Monday, 7 January 2008

Drive, He Said

The best program on British television, and possibly the best program in the history of television, runs Sunday nights on BBC 2. It's called "Top Gear" and it's about how each of us can make the world a better place with simple acts of kindness, compassion and neighborhood voluntarism.

Who am I kidding? "Top Gear" is a totally indefensible hour-long show devoted to the internal combustion engine. It's about cars. But to call it a weekly car-test show is like calling "La Boheme" a show about a girl with a pesky cough. They drive new models, yes, but "Top Gear" is unadulterated car-porn, but with much better production values. The segments are beautifully filmed and edited, making each car look tooth-achingly beautiful. It's as if they called in Ridley Scott or Michael Bay to direct.

And they do ridiculously entertaining high-concept things in the show, like have a Bugatti Veyron race a light airplane from Italy to London or have an Aston Martin race a man on rollerskates with a jet-pack strapped to his back down a runway. They bring in celebrities to do a timed lap around their course in an econobox then reveal whether Simon Cowell was faster than Jamie Oliver. Sure, "Top Gear" demonstrates the luggage capacity of the new Land Rover, but goes far, far beyond merely dutiful reviews of the new Honda or Daihatsu.

The first thing I noticed about "Top Gear" was how pathetic it makes America's closest analogue appear. In the States there's a PBS show called "MotorWeek" which manages the amazing feat of making every car it tests look boring. It has at its host a humorless guy named John Davis who sucks the life out of even the most thrilling vehicles. Part of it is Davis's incredibly over-scripted delivery, each word uttered as if he's reading it from a TelePrompTer. And part of it's just Davis. He's a tubby guy who couldn't lever himself into a Lotus or Lamborghini unless he was sprayed with graphite. The other main character is Pat Goss, a garage owner from suburban Maryland who talks about car maintenance. His segment at least makes viewers dream that their garages could be as clean and well-equipped as his, but he's another chubby sourpuss. (And nowhere more sour than on his weekly radio program. He can barely hide the contempt in his voice when listeners phone in to ask about their "Check Engine" lights.)

The cars on "MotorWeek" are driven responsibly. You can't imagine them getting above 55 mph, let alone racing a man with a jet-pack on his back.

"Top Gear's" main host is Jeremy Clarkson, the anti-John Davis. In addition to his "Top Gear" duties, Clarkson pens an engaging car column in the Sunday Times. It's his weekly non-car column that explains why Clarkson is so popular in Britain, though. (There's a nascent "Clarkson for Prime Minister" movement.) Fed up with political correctness, Clarkson is a master of "I calls it as I see it." He can deploy a metaphor with the aplomb and audacity of a Thai stripper picking a Ping Pong ball up off a bar floor. It can all be a bit much sometimes, but it's a refreshing antidote to the furrowed-brow hand-wringing that characterizes so much British journalism.

This segment gives a taste of "Top Gear's" sensibility:

There's nothing as entertaining-- or wonderfully irresponsible--on American televsion. "Top Gear's" in re-runs now. It won't start up again till the summer, by which time I'll be back in the land of "MotorWeek." Pity, as I enjoy my weekly dose of petrol--er, gasoline.


mark from alexandria said...

Ah, once again, a chance to rant about BBC-America. With a wealth of quality BBC and other British programming to choose from, last night, BBC-A was scheduled to start reruns of...wait for it..."Dancing with the Stars," not "Strictly Come Dancing" so that those of us who lust after Letitia Dean would have something to look forward to, but reruns of something shown last week on American broacast TV. I do have to agree with you about "Top Gear," John, its a top show.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

I remember that some Oxford residents have a love affair with their cars partly because Cowley, not that far from Carfax, has had an automobile plant for years. And Nuffield College is named for the motor baron.

mark from alexandria said...

PS, you really should have mentioned that one of the hosts nearly lost his life in a horrific crash, but, as luck would have it, he fully recovered.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Does your employer know how you are spending your time over there?

Henry said...

