Petrolhead Purgatory

Paul Stump argues Richard Hammond’s accident should spell the end for Top Gear

First published October 2006

Here’s my pitch. I want to do a TV show about hearing the reminiscences of great musicians (Brendel, Plant, Marsalis W?) Or about the alcohol cultures of Europe (Belgium, Germany, Poland?) Or even dining with, interviewing and spending the day in bed with successful young women in the arts (Tautou, Johansson, Cojocaru?) My fee? 700 big ones. Now how much chutzpah do you need for that?

As much as Jeremy Clarkson, apparently. Credit to him – his fantasies of driving fast cars at insane speeds and acting the goat with his mates might also be ringfenced within the fantasy pitch, but 4.5 million tune in a week to watch it. A testament to the idiocy of the petrolhead tendency, one might think. And, significantly, in one week in May it scored only 1.2 million more than Dan Cruickshank’s extraordinarily esoteric series on Claude Friese-Greene – but who cares? The BBC love it – it scores less in audience figures than One Man and His Dog did 20 years ago, but things are different now in the world of those who commission series.

And, at the end of the day – a phrase most Top Gear viewers use a lot, I find – doesn’t Jeremy speak for the silent majority of road-users against the killjoy environmental lobby? When Richard Hammond, one of Clarkson’s chummy sidekicks, was spread across most of a disused airfield by a disintegrating dragster, the weary claim that Top Gear is about motoring and ordinary motorists must have been demolished, like the better part of the hapless Hammond’s anatomy.

For isn’t driving at a turbojet-assisted 300mph exactly what most of us do in our vehicles most of the time? Er … well, no, actually. Top Gear has as much to do with driving as Diagnosis: Murder has with forensic science.

There’s a horrid but unquenchable hope in me. Could it be that Hammond’s prang will do for Top Gear what the ill-fated Michael Lush and his crane dive did for The Late Late Breakfast Show? Will it kibosh the hitherto invincible Clarkson like Lush holed the previously unsinkable Edmonds? Guiltily, one hopes so – as one hopes it tempts Hammond to get out from under Jeremy’s career and make one of his own – but don’t bet on it.

For it’s hard to imagine just what Clarkson could do that would induce his employers to aim him. Bullet-proofed by the Beeb’s blind faith, heedless of detractors, he is a real-life Roger Mellie: “Tom! I’ve cracked it! How about ‘The Milk Race’? Five celebrities stand in a row and have a wank …” Clarkson could do it. He could write his own cheque. After all, Top Gear, in its awfulness has defied all known laws of television extinction for so long that it seems inconceivable that it should ever end.

It was in 1997, for God’s sake, that Viz – even then belatedly – pisstook Clarkson. “I’m not going to drive this car … I’m going to fuck it … up the arse!” (ironically, in a Mellie strip). And nine years on, what’s changed? One thing only; he – and by extension the show, for they are indivisible – have worsened.

Once a likeable, clever, exceptionally knowledgeable presenter – and still a decent journalist – Clarkson’s waggish everygit schtick became iconic enough for the BBC to milk it dry. But long after the golden tit dried up, still they squeezed. Top Gear, once about cars, became about supercars, and Clarkson driving them, and then about Clarkson. It disconnected from the average driver and nabbed the fantasy angle alluded to above – tapping what they imagined, in the media vernacular of the laddish mid-90s, average driver wanted to be. Pedal to the metal, outthefuckinway, breathe my toxins, baby. Terylened Derek Yesman in Sales getting dumped on by his boss all week, hasn’t quite made it, with nippers and a prostate playing up and the mistress in Dartford or Alderley Edge to worry about, not to mention the traffic on the M649 where the accidents are caused by people driving too slow – Jeremy is the ventriloquist of his dreams. Top Gear was – is – the blokiest TV, when primetime seems so drattedly faggy – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, Strictly this or that etc. Jeremy is an icon of anti-PC, of putative Obersturmbannfuhrers in every underpaid office in England. You know them – the Barmy Army wannabes.

