‘Crap’, but captivating

In 1977 the television equivalent of a beige Austin Allegro trundled on to British television screens. With its quaint name and features about road safety, Top Gear undertook the serious business of reviewing new cars. In the years since, however, this Allegro of the airwaves has undergone a transformation every bit as dramatic as the family car, exploding into a colourful, snarling great SUV of a television programme.

Top Gear has in fact taken over the world. It is now broadcast in more than 100 countries, claiming a global audience of 350-million. It is the most illegally downloaded show on the planet. Its format, which its makers describe as “crap men adventures with crap cars”, has turned three shabby, middle-aged motoring journalists into global rock stars. Last November not only saw the start of a new series but also a world tour, Top Gear Live, which will take the show to cities including Sydney, Cape Town, Hong Kong and Amsterdam.

Top Gear is not simply BBC2’s highest-rated programme; it is a phenomenon. Schoolboys and teenage girls flock to public appearances by its presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. Even environmentally conscious viewers get guilty pleasure from its ludicrous stunts filmed with enormous budgets. And it’s political: it kicks against what it sees as New Labour’s nanny state (a government website poll demanding Clarkson become prime minister attracted nearly 50 000 signatures) and does everything in its power to provoke the politically correct sensibilities of the BBC. Barely a month passes without the show crashing into controversy, with the TV watchdog, Ofcom, ruling on its jokes about prostitutes and suicide, and accusations that it is sexist, environmentally reckless and glamorises speeding.

To understand the show in its current format properly, you have to go back — perhaps unsurprisingly — to school. It was at the public school of Repton, almost 40 years ago, that a boy called Andy Wilman befriended a fellow boarder with “a massive gob, really bad music taste and massive hair — the full Leo Sayer”: the teenage Jeremy Clarkson. The pair ended up working together on Top Gear and, according to Wilman, now the executive producer of the show, their schooldays have been a profound influence on the revamped model: the presenters behave as if they are still at school and are celebrated and condemned alike for their puerile sense of humour.

The arrival of the motormouth Clarkson in the late 1980s shook up strait-laced Top Gear, but audiences declined after he departed in the late 1990s. Wilman, a burly, sweary 47-year-old who, when we meet, is frantically stitching together the new series in an editing suite in Soho, central London, was actually sacked from the old-model Top Gear in 1999. The show looked “fucking old-fashioned” next to new formats, he says now, and after it was finally axed in 2001, he and Clarkson got together over a pub lunch to draw up a manifesto for a brand-new Top Gear.

One, it would have a news section so “important but boring”, cars could be dispensed with quickly. Two, it would be filmed before an audience in an old aircraft hangar, which would become “an oasis for people who like cars”.

Three, they would have an all-male line-up. Four, and perhaps most importantly, “it would always be an unfair show”, says Wilman.
“The BBC would say, ‘You should get Professor Suchabody on talking about the environment’ and we would go, ‘Fuck off, he can have the Ten O’Clock News.’ Do the Two Fat Ladies say, ‘And if you want to have a low-fat version of this recipe you can use single cream’? They never do. They go, ‘Pile it on; heart attack now.'”

Other winning ingredients were arrived at more by accident. The show needed a professional driver but “a racing driver with brains” so he and Clarkson came up with their “captive racing driver” who would be called The Stig, the nickname for new boys at Repton.

The bolshy, rebranded Top Gear was relaunched in 2002, but it was not an immediate success. “It was just a car show on BBC2 so we were afforded the time without having to force it,” says Richard “the Hamster” Hammond when we talk.

The on-screen gang was completed with the arrival of the cerebral James May for the second series. Whatever you think of these three white, middle-class, middle-aged men with their schoolboy humour, all three are smart. Or, as a Top Gear editor said recently: “Thick people doing thick things is not funny. Clever people doing clever things is not funny. But clever people doing thick things really is funny.”

Their on-screen chemistry and cartoon characters took shape over several series. “Jeremy is walk through a door rather than open it, Richard’s a massively accident-prone and cheeky chappie, and James is a pedantic nerd,” says Wilman. His young children love these “black-and-white, tabloid characters”; Wilman jokes that Top Gear‘s audience is all schoolboys and prisoners.

Hammond, who grew up as one of three brothers, points out that a trio works well: one of them always gets in trouble, or gets picked on.

As audiences grew and Top Gear attracted A-list guests from Joanna Lumley to Usain Bolt to race in its “reasonably priced car” each week, its stunts became more outlandish and its films more exotic. The trio graduated from converting old bangers into stretch limos to road trips across the United States and Vietnam.

“One of our watchwords, a phrase that permeates our productions, is ‘ambitious but crap’,” says Hammond, chuckling to himself. “I love setting off on projects like trying to make a car and cross the English Channel.”

