Review of "Top Gear"
It's David versus Goliath; it's Mohammed Ali versus Joe Frazier; it's Michael Schumacher versus Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari v McLaren, BMW against Mercedes. In fact, it's K.I.T.T. versus K.A.R.R. and the Autobots against the Decepticons.It's Top Gear, and it's back to challenge Fifth Gear for its rightful spot as * the * best motoring programme on telly.
Unsurprisingly, in this day of environmental friendliness, motoring programmes are not necessarily the most politically correct of television broadcasts but, when BBC2's Controller pulled the programme from its schedule in 2001 there was a television viewing outcry of superlative proportions, and it's easy to see why.The show began in 1977 as a local programme produced by Pebble Mill and its presenters varied while the show tried to find its footing and develop a name for itself. The original half hour show focused heavily on reviewing mainstream cars for the everyday man, motoring issues and motorsport related news. It quickly developed a following for its professional reporting on motoring in general from household recognised names including Noel Edmonds and Angela Rippon.
As the show grew in popularity and branched out to become a national broadcast, more regular presenters were needed to give Top Gear stability and recognised names such as Tiff Needell - who'd made a name for himself in motorsport but not, sadly, as a successful F1 driver - and Chris Goffey became the mainstay of the show.Top Gear's most famous name, Jeremy Clarkson, joined the show in 1988 and quickly built a reputation for his unorthodox, outspoken reporting on cars. Whilst the other journalists felt it necessary to always be positive about the car they were reviewing, Clarkson took a more honest approach. He was famously banned from driving Vauxhalls after citing the Vectra as boring; Ford's Scorpio, he pointed out, was simply ugly - the most aesthetically pleasing part of the car, he said, was the tyre valve cover. He built his reputation on belittling the cars he thought were poorly built and racing around trying to go faster, screaming "more power"!
But whilst the motor manufacturers were displeased with his outbursts, threatening the BBC with actions, the public loved him. They loved his brutish honesty and his excitable wit: "this car can snap knicker elastic at twenty paces!" They loved Clarkson's desire to driver faster cars and quickly Top Gear picked up on the viewing public's mood: they appreciated the car reviews, but they wanted to see the more exotic cars.Clarkson took the view that any old Joe could walk in to his local Ford dealership and look at the latest Sierra; what they couldn't do, however, was walk down the street and sample a Ferrari, a Porsche or a Lamborghini. So he sampled them for them, and took the car to the television. The viewers loved it.
In 1991 Quentin Wilson was drafted in to keep the show's feet firmly planted in the real world and, with a former racing driver, a former car salesman, and a motoring journalist with big hair that simply wanted to shout "power!" all the time, Top Gear rapidly stole the number one slot on BBC2 from all its rivals.As the show grew, so did its presenters, and names such as Vicki Butler-Henderson, an attractive girl with a throaty voice and passion for things that throbbed between her thighs, took the show to new heights. But BBC2's management weren't pleased. The show was being denounced for its environmental impact and willingness to promote speed, and Jeremy Clarkson quit in 1999 after becoming dissatisfied with the direction the producers wanted to take the programme. With Clarkson gone, the show lost a lot of its appeal and even young presenters such as Jason Barlow or Kate Humble couldn't pick up where the motormouth had left off.
Eventually, to the dismay of the show's fans, Top Gear was cancelled in 2001 in favour of a gardening programme felt, by the management, to be more sympathetic to the view the world was taking on climate change.Channel Five were quick to pick up the pieces, spotting an opportunity to fill a gap in a television schedule with the woefully unoriginal title of "Fifth Gear". Keen to exploit the demise of their competitor's programme, Channel Five also snapped up mainstay presenters Tiff Needell, Quentin Wilson and Vicki Butler-Henderson to head up the show.