I'd love to hear what anyone thinks of the fact that as a BBC production, "Top Gear" is entirely publicly funded. Exactly how is it in the public interest to use tax money (as the licence fee effectively is) to send some aging midlife-crisis merchant whizzing round a racetrack at 120 mph in a souped-up motor that almost nobody would even consider buying? (I have my own ideas, but I"m interested in what others think).

While I'm at it, a plug for the good old US of A's ""Pimp My Ride" (where the presenters are better looking) and "Car Talk" (where they are much funnier and much, much, much smarter).

John Kelly said...

Yes, "Top Gear" presenter Richard "The Hamster" Hammond did almost buy the farm when a tire exploded on a jet-powered car he was driving. (Details here:

Again, I can't see "MotorWeek" risking something like that. Thankfully, Hammond made a complete recovery. He was the host last night of a BBC show on D-Day. He's entertaining, but after watching "Top Gear," everything he says sounds to me as if he's describing a car, even when it's "German machine gun emplacements raked the sand with fire."

As for Henry's point, it's an interesting one. You can make it about any BBC show. Is the BBC meant to inform, edify or entertain? Or some mixture of all three? Does it want viewers (which "Top Gear" delivers) or does it want citizens? But not every tax helps every tax payer. My taxes have paid for roads I've never driven on and long-range missiles I've never fired. You could argue that since the Atom--the car Clarkson drove in the YouTube clip-- is built in Britain, "Top Gear" helps British industry.

SPL said...

"Exactly how is it in the public interest to use tax money to send some aging midlife-crisis merchant whizzing round a racetrack at 120 mph in a souped-up motor that almost nobody would even consider buying?"

Because millions of those taxpayers choose to watch those fabulously entertaining speed merchants. The same can't be said for the likes of Songs of Praise.

By the way John, have you seen the episode of Top Gear where the trio take a trip to Oxford? Clarkson claimed that it was the first time he had visited the bus-obsessed city, even though he has lived in Chipping North for ten years.

MEB said...

The person who objects to tax money funding "Top Gear" went on to cite "Car Talk" -- does he/she not know that "Car Talk" is funded by National Public Radio?

"Songs of Praise" reminds me: does the BBC still run "Bird Spot" and "A Man and His Dog"?

Henry said...

To spl and Meb,
Thanks so much for responding! I knew John's readers were an astute bunch...

To John and SPL: Fair points, but Top Gear's huge popularity is EXACTLY why it doesn't need public funding. Since it is so popular, it could easily get the advertising/subscriptions to support itself - unlike Songs of Praise, (or Newsnight or Panorama or One Man and His Dog), which arguably serve important niches or functions, but would not get adequate sponsorship on their own. (And to John, I bet if you did a survey of economic textbooks referring to "Public Goods", there would be more references to roads and national defense than to Jeremy Clarkson)

To Meb: Good point - actually I give money most years when the membership drives get finally crush my spirit, and I have a cupboardful of Click and Clack coffee mugs to prove it. The difference as I see it is that NPR is (a) generally much cheaper than the BBC and (b) overwhelmingly funded by voluntary contributions of one sort or another (charities or individual donations) while the BBC licence fee is the closest thing most of us have to a poll tax.

Anyway, thanks again for the thoughts

mark from alexandria said...

To Henry: presumably, the BBC makes money on some of their high popularity shows that they sell to other overseas networks. The hated BBC-America does show some BBC programming and other shows are bought by public tv networks in the States. So, I am assuming that the license fee isn't the Beeb's only source of revenue. I am not sure the UK would be a better place if people had to watch commercials during "Top Gear," "EastEnders," or "Holby City."

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DeShotz said...

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the fact that the much maligned BBC America does in fact carry "Top Gear" here in the States. You can catch Clarkson, The Hamster, and Captain Slow on Mondays at 8pm. At 9pm, they repeat the previous week's new episode, errr, new-to-the-U.S. episode. I've seen clips from the show on the Internet for the past several years, so I was quite happy to discover that I could see full episodes starting last fall. It's a shame that "Top Gear" is not available on DVD. Apparently there are issues with licensing all the music they use in the background of their segments.