May, a donnish, genteel man nicknamed Captain Slow by his colleagues for his championing of comfort over speed in cars, thinks Top Gear gives viewers vicarious pleasure. “It’s a fairly simple concept, Top Gear: three blokes pushing the boundaries of automotive acceptability.”

It appeared they had pushed the boundaries too far in 2006 when Hammond nearly died while filming a stunt at Elvington airfield near York. A tyre on his dragster burst as he reached 288mph and a serious brain injury left him depressed and disoriented for months.

When Hammond returned to Top Gear, Clarkson handed him a tissue in case he started “dribbling” — another crass joke that was jumped on by critics.

Although Wilman is called “the boss” by Hammond, Clarkson is the “engine room” of Top Gear, according to Wilman. “It’s Jeremy’s show. No question, because it can’t be a democracy. It’s Jeremy’s vision. We’ve all got drive, but his drive is noticeably amazing.” Arriving home at midnight after a recent Top Gear Live event, Clarkson worked on a rough edit of the new series and called Wilman with his notes at 8am the next day.

Clarkson would not be interviewed for this article. He refuses all interviews, claims Top Gear‘s publicist, although he pops up in the pages of the Sun and the Sunday Times often enough. Which is a shame, because Clarkson is an easy hate figure for liberal readers, even those who secretly enjoy Top Gear. He seems to ooze contempt for the environment.

During filming for Top Gear, it was claimed he damaged a peat bog in Scotland. On another occasion, the BBC was forced to apologise after he rammed a pickup into a chestnut tree to test the vehicle’s strength. He rails against political correctness and health and safety regulations, and earlier was accused of calling the prime minister, Gordon Brown, “a cunt” in unbroadcast comments to his Top Gear audience, whom he has also referred to as “oafs”. He has been condemned by chief constables for glamorising speeding, has joked about truck drivers murdering prostitutes, and said a woman presenter would be “a disaster” on Top Gear.

He sounds like a sexist monster and a bully, but then Clarkson’s reactionary opinions are probably the calculated wind-ups of a professional stirrer. Wilman’s account of their schooldays is revealing: “Going to school together is more important than most people realise with Top Gear,” he says. At school Clarkson found his niche perpetually needling teachers and those in authority. “He’d be like somebody doing that to you.” Wilman leans over and repeatedly prods me with his finger. “If they do that to you for four years, you want to kill them.”

The pair learned in boarding school that there was a limit to punishments — they already had bad food and early bedtime — so they felt almost untouchable. “Which is why I can’t be arsed with Ofcom,” Wilman says of their frequent brushes with authority. (The latest was when the regulator ruled that Top Gear breached broadcasting regulations with its spoof VW advert depicting a suicide.) “If the BBC gets cross with us, we struggle to take it seriously.”

Curiously, the Labour government has been another ingredient in Top Gear‘s success. “I believe there is a load of reasons Top Gear is popular — families like it, girls like to watch men being thick and we do that with aplomb, and the third thing is we are a release valve for people who get nagged to fuck,” says Wilman. “We know this Labour administration has put more rules in since 1997 than anyone else because they have passed more laws.”

May agrees. “I hope people like the fact we’re not going to be cowed into toeing the Labour party line.” Under a Conservative government, Top Gear‘s status as an enjoyably subversive pleasure may disappear. Wilman admits the team are “a bit Tory wanker”, but argues they will “and up doing opposition” because any new government will “still pop the motorist because it’s an easy target”.

One analogy that keeps returning to Top Gear is of a rock band. After years of obscurity, this gang of four blokes has gone global. They may be at the peak of their powers — with their world tour, solo projects, long hair, helicopters and big houses in the country — but just like jaded rockers they sense their own mortality.

If personality clashes don’t kill Top Gear (these days the presenters sound increasingly convincing when they describe how much they dislike one another), then budget cuts might. On BBC orders, Top Gear has cut costs this year and must do so again next year. Wilman is worried that its lavish films — “our signature dish” — will suffer. It has been reported that each show costs £100 000, but “it’s more than that”, Wilman brags. “We spend that on crisps.”

Global rights and merchandising make millions for Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm, which then pays for a quarter of Top Gear‘s budget. The rest is from the licence fee that British television viewers have to pay annually. But reports that Clarkson earns £2-million a year are “the biggest pile of bollocks”, says Wilman. “They are not getting paid stupid money.”

Wilman insists they do not stage their misadventures, but admits it is “less spontaneous” after 13 series. “We know we want calamities to happen. There is no surprise to us any more, just relief, when things go wrong,” he says.

Unlike great rock bands, he does not think they will be destroyed by their own hubris. “It will end because we are a one-trick pony, as all good shows are, and at some point we will run out of ideas or the public will go, ‘We’ve got the point now.'” he says. “But we’ll run out of songs first.” — © Guardian News & Media 2010

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Patrick Barkham
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