idea that Top Gear is about little boys and their love of toys and gadgets. Of course it’s always dangerous to generalise – but I will anyway. Men like to remember being little boys, women find the mix of childishness and machismo appealing, and of course, little boys can watch because they are little boys. (I can only assume little girls are reasonably ambivalent without access to viewer demographics) 

Richard Hammond’s accident was of course, tragic, but there have always been accidents in the making of television.The Late Late Breakfast Show, most famously saw a member of the public killed during a stunt, but there was no outcry for an end to light entertainment. Had a stuntman, or even the Stig been driving the Jetcar, would there have been the same outcry and calls for Top Gear to be cancelled ? Well yes, probably – because those cries weren’t driven by a concern for Hammond’s welfare or even any real worries about the BBC’s health and safety record. They were driven by the same people who tut that the show shouldn’t waste our money entertaining us by showing three idiots (hilariously) trying to sail cars. The same people who complain when Clarkson suggests that if you see a fox you should try to run it over. The same people who resent any of “their” licence fee being spent on anything which they personally do not “get”. The same people who regard Top Gear viewers as “the plebs” and … oh let’s be honest about it – Daily Mail readers. 

Even being a risk-taking professional is no guarantee. In 1993 a TV stuntman called Tip Tipping was killed in a parachuting accident. He took part of his own freewill, and died in an accident. That’s tragic – but he was a professional risk-taker and he still couldn’t be 100% safe. Richard Hammond’s participation in the Top Gear feature which led to his current condition was also of his own freewill – he is an adult and he knew the risks. He also fully supports the continuation of Top Gear. It’s sad that those with axes to grind about the BBC, with Clarkson and with the right of grown men to occasionally be very silly, have hijacked this accident to make their own political points. It’s sad, but it’s not surprising. 

Ultimately Top Gear is about the presenters. It’s about their dynamic, it’s about their love of stuff that is shiny and of things which go fast and make good noises. 

I like Top Gear.

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