Fine – even perversely novel and laudable, sort of – for a series. But not serial series. And when the whole tawdry shebang moved into a hangar somewhere in Bedfordshire, with Clarkson and a brace of suitably blokeish, chirpy henchmen attended by a bevy of bussed-in fawners, it looked more car-crash telly than car telly. This promised to be a legend in bad broadcasting.

But years on, the legend doesn’t just continue; it seems immortal. Quite apart from the Millwally morals of the show (no-one likes us etc.) and the well-rehearsed, corresponding – if correct – jeremiads of ecologists, the main objection to Top Gear is that it is not just bad TV, it is shockingly, buttock-clenchingly bad TV (at least other people’s wish-fulfilment telly – Dibnah’s, Meades’ – is instructive, well-made and inexpensive).

The road lobby could hardly have a worse shop window. The journalism’s shoddy. The humour is for people who don’t like humour, rather like James Blunt is music for people who don’t like music; the clodhopping jokes are for office “wits”, Nigel Rees addicts, people who swear by Keeping Up Appearances, rabid Hitch-Hiker and Red Dwarf completists, whoopee cushioneers, debaggers. It can’t even do irony well – it knows it’s crap, but is never quite convinced – after all, look-at-me-ma smugness is its (heavily leaded, leaden) fuel.

The content is numbingly repetitive; faster, costlier, more extreme. People who would never watch ESPN2 or When Lawnmowers Go Bad or World’s Most Gruesome Laundromat Accidents find their baser desires catered for here with what they fondly, and vainly, imagine with typical British thickness to be invention and good taste. Yet, if anything, Top Gear is arguably worse than both of the above, insofar as that it dissembles a catering to a wide motoring audience.

Actually, it does nothing of the sort. It pornographically titillates the unassuageable wants of its own cult audience. The cost to the BBC of the programme isn’t disclosed, but runs into seven figures, and in buying up 4.5 million people with this sum, one could safely assume Auntie could better spend the loot and please more by middlebrow expenditure, televising professional cycling, broadcasting a suite of Rachmaninov concertos, launching a documentary on Stuckism, financing a new Aardman feature, making its news bulletins watchable for intelligent adults or buying up and reuniting the two world darts championships. All of the above would draw lower audience figures but better value for money than Jeremy currently does. Even if not spent on programmes, financing a hitman to take out Ben Fogle or just paying Ptolemy Dean to retire to the Falkland Islands would be a public service greater than anything Top Gear offers.

A habitual enemy of the road lobby, this writer nonetheless happens to like cars and motorbikes much as doubtless did the old Jeremy; the redefinition of sleekness in the peerless coachwork of Pininfarina or Bertone; the social history of hot-rodding; a carmine-and-daffodil Velox or Cresta’s whitewalls; the piping, shortarse defiance of Isettas and Messerschmitts; sustainable energy; reboring mopeds; best-value kit cars or grannymobiles; the Citro├źn DS; how, basically, bloody sodding fucking cars work in the first place.

But that is not Top Gear‘s way. Not Jeremy’s way, which is the same thing. The vast majority of the UK’s adult population drives (we’re talking tens of millions); that the only motoring show with any profile should cater to the fantasies of a bossy, self-regarding and insecure few – one in particular – is one of the cultural scandals of our time.

Yes, I know, of course one can turn it off, but one can do nothing about the squanderbugging haemorrhage of public money into such outdated, ignorant swill.

It’s easy to forget now, but once upon a time the BBC did have a show that covered the motorist’s universe, from carburettors to Can-Ams, investigated rewinding scams, chucklingly road-tested vintage heaps, lectured on tyre pressures, even had the odd 140-plus spin in a Lamborghini. It was pretty good, actually, if memory serves.

Its name? Oh yes. Top Gear.