Media, Multimedia

Not an entirely objective analysis: The Genius of Top Gear

By Branko Brkic 5 February 2010

Some say he’s the messiah who saved motoring journalism from a painful, boring death. Some say he is the Devil’s spawn and should be sent back to Hell, immediately if possible. All we know is his name is Jeremy Clarkson.

And if you think we’ve gone overboard on the hatred, think again. The full list of Clarkson enemies would be too long to publish, but here are some of the madder ones: Hyundai, after he mentioned that its staff had eaten a dog; Malaysia’s parliament wanted him banned for calling their pride and joy, the Perodua Kelisa, the worst in the world and subsequently setting fire to it; the Germans complain consistently about his crude WWII jokes. Then there are environmentalists and politically correct groups of all colours and persuasions, as well as almost the entire British Labour government.

Then again, pretty much the rest of the planet simply adores him.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing anyone writing about Clarkson is how to explain such a rich character in just one article. He lives a life so full of experiences and so multidimensional that it simply defies being squeezed into a single piece of journalism. His interests and talents transcend individual media channels or traditional areas of expertise. He is an award-winning journalist, TV presenter, documentary maker, engineering and military buff, first-rate columnist, producer and overall brilliant mind. But let’s try anyway.

In 1988, Jeremy Charles Robert Clarkson was unleashed on the unsuspecting viewers of the sleepy BBC 2 Top Gear car programme that was going nowhere very slowly. Motoring journalism before Clarkson was almost universal in its dullness and boys-club culture. You had to be a serious petrol-head to understand and enjoy it. If you didn’t understand the concept of torque, or looked blank when the miracle of a double cam-shaft was discussed, you were out. Car programme presenters everywhere immensely enjoyed giving us real-time shows featuring them changing gears and informing us that “changing from fourth to fifth causes revs to drop down a thousand or so”. At that moment, non-technical viewers were forgiven for wanting to stick a finger down their throats.

Clarkson changed all that. He realised early on that cars are not about dull, dry data, but more about the way they make us feel. That simple change in approach made him a budding star in the nineties. Suddenly, watching car programmes was entertaining.

But the Top Gear model was old and Clarkson left it in 2000. By that time he was a famous and modestly rich man, with the world as his oyster. His (UK) Sunday Times columns were more popular than religion, his documentaries adored by legions of fans. Top Gear itself was left to die a natural death in late 2001, only to be resurrected by Clarkson and his partner and current Top Gear producer, Andy Wilman in 2002.

The original format – half-an-hour with boring former racers doing car tests – was replaced with the live-audience show in the hangar and one set of presenters, lead by Clarkson. From the UK radio scene he brought the diminutive Richard Hammond, who became a success with audiences in the first season. The other presenter, however, was not much of a success. Jason Dawe was a specialist in second-hand cars and proof that even Clarkson can make a mistake. But it was quickly rectified when James May was introduced in the second season. The Top Gear team was ready to take over the world.

And conquer the world it did. The Top Gear team and their mysterious racing driver, The Stig, went from being a local show to a global blockbuster with 350 million viewers worldwide. Needless to say, the programme is also financially mega-successful, giving birth to many franchises around the world. The magazine of the same name and sensibility is now the biggest men’s-interest magazine in the UK, leaving GQ and FHM in its petrol fumes. (Top Gear magazine was also one of the main inspirations for Maverick magazine – Ed, er, me.)

So how did this tall guy with curly hair in badly-fitting faded jeans and distinctly arrogant attitude manage to become so important to so many people in so many different ways? Answer: he is a ridiculously talented media visionary, brilliant and cunning businessman, and, man, can he be funny!

Top Gear brought us a world in which cars are not about mechanics anymore, but rather about lifestyles. It is about taking a road-trip, seeing great places, fighting ever-madder challenges. Or, to put it  simply, it is about having fun. Clarkson and his boys’ adventures have taken them to far and beautiful corners of the world, including an epic effort to reach the magnetic North Pole in a specially-prepared Toyota Hilux. They have driven (mostly) wonderful cars, have had great adventures and concluded beyond reasonable doubt that life is worth living when things are not taken so seriously.

Photo: Top Gear North Pole adventure’s production team. (Photo by Podknox.)

Clarkson secured his audience’s lasting love by speaking his mind, and loudly burying the reputations of hapless cars. In a world where the overwhelming majority of motoring “journalists” are in it only for their own lifestyle and, as a result, end up being more or less promoters for the auto brands, Clarkson’s readiness to call the VW Tuareg “back-breaking or vomit-inducing, depending on suspension-setting” or the Porsche Cayenne very good, but “just look at it! Ugly”, or BMW’s X3 a “pointless car”, endeared him to everyone who ever craved honesty and forthrightness in the media.

And make no mistake that Top Gear is not a huge business concern that operates following cold business rules. Clarkson and Wilman had no qualms disposing of the former F1 driver, Perry McCarthy, after he, in his 2002 book “Flat Out, Flat Broke”, revealed that he was The “Black” Stig. They did dispose of The “Black” Stig in a very original way, though, by shooting him in the Jaguar XJ-S off the flight deck of HMS Invincible. Funny it was, but Perry McCarthy was still out of Top Gear. (The identity of The “White” Stig is now jealously guarded and is, accordingly, a subject of considerable speculation in the British press.)

The beauty of Clarkson’s approach to the business of show business is that, similarly to Jerry Seinfeld, he knew that he could not sustain a show as big as Top Gear on his own for too long. So his co-presenters, Hammond and May, over the years became stars in their own right. (Of late, even The Stig is turning into a media phenomenon.) That  stardom was confirmed in September 2006. Fans worldwide collectively held their breath when Hammond crashed the Vampire jet-dragster at 468 km/h. His accident, and his recovery, dominated the global news cycle for several days. Perhaps only Oprah could have expected that much.

So how much creative juice is there still in Top Gear? Of late, the characters played by Clarkson, Hammond and May (and they ARE that – characters) have shown signs of fatigue. They are surely aware of it themselves: Clarkson can’t scream “Powweeerrrr!!!” and grab the nearest hammer forever, and there’s only so many good jokes one can make about Hammond’s shortness or May’s slowness.

No show can run forever. But for all the fun and good times Top Gear gave us over the years, we should remain forever grateful.

By Branko Brkic

Main photo: BBC 2

MPH Live featuring Clarkson, Hammond and May is currently on in Johannesburg.

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