Oh dear. The Mexican ambassador to the UK has written a bitter complaint to the BBC. But it’s not the Beeb’s correspondents south of the Rio Grande who’ve driven His Excellency Señor Icaza up the wall. It was the BBC’s money-making V8 machine, Top Gear. Once again, the three lads have crossed that oft-dim offence line. Difficult to believe it coming from The Daily Maverick, but we ask of Top Gear: What’s the point of offence if offending is the point? By SIPHO HLONGWANE
“The presenters of the programme resorted to outrageous, vulgar and inexcusable insults to stir bigoted feelings against the Mexican people, their culture as well as their official representative in the United Kingdom,” ambassador Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza wrote to the BBC, according to the Telegraph. “These offensive, xenophobic and humiliating remarks serve only to reinforce negative stereotypes and perpetuate prejudice against Mexico and its people... Although casual banter is an essential component of the programme’s appeal, humour never justifies xenophobia. It is not a matter of taste, but of basic principles.”
The Telegraph said Mexico’s ambassador wrote to the BBC after it aired a Top Gear episode in which Richard Hammond described Mexicans as “lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight”, the same as the Mexican car he was testing, Mastretta (yes, it does exist). Top Gear co-presenter James May added that they eat “refried sick”. To drive the point home, Jeremy Clarkson then slumped in his chair and snored, saying that no complaint would be laid by the ambassador because he would “be sitting there with a remote control like this”.
Almost exactly a year ago, we wrote a more in-depth analysis of what Top Gear really is, and who (and what) its presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond are. Suffice to say, without repeating ourselves, that Top Gear was never just about cars. Neither was it just about fulfilling boyhood fantasies of blowing things up. It was all of that, but also a perpetual rant against Tony Blair’s nanny state Labour government which Top Gear viewed to be over-sensitive and intrusive. It is here that Hammond, May and Clarkson (mostly Clarkson) clocked up an impressive number of enemies. The government of the day was the perfect foil to Top Gear, much as the Bush administration was to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Trying to find the most offensive thing ever said on Top Gear is a Sisyphean task, but the colourful jokes about Mexicans are hardly the worst thing to come out of that show (Ambassador Icaza might beg to differ).
In the first episode of the 13th season, Clarkson and May made an off-colour joke about the newly launched Skoda Scout. May asked, “So I suppose every summer it sort of goes into the countryside and stays there and gets touched inappropriately?” “No, no,” Clarkson replied. “James, that’s the Skoda Catholic Church.”
The comments caused an uproar in the British press. Responding to the criticism in the next Top Gear episode, Clarkson said, “The Daily Star, in an editorial, says that we’ve upset the Scouts and the Catholic Church and now we can add those two august organisations to a list of people we’ve offended, including lorry drivers, Scots, Malaysians, Germans, blind people, anti-hunt protesters and smokers.”
Clarkson ended his rant in his typically irreverent manner. “And I’m sorry, but this gutter-press claptrap just gets so far up my nose. How dare they, how dare they suggest we’d be rude to smokers?”
A similar outpouring of indignation occurred in the latter part of 2008 when Clarkson, in an effort to explain just how difficult driving a lorry is, said as he lumbered along in his camouflaged Renault HGV, “This is genuinely hard work and I’m not just saying that to win favour with lorry drivers. Change gear, change gear, check mirror, murder a prostitute, change gear, change gear, murder. That's a lot of effort in a day.” The wisecrack resulted in more than 500 complaints to the BBC. The joke referred to forklift truck driver Steve Wright jailed in February 2008 for murdering five prostitutes in Ipswich.
But not even the wildly popular Clarkson is above every storm he creates with his comments. In February 2009 he apologised for calling Gordon Brown a “one-eyed Scottish idiot”. Brown is blind in one eye, a result of a childhood rugby accident.
Not that he was completely untouchable himself. The world's favourite car presenter himself had a taste of custard pie flat in the face while receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford Brookes University for his championing of Isambard Brunel, the creator of the steel spine the British empire was built upon. He was very calm about it, complimented the female attacker on the quality of the hit, liked the banana taste. but complained it had too much sugar.
Watch Jeremy Clarkson gets a taste of custard pie:
As long as Top Gear has a point with its robust jokes (it isn’t difficult to defend their jokes about the Catholic Church), the show is brilliant. But the caricatures sometimes threaten to consume them. If it just becomes about fart jokes and poking fun at different people, the show quickly loses its relevance. As the show’s biggest fans in the country (well, not all of us here at The Daily Maverick), we sometimes worry that Top Gear descends into the morass of mud-slinging for the sake of it, and will one day fail to come out again.
The lessons of what follow such a descent are stark. In January 2010, Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts seat in the Senate after Ted Kennedy passed away. MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann took exception to Brown, calling him on his show, “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against woman and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” In his scathing condemnation of the rant, comedian Jon Stewart said, “You’ve ceded the high ground and now you wallow in the swamp of baseless name-calling.” Olbermann’s later resignation from MSNBC may have been partly due to his growing indiscretions.
For the sake of the millions who watch Top Gear religiously and will be devastated when it finally gets pulled (all good things have to end sometime), we hope Clarkson and the rest of the team takes Jon Stewart’s words to heart. Because the world without Top Gear is a poor world. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is The Daily Maverick’s Top Gear correspondent. It’s a thankless job.