When I was a kid, I often had a fever, and whilst I was unwell, my dad would get me a toy of my choice, and a bag of Cadbury’s Gems, an equivalent of m&m’s. Most of the time, I used to pick up a car for a toy. A bit later, in the pre-satellite TV India, my most favourite programme was Street Hawk, where a masked protagonist fought crimes in his futuristic bike. Since the late eighties until now, cars have been an integral part of my media experiences and like most of the youngsters, I was fascinated by cars. Just like guns, cars probably represented the most widely rendered boys’ toys and I was no exception, marvelling at the Audi R8 Spyder ad, or the Batmobile in Batman Forever.
My tryst with Top Gear is only limited. After settling in the UK, following my MBA, I moved to a flat where my flatmate was a bike enthusiast — always participating in rallies circuits and road trips. I found myself shell-shocked, when I came to know about Jeff’s accident in Germany, that claimed his life, whilst he was enjoying what he liked most — riding his bike on a road trip. It was after moving to the flat with Jeff, that I started to watch a few episodes of Top Gear, sitting down after a long day’s work. After Jeff moved out of the flat, I can count how many times I watched Top Gear since. Then there were the recent controversies and the exit of the original trio that marked the end of an era. It was during the Christmas of 2015, watching an anthology of Top Gear episodes that I reminisced the programmes in 2010, and the lounge overlooking the Thames outside the balcony in the setting sun. And the nostalgia feels even stronger knowing Jeff is not here any more.
The recipe for Top Gear seemed very simple, just as a low-budget Hollywood high octane thriller. Lots of cars, three presenters doing crazy things but most importantly exuding a sense of camaraderie, the burning smell of rubber on the Tarmac — that’s all the show had to offer, but packed with various stunts and laps by celebrities, review of new cars and other snippets. The introduction of Stig, the masked speedster reminded me of the double life of the Street Hawk protagonist, demonstrating extreme motoring skills in disguise. Top Gear struck a chord with the British adult men in their thirties and above. The universal likeness to cars and the interest about maintenance to discounts to spare parts, Top Gear became a holy grail for the ones following an active lifestyle, participating in motor rallies and cross countries, as well as the ones who were settled down in their life, yet the willingness to have a spin with mates was either not materialised or never happen in the frequency as hoped due to other familial and occupational commitments. Perhaps Top Gear, with all its revving the engines and spinning/ skidding round the bends, complete disrespect of the speed limits — the appeal attracted most of its viewer base. To say the show only appealed to adult males would perhaps be incorrect as I know many women preferred watching a real-life entertainment programme rather than the prime-time soppy soaps. What struck out as the most significant contributor to the popularity of the programme was the bond between Clarkson-Hammond-May. It seemed as if three amigos got together testing some fast cars in a multitude of road surfaces with exciting backgrounds, having a laugh in a slightly touché undertone, but above all, they represented an eternal boyhood, the “lad” on the wheels and far away from the drudgery of the daily life. The followers basked into an hour of that virtual reality.
Then there were the controversies. Controversies that avid fans would like to laugh off as mild banter and political correctness has gone crazy. Clarkson had been a tongue-in-cheek personality all along, but perhaps he became too big-headed towards the end. After repeated allegations of racism, prejudiced stereotyping and uncouth behaviours, it reached an all-time low, while shooting the 2015 episodes, when he broke into a fight and punched the producer over a steak. BBC had to discontinue the contract as Clarkson became too arrogant and defiant to the BBC senior management. There were accusations against Clarkson of using racist terms, but he got away with a slap on the wrist. Top Gear was often alleged to have used inappropriate and abusive language, and at times being sexist, as well as promoting reckless driving, road rage, disrespect of the environmental laws. Amongst the mainstream viewers, the criticism came as the show was regarded as the big-boys-playing-with-machines. Also, public opinion was that the show perhaps had run its course, the presenter was a shadow of the past as most of the stunts and challenges have been attempted — leading to the programme either repeating the similar acts or plan newer stunts that are more daring and dangerous. Similar to many Hollywood sequels like Matrix and Jurassic Park, the series hit a stage, where the captive viewership may not drop drastically, but the purpose of the programme was finished. Although the camaraderie amongst Clarkson, May and Hammond was still there, the show already started to give a déjà vu feeling towards the end. So, when the allegations were raised against Jeremy Clarkson, it was a golden opportunity for the BBC to cease the programme and let it end as the most widely viewed factual television programme.
On the contrary, driven by zeal, BBC continued to record new series featuring Chris Evans. With a completely new cast, BBC wants to pretend, quite childishly so, that the past 13 years of Clarkson-era never happened. The expectations are high from viewers, who want to see how the show in its new avatar turned up, whilst most of the Clarkson sympathisers have already defected to other shows. Unless the production team came up with a completely new format, the show is likely to fail. It will fail not because Chris Evans is not Jeremy Clarkson, on the contrary, he is a fabulous presenter, but because the new Top Gear team will not have the same dynamics that the trio had developed over a decade. Rather than a flamboyant farewell, BBC has chosen to give the show a slow disappearance into oblivion.
I believe in absolutism, and for all the wrong reasons – all the casual racism, sexism, insensitive profanities and other allegations, Top Gear should have been withdrawn or moderated by BBC long before the fracas of 2015. However, for the ground-breaking success of the show, the Beeb carried on turning a blind eye, and therefore, passively encouraging Clarkson and the crew to be more audacious, more insensitive. That perhaps kept the TRP high for the show, as the viewers — especially the target audience — preferred it a bit rough, the big-boys-giving-a-toss-at-nothing attitude. Top Gear was the ultimate show for the thrill-seekers, the car-wankers and the placid domesticated men who still in their imaginary world, dreamt of living a lad’s life. The show had been a grand success, with some fabulous illustration of driving, no-nonsense car reviews and some hair-raising stunts. It represented the journey of the three presenters picking up the baton for a popular show in its new persona, and developing it into one of the biggest money-spinners for the BBC. They represented the small-screen version of the Fast and Furious, the ultimate high-octane entertainment. But the Clarkson-May-Hammond trio looked a shadow of their past, their presentation iterative, jokes repetitive and stunts sillier by the day. It became a representation of three haggard-looking men trying to clutch to their wondrous past and failing. It became a dinosaur of our time, a show for pledging unabashed masculinity, a virtue suited for the 18th Century cowboys. In the 21st century world that is more multicultural, interconnected to all corners of the world, more diverse and less discriminatory, Top Gear was too passé, too out of the league.
I’m not a Top Gear enthusiast, and on any day I’d choose a Nat Geo documentary over TG. And this is not a tearful adieu to the Top Gear swansong of the Clarkson-era. Instead, whilst watching the Top Gear: From A to Z during Christmas, I just remembered watching TG in that South-East London flat, when viewing the programme was an experience, and I didn’t pay much attention to the content. The Christmas homage to the past 13 years of the programme showed the highlights of the show, a summarised version sans the controversies. This is an obituary to the programme, which was a massive hit showcasing three men playing with machines, and now its demise perhaps should send out a wake-up call to the wannabe boys to come out of their reverie and brace the world outside…