Posts Tagged ‘top gear’

Has Top Gear Run Out Of Gas?

January 30, 2010

The now longstanding staple of Sunday night television, Top Gear, began its fourteenth series several weeks ago to somewhat subdued acclaim.

Having been forced to reschedule the motoring show to 9pm – rather than its traditional 8pm slot – due to what Executive Producer Andy Wilman calls ‘Simon Cowell and the X-Factor on storming form’, the programme continues to showcase three middle-aged men acting out their boyhood dreams on a weekly basis.  With international locations, expensive supercars and celebrity guests as the foundation of the BBC show, the transparent Top Gear fantasy world continues to expand exponentially, transfixing over 350 million viewers in over 100 countries worldwide.

There is seemingly universal adulation over the two words ‘Top Gear’ among young and old, male and female.  It is the show that everyone seems to love; the show that is everyone’s guilty secret.  For many, it is a drug in broadcasting form.  Once you give in to its simple charms, its indulgent nature, you are hooked.

But is the show, slowly but surely, running out of gas?

Everyone is by now aware that vast components of the show are scripted, the dialogue being frequently punctuated with cleverly constructed word play, innuendos and quips.

Now that the show is in its seventh year, and having broadcast over 120 episodes, it is clearly becoming harder and harder for the programme to maintain the spontaneous, enthralling banter that the greying triumvirate of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond so fluidly established at the beginning of their presenting era.

The secrets of the production itself are also loosing their lustre.  The Stig, once a magnetic attraction of the show, has now become so omnipresent in the Top Gear enterprise that the man-machine’s exclusivity and unique appeal is constantly diminishing.  ‘Who is the Stig?’ was for a long time the cry from a captivated and somewhat confused audience; yet it is now difficult not to believe the substantial rumours and mounting evidence surrounding the character’s true identity.

Equally the never-changing format of challenges and reviews, while differently arranged and with varying content in each new episode, is fundamentally the same as it was in the very first series.  While the phrase ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ is valuable gospel here, it is nevertheless incredibly difficult to tell the difference between a new episode of Top Gear and a 2004 repeat.

That features and stories have to be even more extreme in their content, even more unusual in their location (Romania, Bolivia, anyone?), only fuels the argument that Top Gear producers are scraping the barrel to keep the broad viewing demographic largely contented.  Will the ideas pot run out soon?

Additionally, there is only so much that a BBC programme, restricted by health and safety, recessionary budgets and editorial policy, can do with cars and car-related activities.  But, perhaps, Top Gear surpassed that niche and honest content a long time ago.

This leads critics to another issue.  The show is frequently under investigation by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, due to its provocative – often offensive – content, language and opinion.

Within the past month the regulator deemed the last episode of the thirteenth series, which was shown on BBC2 in late July, to be offensive and inappropriate for the time and audience (the show featured a ‘home-made’ car advertisement showing a man commit suicide).  This show also came under fire from Polish authorities after its World War II-related joke that a car could travel from ‘Berlin to Warsaw on one tank’.

Other incidents to come under severe scrutiny have included presenters May and Clarkson drinking a gin and tonic while driving to the North Pole; naming lorry drivers’ chief occupation as murdering prostitutes; and setting fire to a caravan on a camping holiday.

In attempting to push the boundaries of the show, has the increasing frequency of complaints and issues regarding the programme finally overstepped a line?  Has even Top Gear, notorious for its ignorance of editorial rules, now gone too far?

Others take offense at the current show’s co-creator and chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and his left-field delivery and comments that frequently test the limits of responsible and acceptable television.  Many argue that his politically incorrect, patriarchal and off-kilter presenting style is infusible with twenty-first century society.

How ironic it is that the BBC’s greatest money-spinner is a politically incorrect, independent, free-spirited, gas-guzzling automotive show.  Will there be a time when executives take a stand?

But, on the other hand, it is precisely this politically incorrect, escapist and exotic world that makes the show so unrelentingly alluring to its millions of avid viewers.

From the frozen Arctic to America’s Mid-West, from making amphibious cars to denouncing car manufacturers, there is nowhere, nor no subject, that Top Gear and its producers are afraid to penetrate.  This freedom permits the show to experiment, innovate and evolve in a way that no other show can, thus maintaining its prime slot in the hearts and minds of its obsequious fans.

There is clearly unpretentious precision, planning and intelligence beneath the surface of the production that keeps the show ticking over, and more often than not, teetering on the acceptable edge of broadcasting.

Crucially, that the presenters, and producers, don’t give a damn about saying the wrong thing any more – listen to the nationwide sharp intake of breath when Clarkson makes awful jokes about Gordon Brown – ensures the show is always entertaining, always cutting edge and always brave enough to ignore the critics.

Arguably, we need the honesty and freedom of Clarkson, May and Hammond now more than ever.

Published December 2009

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Top Gear: The Boys Are Back

November 15, 2009

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.

Top Gear Live at Earl’s Court 2009: The Wheels Are Still Turning

November 12, 2009

You would think that the audience would be tired of it by now.  The same format of automobile-based stunts, with the same three middle-aged men acting like big children with their favourite toys.  Yet after 8 years of the multi-award winning BBC Entertainment show, and three years of the live show, Top Gear is still going strong.

Back for its third outing as the showpiece of MPH Live at Earl’s Court – which moves to the Birmingham NEC this week – Top Gear Live 2009 is fronted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May and contains even more outrageous and daring stunts than ever before.  With acts involving an indoor loop-the-loop and car doughnut, Executive Producer Rowland French aims to ‘push the boundaries of theatre’ – and while this is a fairly ambitious statement, for Top Gear fans, the show does not disappoint.

Full of fire, loud explosions, stunts and racing from the word go, with a crowd-pleasing mixture of luxury and reasonably priced cars on display, the show aims to please all of its demographic, from young to old, rich to not so wealthy.  The audience interaction features – an interactive ‘Cool Wall’ and race around the Top Gear Test Track – add to the crowd pleasing equation of fast cars and tomfoolery in equal measure.

The fact that nothing has gone wrong with the daring performances, and the clear indication that nothing has been left to chance, only proves that tomfoolery takes a lot of intelligence to get right, a testament to the strong team behind the light-hearted Top Gear facade.

Of course, for the majority of the audience, the main draw of the show is not the opportunity to view car stunts and fire; the attraction of seeing the three presenters, Clarkson, Hammond and May, live and personal, is the key selling point, especially when tickets for the BBC production reportedly have a 4 year waiting list.

In this respect, the show does not disappoint.  The 90 minute performance was punctuated by many typical interactions between the three famous presenters, including Clarkson making a continuous joke of Hammond’s recent advertisement for Morrison’s, the national supermarket chain.  Seeing the three performers at their best, with no room for re-take or error, reinforced the notion that the men truly are one of the key reasons why their niche motoring show has made it so big on the world stage.

With the fourteenth series of Top Gear due to commence on BBC2 this coming Sunday, plus the continuation of the Top Gear Live World Tour in December and January, it seems like the Top Gear phenomenon shows no sign of abating.