Top Gear: The Boys Are Back

I was never a big fan of Top Gear.  Yes, I may have watched every so often, when I happened to be sat in front of the television at 8pm on a Sunday night, or when friends suggested it was worth a look, but I had never really given in to the seemingly universal adulation that the two words ‘Top Gear’ appear to generate among young and old, male and female.  The show that everyone seems to love never really did it for me.  Until now.

Curious events in my summer notwithstanding, I now cannot bear to miss a minute of any connotation of Top Gear hype, drama, excitement and the show’s unique, but utterly believable, style of ‘cocking about’.

The bizarrely hypnotic presenting trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond seem to seduce even the most discerning viewer to their fun, enthralling, ambitious and often obnoxious banter, challenges and features that are the fundamentals of the escapist Top Gear hour.  This trio of middle-aged men, that (they agree) could so easily belong to ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, are the twenty-first century equivalent of comforting, British Sunday-night television.

Attempting, and sometimes achieving, tasks that only a little boy could dream of, the programme strikes the perfect balance between fun and excitement with the precision, planning and intelligence that is so evidently beneath the surface of the show’s jokes.  It takes a lot of skill and talent to make a niche motoring show so appealing to the broadest demographic, and it is clear the the presenters and production team have these qualities in spades.

I am not alone in feeling this way.  Each new episode of BBC2 attracts over 7 million viewers, often acquiring a 25% audience share.  The show is frequently the most watched show on BBC iPlayer, the online programme playback website.

Its appeal is not limited to the UK.  Over 350 million viewers worldwide watch the BBC production; broadcast in over 100 countries, with spin-offs in places as obscure as Romania and Russia, as well as magazines, live shows and every merchandise under the sun, it seems that the world and his dog cannot get enough of the Top Gear juggernaut.

The Top Gear phenomenon is the one of the most lucrative arms of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the public service broadcaster; with one quarter of Top Gear’s Worldwide profits being delivered straight back to the programme, it is no wonder that the show can consistently pull off daring and dramatic stunts that other shows could only dream of.

The main pull of Top Gear is simple – it is fun.  Pure, unadulterated fun.  It is a seductive world, where there is no need for politeness, consideration, duty or cultural engagement.  Each presenter offers a different spin on proceedings, while all maintaining the addictive undercurrent of amusement, delight and naughtiness.

It is a drug in broadcasting form.  Once you give in to its simple charms, its indulgent nature, you are hooked.

Of course, there are critics.  The show is frequently under investigation by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, due to its risque content, language and opinions.  Only this past week has the regulator deemed the last episode of the most recent series to be offensive and inappropriate for the time and audience (the show showed a ‘home-made’ car advertisement showing a man commit suicide).

Other incidents have included drinking a gin and tonic on the way to the North Pole, naming lorry drivers’ chief occupation as murdering prostitutes, and setting fire to a caravan on a camping holiday.  All events have incurred the wrath of the regulators and generated considerable newspaper column inches, but none have done so much as dent the show’s immense popularity.

Others take offense at the current show’s co-creator and chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and his left-field delivery and comments that frequently push the boundaries of responsible and acceptable television.  Yet for others, this politically incorrect, patriarchal and off-kilter presenting style is the principal reason why the show remains so popular and alluring to the majority.  The show is escapist, giving viewers the opportunity to untie themselves from the shackles of restrictive and oppressive daily life, with Clarkson as prophetic leader of this image.

It is clear that Top Gear is Clarkson’s vehicle, his baby; his personality, enthusiasm and driving runs through every vein of the production.

How ironic it is, then, that the BBC’s greatest money-spinner is a politically incorrect, independent, free-spirited, gas-guzzling automotive show.

The fourteenth series of the show begins in earnest this weekend, at 9pm rather the traditional 8pm, due to what Executive Producer Andy Wilman calls the ‘Simon Cowell and the X-Factor on storming form’.  The boys know when to surrender to other children, then.  The first episode will show all three presenters take expensive cars to Romania, with what will surely be side-splitting consequences.  I, for one, can’t wait.

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