Why It’s Still Okay to Admit Liking ‘Top Gear’

Picture the scene.  It’s Sunday evening, just before eight, around the time when, for the last decade or more, upto seven million people start to think about gaining tactical possession of the remote control.  For many, the highlight of their televisual week is about to start.

Over recent Sundays, these time-honoured manoeuvres have been unnecessary.  Why? Because the object of such mass orchestrations, a ‘special interest’ show on a minority channel will not be shown this week – or possibly ever again – while the BBC investigates the most recent conduct of one of its presenters.

Unlike many of Clarkson’s more unquestioning acolytes, I can understand the process here. Generally speaking any misconduct investigation of this magnitude requires that the individual being investigated be temporarily suspended from their duties, probably with full pay, and with no implication of guilt in the meantime. The idea is that the ‘clock’ is effectively stopped for a short time, while a longer-term decision is being made.

I can also accept that a physical assault in most forms is defined by most organisations as an example of ‘gross misconduct’, a charge which very often carries with it a penalty of dismissal.  Remember, this is still an allegation, though.  Anything generally understood to be defined by the above terms may not even have happened.  In the meantime, innocence has to be presumed.

For many onlookers, the case does seem to be rather conveniently ‘open-and-shut’ but is that fair? Even if the allegations prove to be true, any employer would be obliged to consider previous character and any mitigating factors before deciding on a form of punitive action.  Again, the internet won’t be short of people pointing out incidents that reflect ‘previous character’ – and it can’t be denied that ‘Jezza’ has a charge list as long as the service notes on a Lotus Esprit.  It’s a list in which racial slurs, high-jinks, diplomatic incidents, lazy stereotyping have all appeared. Given that Clarkson himself once made reference to the Lotus name being an unflattering acronym, it seems ironic now that it can be equally applied to himself: Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious.

The thing is, whatever happens to Jeremy Clarkson, it should happen in a manner removed from the hyperbole and prejudice that surrounds him, as an individual.  If the BBC decide they’ve finally tired of tolerating his antics and terminate his contract, that too should happen in a manner removed from the hyperbole and prejudice currently being aimed at the show he’s presented for so may years.

I suspect that won’t be the case.  The perennial allure of Top Gear, its willingness to be divisive in an all-embracing age is now, inevitably, threatening to be its downfall.  Its ‘edginess’ has won it millions of viewers over the years – and many enemies, who are unlikely to stand idly by when they sense its current vulnerability.  Of course they will argue that Top Gear‘s schoolboy silliness and base humour are merely the thin end of a wedge that ultimately comprises a deeper, darker agenda of casual racism, xenophobia, the ridicule of minorities and that scourge of the politically correct, the unreconstructed male.

At this point, when the argument begins to form according to wider ideological lines and it becomes easy to forget that we’re talking about a car show, here.  While it can’t be denied that TG‘s irreverance/offensivenenss (delete, according to your viewpoint) is a part of the show’s incredibly popular formula, it is, after all, only part of its style.  The actual substance of the show is the appreciation of the car, of its engineering, its styling, marketing and, yes, its performance.  And yet, somehow this all seems to be lost in all the (dare I say it?) fracas of the last few weeks.

The appreciation of automotive form and function is no less valid or healthy than an interest in, say, antiques, yet one show has cosy respectability and enjoys prime placement within the ‘establishment’ of BBC1 (attracting 5.65m viewers on January 11th), while the other, for one reason or another, was able to entice 6.41m viewers on January 25th to the relative ghetto of BBC2.

Perhaps there’s another wedge here.  One where the thin end is the dislike we’ve seen (and many have felt) towards the ‘puerile’, the ‘laddish’ and ‘lowest-common-denominator’.  A wedge which goes on to encompass a deeper antipathy towards the appreciation of speed, the notion of personal, rather than public, transportation, the very construct of the car itself.  An idealogically-motivated, environmentally-entitled position from people who have decided not just that because they hold certain views of social conduct, so must everyone else; but also because they have a life in which the car plays little or no part, so must everyone else.

If you think this is a rather reactionary viewpoint, cast you mind back a few short months to the tale of the Labour MP for Islington South & Finsbury, Emily Thornberry.  For her, the presence of a white van and flag of St. George outside a (possibly Labour-supporting) voter’s household was an invitation for such disdain.  Nationalism and unreconstructed male attitudes are, after all, not highly-regarded commodities by the chattering classes of New Labour Islington.  Unfortunately, this was a perception which was to cost her her position in the Shadow Cabinet.  No-one will pretend that every white van driver is likely to be a wonderfully erudite, endearing, urbane individual – but who would drive a van for any reason other than to work?  Ms. Thornberry now realises she should have known better than to publicly belittle a voter and (presumably) a taxpayer because *he* fits a profile that is alien to her ideology.  Is that in any way related to what’s going on here?  Little more than intellectual snobbery from those  claiming to be more ‘enlightened’ than the rest of us?

If the chief casualty in this whole Clarkson/Top Gear episode is to be the show itself, yes, I’m sure I’d miss some aspects of its idiosyncratic style that consistently infuriates so many others. But much, much more than that, I’d miss the substance: the increasingly rare opportunity to indulge in and celebrate the world’s most aspirational cars and, despite all the silliness and incorrectness, rejoice in the seemingly prohibited allure of the V8 engine, the 0-60 acceleration time and the standing quarter from some of the world’s most famous and revered car-makers.

“What’s the point?’ ask the seriously ‘enlightened’?  “You can only drive it at 70mph, anyway” they will probably say, seriously missing the point.  They may even point out rather smugly that it is thanks to Barbara Castle MP (Lab) that we even have a 70mph speed limit.  Perhaps they’re right: perhaps there is no point in delighting in the very existence of the Bugatti Veyron or the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento.  But then, is there much point in speculating vicariously at the possibility of a Van Dyck having being discovered over on the Antiques Roadshow?  What, even, is the point of all entertainment or escapism?  Perhaps people who think like this don’t need to look too far at all to find the answer – an escape from people like them, with their joyless worthiness and their unclearly-acquired qualification in knowing what’s best for everyone else.

It’s one thing for people who claim to ‘know better’ to disdain of the presentation and production values within Top Gear, it’s another thing entirely for them to then presume that an affinity for the car, in all its forms, is equally as contemptible.  I hope the BBC has the wit to make that distinction.

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