I, as a fairly serious motoring enthusiast, fall firmly into the former camp. Top Gear makes up exactly half of the car-based shows on British television, the other half being 5th Gear. This is, incidentally, pathetic; cars are as much if not more a part of people's everyday lives as buying houses, decorating, and auctioning your unwanted crap, so why so little coverage? Anyway., as it is we have a maximum of two hours petrolhead airtime a week, so we have a right to expect it to be worthwhile.
What I'm not going to do here, is prattle on about how Top Gear isn't a car show, and is a waste of license fee, or needlessly offensive, etcetera. Those arguments all have their place, and their merit, but they're very predictable and completely subjective; Top Gear really is Marmite television, and whether you find the formula mouth-watering or wretch-inducing, it's so successful, it's here to stay.
What I am going to do is take a sideways look at Top Gear using themes I've just mentioned: Predictable. Formulaic. As someone who's watched the show for years, it's now far too predictable. Have a look at my run through of a typical Top Gear's starting screenplay below, and ask yourself, honestly, if it doesn't ring any bells.
- I wear some SOCKS
- Richard stubs his TOE
- James says 'Oh 'C*ck."
After the adoring applause dies down, Clarkson introduces the first item, usually a supercar track test. Nothing really wrong with that, after all this is Top Gear, and what brings the viewers in are the headline cars, not a Which? magazine verdict. It'd be brilliant to have more road tests on Britain's pockmarked and scarred roads, with some good scenery, as Dunsfold is a bit dull week after week, but it is at least an even playing field for all cars.
The stylishly shot film begins with much use of colour and imaging effects, and some Daft Punk.
"WELCOME to the improbably named, very fast, fantastically expensive..."
The car is then tested over the course of three or four minutes. Sadly, the damning verdicts and inspired turn of metaphoric phrase Clarkson used to possess have been replaced by a caricature version of the man, not dissimilar for Harry Enfield's send up.
Cue a launch control demonstration, and as the car accelerates:
- spleen torn from mountings
- lungs are going to explode
"THEN, there's the WAY IT GOES ROUND CORNERS..."
- like a housefly
- like an axe murderer
- like a F-18 fighter
- enough to tear your face off
"Then there's THE NOISE, which sounds like:"
- a wounded animal
- A thunderstorm
- certain Second World War fighter aircraft
No mention of induction noise, exhaust blare, or previously, the explanation for why a car has steering feel or good mid corner balance. Just shouting. Sound familiar?
The ride is usually best summed up not with words such as 'informative, uncomfortable, communicative, or exemplary, but rather:
- I could run over a painted line/insect/rodent and tell you the colour/breed/its last meal.
Also, the boot is usually big enough 'For things', and there'll be a smattering of saying either 'Sweet', or 'Jesus' in an odd and unfunny squeaky accent.
Week after week, are these really all that funny? On YouTube, people like Jason Plato, Chris Harris, Jamie Corstophine and Steve Sutcliffe have all proved that being informative and accurate about a car's components, set-up, and performance, comes in no detriment to being entertaining, or watchable.
Enter a competitor, a drag race, and a summing up, comparing the cars not to chalk and cheese, but
- tights and suspenders
- training shoes and brogues
- iPod versus gramophone
- Manchester United versus Sheffield Wednesday
- Usain Bolt versus Anne Widdecombe
Then it's back to the studio for lap times, and the rest of the show, with a celebrity with something to plug doing a slow lap, an improbable homemade challenge, or three-way race across Europe.
You could counter with the 'lap times don't matter' argument, but Top Gear centres its car verdicts on a track test and lap time, and no-one, not even Sir Jeremy of Clarkson, has the right to pluck incorrect figures out of thin air to support their opinion. He and his cohorts have a job to do, and to neglect it is bad research, bad journalism, and ultimately, bad television.
Here's a fairly typical Top Gear track test, flashy, but lacking in substance:
And here's evo's take on exactly the same cars. Less glossy, but so much more satisfying to watch.
And here's proof Clarkson could once marry being entertaining, informative, and sensible with normal cars, while being thoroughly enjoyable to spend your Sunday evening with.
They can do serious items. The Senna tribute was a high point of the past few years, while this series' McLaren MP4-12C test was one of the best track films on the show ever. But because children apparently found it too boring, out comes the puerility. But like all children's entertainment, it's way too easy to see what's coming next. Top Gear should celebrate motoring, not reduce it to pantomine. Here's Clarkson on why his children don't like TG unless caravans are on fire.
Still, the car enthusiasts are small fish in a big pond of television viewers, and the majority find the silly spectacle of Top Gear brilliant as it is.
"...Oh no it isn't...."