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