I’m still a fan of Top Gear, despite everything, but watching it is beginning to feel more and more like something I do out of duty than anything else. Another series came to an end last week and I’d be perfectly happy if it was the last one ever.
There are a number of things wrong with the show, which interlock to an extent and mean that it can’t just be tinkered with. Top Gear has to be put out of its misery and replaced by something different. I have some suggestions of what the replacement could be, but lets start with a list of the programme’s problems.
1. Its presenters
It’s too easy to dismiss Clarkson as an ignorant buffoon. I think he’s a very intelligent man who has found a persona which earns him a lot of money and then spent years honing it. It’s possible even he has begun to think the persona is the real him. Hammond seems to be setting himself up as a chirpy mini-me to the Clarkson character, which is a shame, because he’s capable of interesting stuff. May is the one of the three I have the most hope for away from Top Gear, but he should get out soon.
In a few years time, students will be writing theses on early twenty-first century man’s mid-life crises and citing the antics of the Top Gear presenters as examples. Their meltdowns have a bigger budget than most, so they actually get to do the sorts of things 40 and 50 somethings wish they could to reclaim their youth. However, it’s getting to the point where the antics are less cathartic and more embarrassing. There’s enough material available for dozens of doctorates, no need for more.
2. It’s got a small penis
The programme is obsessed with big expensive cars which go fast. It’s like it’s desperate to impress us and convince us it isn’t lacking in the trouser department.
3. It’s predictable
If a car is being reviewed it’s unlikely to have fewer than eight cylinders or cost less than six figures. There will be tyre smoke. The car will go sideways. They’ll lay that filter over the shots which darkens the top third of the screen and makes the sky appear grim and foreboding. Then they’ll give it to a man in white leather to record a lap time. (Has anyone else noticed that the times recorded by the tame racing driver in expensive compensation devices are, at best, about thirty seconds faster than those of untrained celebrities in the reasonably priced car. What’s the point of these stupid vehicles anyway?)
If the boys are doing a challenge in the UK they will be staggeringly incompetent. May will say “Cock”, Hammond will squeak and be useless, Clarkson will grump and be useless. A caravan will be destroyed, often by fire.
If the challenge is abroad then Hammond will complain about the food, Clarkson will be a bit racist, May will say “Cock” and they will do something culturally insensitive.
The script is no longer original. It’s really tatty. They should have admitted defeat when, in possibly the least artificial of their “car vs ….” races, they proved that bikes, buses and boats were all better suited to urban transport than cars.
4. It’s conservative
There are a huge number of motoring subcultures. Every weekend during the summer months there is at least one show dedicated to a particular marque or style of car. You wouldn’t know this from watching Top Gear. If it isn’t marketed to footballers then a car doesn’t exist in Top Gear’s world.
It would be neat to see, for instance, a piece about the ingenuity and obsession that goes into building a hot rod. Line up a bunch of Fords of the same vintage, one original and the others customised in different ways and tell the stories of how they were built. Or take a look at the update and upgrade ethic of my favourite car mag- Retro Cars. Or any number of other odd creations.
“Boring” old Top Gear could do the occasional piece on a unique and eccentric vehicle-
5. It’s propaganda
The defence that keeps getting rolled out is that Top Gear is an entertainment show. But it peppers the nonsense in amongst news items and the reviews, so the difference between information, taking the piss and telling people what you want them to hear gets a bit blurred. And some people want the bullshit to be true.
Earlier this year Clarkson came out with the old nonsense about cyclists not paying “Road Tax” so not deserving space on the road. The producer may tell us it’s entertainment, that Clarkson was just joking and everyone knows it. But cyclists are attacked by idiots who believe that they have paid to use the road whilst the two wheeled menaces haven’t. ipayroadtax.com does a great job of rebutting the all too frequent examples of this meme and has its own response to Clarkson’s comment.
More recently, in the last episode of the most recent series, Clarkson and May did an allegedly sensible and serious piece about electric cars. To do this they didn’t drive the cars around town, simulating the sort of short trips electric cars are perfect for (and which constitute around a third of all car journeys). No, they took the sort of journey only an idiot would think was right for an electric car. And they let some fool run down the batteries before hand so they could conveniently run out of juice in a town with no recharging points. All so they could come to their pre-existing conclusion that electric cars aren’t any good.
There are numerous other examples. I’d be here for days if I tried to recount them all.
Top Gear promotes the message that only cars- preferably petrol powered ones with lots of cylinders- deserve to use the road. I don’t think the licence fee should be paying to spread that lie. (Full disclosure- I don’t have a television, so I don’t pay the licence fee. I watch what little TV I’m interested in on iPlayer and the other channels’ equivalents.)
6. It’s got no counterpoint
Channel Five has Fifth Gear, which is a bit more sensible as a car programme. However I can think of no programme on British television which could be considered an antidote to Top Gear and a dose of the Clarksons. I don’t mean some staid, stop-this-silliness sort of thing, but a show given just as much free rein to present an alternative view just as irreverently. Maybe if there was a programme which had segments where presenters mocked drivers for not knowing the Highway Code or that suggested that soft roaders are so useless they can’t even traverse speed bumps then TG’s fast and loose relationship to facts wouldn’t seem so bad.
So, what shoud we replace Top Gear with, seeing as we’re going to kill it?
As a cyclist I obviously have to suggest a show about bikes. I know that a show called Freewheel (or similar) wouldn’t be able to replace Top Gear or get the same sort of viewer numbers straight away. But, with bike use ramping up and more bikes than cars in the City, it’s time one of the TV channels looked at giving us more coverage. If any of the broadcasters want some ideas for how a bike show might look, I have a few.
Top Gear is a magazine show, it has regular features and special stories. We need to see some programmes with a similar format but a far wider remit. Get guests in to do features on stuff that interests them, give them some challenges (build a gravity racer, canoe from one side of the country to the other, get Danny MacAskill to ride across a city without touching tarmac, do a piece outside London without coming across as patronising and insular etc.) Top Gear needs to be replaced by a bigger, better, more inclusive version of Top Gear. I don’t think we’ll be able to call it Good Shit.