It was okay, but as with any sequel it has never quite cut the mustard as Top Gear could. As the only major motoring programme on TV, Fifth Gear developed its own following but the BBC soon realised the error of their ways and, with some grovelling, they approached Clarkson, whose television and journalistic careers continued to flourish with his work on Top Gear Magazine and his documentary programmes that had taken him around the world.Clarkson agreed to head up a new show, but only if he could be in charge, and a new format of Top Gear came back in 2002. The show worked on a simple formula: three presenters, a disused airfield and an old aircraft hanger. Presented from within the hanger by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and, from the second series onwards, James May, the three guys recognised a formula that would work: fast cars, lewd comments and an enormous sense of fun.
Whilst the new Top Gear still focused on its mainstay ideas from the 1970s of reviewing cars, Clarkson returned with his philosophy of bringing the unobtainable cars to his adoring public. Yes, mainstream cars from the likes of Ford, Peugeot, BMW and their competitors continue to be used in the programme, but it's the supercars, the exotic cars, evocative names like Ferrari, Bugatti, Spyker, that the viewers tuned in for - and still do. Along with the team's wacky races (can Clarkson beat Hammond and May to Monte Carlo in an Aston Martin while they use the train; can Clarkson beat Hammond and May to London from Italy in a Bugatti Veyron whilst they use a light aircraft), famous faces racing around their airfield track in a 'reasonably priced car' and The Stig setting lap time after lap time in powerful cars, the audience lapped it up.They knew the stunts were choreographed, they knew the races were tilted in favour of the car, and they knew that Clarkson's salacious remarks were meant to cause controversy, but they loved it.
Channel Five realised they were in trouble. Quickly, they brought in their own version of the lap times but, whilst Top Gear made use of a simple board and some strips of plastic stuck to it with sticky tape, Fifth Gear went for the technology, the plasma screen, the computer - and everyone realised quickly that Tiff and his crew were uncomfortable with it. They were trying too hard to compete with the best-loved motoring programme in the world.
They ditched the trackside reviews to present their show from within an office, with telesales people in the background, and then they moved to having Vicki presenting the show from within a cafe with artistic camera lens shots.The changes could do nothing to stem the tide of Top Gear. The show's popularity continued to grow, but so did its detractors.
The environmental issues were brought to light countless times but, more importantly, the detractors picked on the show's promotion of speed and its insistence on reviewing cars that the ordinary man couldn't buy. Clarkson and his team shot each argument down - and continue to do so - by simply standing by their view that anybody can walk in to a Citroen showroom and look at a C4; they can't look at a Spyker.And the loyal fans continue to support them.
Twelve months ago one of the show's stars, Richard Hammond, faced death when the jet car he was driving blew a tyre and veered off the road, leaving him with a severe brain injury that meant for weeks afterwards nobody knew whether he would survive or not; and, if he did, would he be the same person.Top Gear was pulled - albeit temporarily - from the schedule. Health & Safety rushed to investigate and the detractors fell on the show like vultures on a dying prey.
Hammond pulled through amongst an amazing display of public support and sympathy and the BBC had no choice but to reinstate the programme. Health & Safety could find little wrongdoing in the company's approach and eventually ruled the incident an accident. Top Gear was back - and, as soon as they could, the boys drove a car to the North Pole, just to make sure they upset the green parties a little bit more.Now Top Gear is back for its latest series, kicking off on BBC2 at 8pm on Sunday 7th October, with Clarkson, May and - most importantly - Hammond all back for more automotive japery with the behelmeted Stig. Hammond may be small, but the ladies love him, James May be gawpy but his acerbic wit is second only to Clarkson, who may be chauvinistic and conceited, but he's still the best damned motoring journalist out there and, with Journalist Of The Year Awards behind him and having taken the latest incarnation of Top Gear on to win BAFTA and Emmy awards, nobody can blame him for being just a
little bit big-headed.
Plus, the show brings in eight million viewers a week for BBC2, making it their highest grossing viewer programme. Top Gear is a motoring programme for the masses but, more importantly, it's an entertainment programme - it's designed to make you laugh, it's designed to make you think, and it's designed to be must-see TV.It's a shame I'll be working and will miss the opening episode.
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Listed on Ciao since: 18/07/2000