‘He is a ‘knob’, but I quite like him,’ said Top Gear television presenter James May of his apparently increasingly beleaguered colleague, Jeremy Clarkson. It is a description that many of us would perhaps phrase differently but secretly agree with. Certainly nearly a million people agree with this sentiment as they signed an online petition to have Clarkson reinstated by the BBC after his latest bout of unacceptable social behaviour. They probably chortled too at the puerile language adopted by the 52 year old May to describe the 54 year old Clarkson.
And that is the real problem with Top Gear and its presenters in that they pander to a certain level of puerility that exists in all middle-aged men who are interested in ‘boy’s toys’; motor cars and the like. Clarkson, May and the third of the juvenile triumvirate, Richard Hammond, probably do no more nor less infantile things than many others their age, its just that they happen to have the ‘courage’ to say and do it on television. They are, they would have us believe, saying and doing what we all secretly want to do, which is make fun of people who cannot defend themselves, and wantonly destroying any of those boy’s toys that they have the privilege to play with.
One would have thought that the format and jokes would have worn thin by now after umpteen seasons of Stig intros, bombshells, ‘don’t mention the war’, racial stereotyping, and the destruction of any machine that does not happen to be a Ferrari, Bentley or Aston Martin. But no, Top Gear is a social, cultural as well as economic phenomenon. It is watched in more territories around the world than I actually thought existed – it’s not so much that someone, somewhere in the world at any one time is watching Top Gear, more a case of everyone, everywhere on the planet is watching it all the time, some 350 million people apparently. How important and how much money the programme and its spin-offs make for the BBC and Clarkson himself has been much reported and evident to all who have been following Clarkson’s apparent fall from grace and the ‘demise’ of his career.
I am not so sure. In the same way that Clarkson and his sidekicks put down each other and anyone else who comes into their line of fire on screen, as fools, then I am pretty sure that we are all being played for fools off screen too. Jeremy Clarkson is a very clever man and I could almost guarantee, that off screen he is not a very pleasant man if you do not happen to be part of his little coterie. His personal wealth is considerable, achieved by using his not inconsiderable cleverness and by playing his little games. He is a manipulator and a control freak and apparently from what has been alleged, if he does not get his ‘dindins’ on time inclined to give his nanny a nasty smack. He is almost the perfect curious case of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button – the older he gets the more juvenile and immature his ‘humour’ becomes. He is just like a child pushing the boundaries to see how far he can get away with his unacceptable behaviour.
Make no mistake about it, his behaviour is unacceptable even if it is something that I myself have been guilty of many times. Yet, I am not a TV star and so my bad behaviour goes unnoticed whilst Clarkson’s is there for all those millions to view. There is also another difference between Clarkson and me in that I am sure his provocations, seemingly like his gear changes, are timed to perfection. Clarkson’s constant use of social media to bully or contest with others is carried out to provoke. I cannot help thinking that this latest brouhaha has impeccable timing in that his contract is up for renewal at the Beeb, and this could well be an easy opportunity for him to walk away and enjoy even greater riches and control by pedalling his charms with a rival channel. It seems too good to be true, and that the tired old farce that Top Gear has become – more like The Benny Hill Show with fast cars than anything resembling a car show – is in need of a change.
To be fair Top Gear has not been a car show for some time, but it has been a tried and tested formula that has been entertaining. Clarkson is, as I have said, undoubtedly clever and to be able to do what he does on screen, however hackneyed it may have become, takes immense talent. I somewhat know of what I speak in that myself and a couple of other like minded individuals have been trying to front a classic car programme on TV for the past 18 months. We are told we have talent, we know what we are talking about: we have access to beautiful cars, Lamborghini, Ferrari et al in beautiful places, including one of Top Gear’s favourites, Lake Como in Italy, and yet still the moguls at several TV stations prevaricate. Much better to stick with the tried and trusted Top Gear even if the re-run is ten years old and the latest up to date edition indistinguishable from that re-run. The formula is fool proof, it is the real thing. Top Gear is the Coca-Cola of television. It can be found all over the world and even though everyone knows that they both leave a nasty taste in the mouth after consumption, it is addictive, a guilty pleasure.
Top Gear as we know to our cost in Australia cannot be replicated. First SBS and then Channel 9, after paying a fortune, tried to produce Top Gear Australia, rather in the manner that The Spectator Australia has successfully enhanced the oldest continuously published English language periodical in the world.
Yet Top Gear Australia by both local channels was a dismal flop. It was possible to create an Aussie Stig, a James May type character and a little Richard Hammond character but it was not possible to recreate Jeremy Clarkson – no matter how boorish or rude the designated ‘knob’ might try to be. Clarkson is a one off. When comes such another?
James Nicholls is Head Lecturer at the Wentworth Institute, Sydney, teaching the Bachelor of Interactive Media course. You can follow his work on www.marinamarini.com.au
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