Saturday, 6 December 2008

Top Bananas

It was my complete intention to write a balanced view about the BBC programme Top Gear highlighting its many good and bad points in equal measure. Having given it some thought, I now know I cannot. I like the programme too much.

Yes, both my feet are firmly in the camp of those who can't get enough of the programme which will undoubtedly come as some relief to many of you. For a fair while now, Top Gear seems to have been the target of journalists, TV viewers and ordinary members of the public who like nothing more than to badmouth the show. Well I'm not happy about that, so I feel it's time to stand up and be counted.

The present-day incarnation of Top Gear (and let's not forget it was once a very ordinary magazine programme about motoring) is a most appealing thing indeed. In trying to quantify why, one inevitably finds that it's all things to all men (and women). Not only does Top Gear retain a notable portion of its original remit (i.e. to pass judgement on different models of car), but it's also part comedy show, part chat show and part documentary.

There's also a part which one cannot describe easily. It's the part that features the three presenters - Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson - getting up to all manner of entertaining shenanigans from racing a car against a light aircraft across Europe to playing darts with cars that are shot off the end of a high-powered cannon. So far as I'm aware, there's yet to be a genre created for this kind of material, so far ahead of the game is the programme and its inventiveness.

The programme undoubtedly has a huge following not only in Britain but around the world where the format has already been adjusted for specific national audiences. Yet to think that the only people who watch Top Gear are men aged between 25 and 45 is well wide of the mark. The show is enjoyed by both men and women, be they young, old or somewhere in-between.

But what is it that gets them tuning in week after week? Why is it that even the repeat showings on satellite channel 'Dave' and online via the BBC's iPlayer get such large audience figures?

Undoubtedly it's the humour of the show which is such a big draw for so many. Without that, the show would be nothing more than a gentle walk through the world of motor cars which, though informative in places, would barely register in people's consciences. A motoring equivalent of Antiques Roadshow, if you will.

Yes, the three presenters each have a pleasant and somewhat quirky personality which takes the show so far, but it's their ability to banter with each other and about the cars that are featured that really gives it a special quality. They all have a different style - Clarkson: raucous and surly, May: reserved and dignified, Hammond: enthusiastic and dynamic - yet they can all convert an average piece of dialogue into a funny and memorable one.

To add some ammunition to their comedy, Top Gear relies heavily on a constant flow of new ideas that ensure the car theme is never lost in what many think is just an hour's worth of laddish high-jinks. As well as the regular races between a car and numerous other supposedly superior modes of transport, there have been comparisons between cars and their equivalents in computer games, cars used as players in an outsized game of moto-football and caravans used as conkers in a game of... well, conkers.

Some years back, I wondered how long the programme would last given the likelihood of so many great ideas eventually drying up. One might say the repetition of some of those self same ideas shows we're already at that point, but to be honest even that doesn't seem to impact much on the show's popularity.

That's because Top Gear has such phenomenally high production values - another reason why people love it so much. Even a humble car review is transformed by the beautiful photography, the amazing worldwide locations and the floorless editing. No other programme can match it for sheer professionalism when it's really firing on all cylinders, and that's most of the time in reality.

So how come some people resolutely fail to like it? As anyone capable of picking up a newspaper will know by now, Top Gear can be controversial at times. Whether it's Jeremy Clarkson suggesting that truck drivers murder prostitutes or Clarkson again tearing up the Scottish highlands by driving a 4x4 up a mountain, the programme can be relied upon to hit the headlines on a regular basis.

But let's be honest here - it's not the programme that causes a fuss, it's Jeremy Clarkson himself, and if you haven't worked out what he's like by now, more fool you. He's been on the TV for twenty years and his reputation does now go before him, if you haven't already noticed.

At the risk of over-generalising, Clarkson is merely acting out an exaggerated caricature of himself on Top Gear. His comments and his actions - in fact his whole persona - are that of a television character akin to the likes of Alf Garnett. To be that way is to elevate himself to a higher level of recognition: he's more noticeable, more marketable and as a result is more interesting to watch on TV. Whether or not he needs to be so controversial we must leave for another day.

For now I must sum up the merits of this, one of my most favourite TV programmes. Some say this giant of a show in the BBC2 TV schedules is ill-judged and ill-conceived. Some say it offends more than it educates or entertains. Some even say that it's puerile and immature. All I know is it's called Top Gear, and quite frankly I wouldn't want it any other way.


Yellow_Submarine,  6 December 2008 at 22:14  

Awesome review! This sums up Top Gear perfectly. Honestly, I don't know why the media make such a fuss about it's bad points. It's brilliant!

Chris O 6 December 2008 at 22:20  

Thanks Yellow_Submarine! Glad you agree!

sp3ktor 12 December 2008 at 10:10  

I think the best thing for my money is that it looks like a show that wasn't made by consensus: there's no desperation to be inclusive, it just is what it is.

You have three journalists all with a passion for their chosen field letting their imagination run wild. The fact haven't shoe-horned some Suzi Perry type into the format is commendable for a show that's often cheaply labeled as lad TV.

Chris O 12 December 2008 at 13:07  

That's true, Sp3ktor. You get the feeling they know what they want to do and they just go ahead and do it. Quite refreshing, really.

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