In the wrong gear
It's one of the most successful and inventive motoring shows in the world. But, asks Paul Whitington, are the 'Top Gear' presenters' numerous racial slurs pushing the boundaries too far?
Not for the first time, critics have been up in arms of late about the BBC's long-running motoring show, 'Top Gear'. Once upon a time it was a staid and thoroughly respectable car-magazine show, but since being taken over in a bloodless coup in 2002 by a cabal led by Jeremy Clarkson, it has enjoyed a heady mix of record ratings and fairly constant controversy.
This last season, though, has been even more vexing than usual. Last month, Richard Hammond (the short, annoying one) landed himself and the BBC in very hot water during a seemingly anodyne review of a Mexican car. After James May (the bland, hairy one) had introduced the Mastretta sports car as "The Tortilla", Hammond made the following extraordinary statement.
"Cars," he said, "reflect national characteristics ... and Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight oafs leaning against a fence asleep, looking like a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat."
After dismissing Mexican food as "refried sick", Jeremy Clarkson (always the ringleader for this kind of stuff) suggested that the Mexican ambassador to Britain would be too lazy to bother complaining.
Not so, as it turned out, because the ambassador immediately wrote to the BBC demanding an apology for those "outrageous, vulgar and inexcusable insults". The BBC might have apologised, but Clarkson and co certainly didn't.
They didn't learn their lesson, either. In the very next episode the BBC fielded more than 600 complaints about a stunt in which Clarkson, May and Hammond pretended to murder a "fat Albanian" in order to find out which of three car boots he'd fit in best. And a couple of weeks later, Clarkson indulged in an unseemly on-air row with British former deputy prime minister John Prescott over an idea for a motorway bus lane.
Clarkson and his partners in crime have been carrying on in this jingoistic and objectionable fashion for quite some years now, and, in fairness, their breezy and jokey routine has made 'Top Gear' one of the most popular shows in world television. The series has been exported to more than 20 countries and is estimated to have more than 350 million viewers worldwide. And Clarkson and co have revolutionised what used to be a very straight genre.
The original 'Top Gear', which started in 1977, featured bland presenters in Alan Partridge golf jumpers who puttered about in family saloons and wittered on about car stereos and road safety. Clarkson joined the show in the late 1980s, but was comparatively well behaved until the show was given a drastic revamp in 2002.
The new 'Top Gear' brought verve and humour to a traditionally dry subject. When Clarkson, May and Hammond reviewed cars, they did so most irreverently: family cars they didn't like were "gay", and the emphasis was very much on fancy, powerful machines. They didn't just drive them, either: in one famous episode, Clarkson tested the Toyota Hilux's toughness by dropping it from a crane, setting it on fire and driving it full on into a tree.
The trio also tested cars by racing them, and each other, across landscapes as diverse as the North Pole and the Sahara desert. Then there were the 'challenges', which involved such absurd premises as a bus jumping over a motorcycle and a nun driving a monster truck. In the 'Power Lap', cars were driven hell for leather around a race track that included a speed bump. The presenters also had a 'cool wall' on which they pinned pictures of cars that were cool, and those that definitely weren't. All Alfa Romeos were cool, for some reason, but Audi TTs and Jaguar S-types most definitely weren't.
The revamped 'Top Gear's' cleverest segment, though, was the 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car'. Each week, a celebrity drove a family saloon around a race track as fast as they could, with occasionally calamitous consequences. Simon Cowell and comedian John Bishop were among the quickest, but actor Michael Gambon went around a corner on two wheels, Lionel Richie lost a wheel and David Soul destroyed the clutches of two cars during his circuit.
Overall it was a brilliant format, and was so entertaining that people who'd never driven a car in their lives could -- and did -- happily watch it. But from the start, and perhaps deliberately, the 'Top Gear' presenters courted controversy.
I have never been able to decide if Clarkson merely pretends to be crass and jingoistic or really is an insular bigot, but he certainly does a very good impression of one. In 2006, for instance, he managed to offend the broader homosexual community by describing the Daihatsu Copen as "a bit gay", later compounding the problem by calling the car "ginger beer", which is Cockney rhyming slang for queer.
The Germans have always been one of Clarkson's favourite targets, but he excelled himself during a discussion of a BMW-revamped Mini. While mocking the car, Clarkson said they should build a car that was "quintessentially German". This, he went on, should involve turn signals in the form of Nazi salutes, "a sat-nav that only goes to Poland", and "ein fanbelt that will last 1,000 years". The German government was not impressed.
But Clarkson is an equally opportunities offender. The poor old BBC fielded more than 5,000 complaints when Clarkson, May and Hammond dressed up in burkas for a Middle East special. While in Romania, Clarkson summarily dismissed the place as "Borat country" and "gypsy land". Animal activists were incensed when he drove around with a dead cow strapped to his roof.
In the aftermath of the 2006 Ipswich serial murders, he was widely condemned for making a joke about lorry drivers killing prostitutes. And after Richard Hammond seriously injured himself in a 230mph crash, Clarkson went to visit him in hospital and asked "are you now a mental?"
If this Colonel Blimp routine is an act, it has been an extremely successful one. But the problem is that the media attention Clarkson's antics attract have only emboldened him.
There have been suggestions in the British media that 'Top Gear' is becoming stale and formulaic, so Clarkson is likely to resort to ever more outrageous extremes in order to keep the viewing figures up.
I think we're lucky there's no such thing as an Irish car, because if there was God only knows what old Jeremy would say about it.