Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Farewell, Top Gear

Or at least farewell to the Clarkson, May and Hammond version of Top Gear. Who knows what Evans and his next-generation entourage will make of it. More on all that at the end of this post.

James May (strangely jacketed) and Richard Hammond (strangely bearded) presented the very last old-style episode three nights ago. They looked sad. They were putting on bright faces for the cameras. But it was all over. Jeremy Clarkson (feeling bloody-minded and unreasonable) had literally stopped the show by socking the producer on the jaw. I'm beginning to think that he punched on purpose, as a carefully-crafted startegy, so that all three of them could extricate themselves from a rolling Top Gear contract that, although undoubtedly richly remunerative, strapped them all firmly and immovably into a presentational straightjacket. Remember that all were still hot TV property, with plenty they might like to do while still young(ish) and active. Clarkson was basically a talented journalist, and could make a fortune merely churning out articles and books, and accepting high-profile assignments as Britain's most skilful diplomat and peace-emissary, especially good when dealing with delicate foreign sensibilities. May had still not finished with his brilliant solo ventures, his Toy Story and Man Lab productions. Perhaps his ideas on a series on All Mechanical Things Generally were being thwarted by the treadmill Top Gear contract. Likewise, Hammond had proved himself capable of explaining Enormous Things and Concepts in his own solo TV efforts.

But if no TV organisation now wanted to touch them, if they were all to a man now washed-up as presenters, all of them could at the very least drive juggernauts for Eddie Stobart, or get involved with long-term testing for the Caravan Club, which might prove ideal. They wouldn't starve.

It absolutely wasn't the same without Clarkson in that final episode. That inflatable elephant in the almost-empty studio was meant to represent him - the 'elephant in the room'. (What a cliché - why not instead 'the orang utan in the room'?) The other two looked subdued - forlorn - without him. Three is often a crowd. But that three were perfect together, and must have taught a generation how to do Big Boys' Banter properly, as an art form. However, the two cobbled-together films that filled up the hour were as excellent as any ever produced in the past.

Have I any personal Top Gear memorabilia? Some. I once possessed a version of the Highway Code written by Jeremy Clarkson, but its advice was really too extreme, and I chucked it. I regret that. But I still have two issues of the Top Gear Magazine car buying guide, dating from 2010 and 2011, which, though probably not written entirely by the Boys, certainly carry their imprint. And a puzzle-book based mainly on The Stig.

The buying guides were intimately connected with my ordering of Fiona from the secret Volvo Factory in the New Year of 2011. One to help me decide whether to favour Volvo or Audi or Honda or Toyota, and one to confirm that I'd made a fine choice worthy of a Star In A Reasonably-Priced Car. The 2010 'Test Drive Directory' more-or-less told me that any sensible person wanting Scandinavian Safety and Clean Styling should look no further:

Look at the verdict. An excellent car and everything you'd expect from a Volvo. Handsome, drives well and spacious. Not the off-roader some of its rivals are, but in this market, who cares? That clinches it in three short sentences. And (talking about the engines available) The D5 is the version to get plenty of power and torque. With it, the XC60 never feels strained and copes easily with that crucial 50-80mph overtake dash (I ordered my Volvo XC60 with the D5 engine). And: ...the cabin quality is fantastic and everything looks clean and Swedish. And: Considering the quality, it's bang on the money. Well! Who reading such comments, clearly dictated from the very studio of Top Gear, straight from Clarkson's mouth perhaps, wouldn't have gone for a car exactly like top-spec Fiona? And she has fulfilled my every hope and expectation in the last five years. Thank you, Fiona. Thank you, boys. Live long and prosper.

The 2011 'New Car Buyers Guide' thrust the trio at you more obviously. Their throwaway but pithy remarks prefaced every section, echoing their individual idiosyncrasies. Thus, with the section on buying a convertible:

GENERAL COMMENT FROM ALL THREE: Like the open air? Don't wear a loose wig? Then a convertible or roadster just might be for you.
MAY: 'I'm sorry, but you can't look manly driving any of these cars.'
CLARKSON: 'The only real options are the Mazda and BMW. Not a sentence I ever thought I'd say.'
HAMMOND: 'Buy a Fiat 500C [a very small car, hamster-sized] and it will be like owning a little piece of Italy - stylish, cool and fun.'

Or on coupés:

GENERAL COMMENT FROM ALL THREE: A coupé demonstrates to others that you don't have to be practical. It's the slinkier alternative.
MAY: 'A coupé is better looking and better to drive than a saloon. Much better to leave the children at home in the cellar. Where they belong.'
CLARKSON: 'Angelina Jolie circa 2001, that's a coupé - carefree, sexy, a bit dangerous. It makes a saloon look like Angelina circa 2011. After seven kids and a divorce'
HAMMOND: 'All the best cars come in coupé format. The Porche 911, for a start. And the VW Scirocco. And the Merc E-Class. Did I mention the 911?'

I hope I am driving my point home. These buying guides are the distillation of definitive car wisdom from three expert petrolheads. It's the Word itself. How nice, how pleasant, how satisfying, that Fiona has vaguely coupé styling, at least from some angles.

Vroom, vroom, vroom.

The Stig-themed puzzle book is rather different. I bought it not because I like puzzles (I don't) or because I idolise The Stig (I don't) but because each of the pictures within is full of amazing, hypnotising detail.

The Boys are also in it. Indeed, so are a whole lot of other people. If you are keen on the puzzle bit, your task is to find at least these persons or things in every picture:

But at the back of the book is a further long list that includes Simon Cowell, Hugh Grant, Dame Helen Mirren, Boris Johnson, Brian Cox, Stephen Fry, Johnny Vegas, Geri Halliwell, Biggles, The Abominable Snowman, Jaws, a dead rabbit, Bruce Willis, Angelina Jolie, Jay Z, Jarvis Cocker, Mick Jagger, Foo Fighters, and - how foresighted - Chris Evans:

The book presents the reader/browser/puzzle freak with a selection of pictures jam-packed with milling crowds and sundry goings-on, and you have to find the Stig (or whoever else) in all that mesmerising detail. Me? I just marvel at all the detail, even if it has got to be computer-generated and not actually drawn by hand in some mountain abbey fastness, the work of a dedicated nun or monk.

Here are my own favourite scenes. The Studio:


The North Pole, with polar bears absolutely everywhere:

Costa del Stig:

The English Channel:

Festival Stig:

But worthy enough are Vietnam, The Deep South, Tokyo, and Bonneville Salt Flats:

Strictly for puzzle-junkies only are Stigs in Space and Stig's Secret Bunker:

You may well wonder who the book is aimed at. Female early-sixty Volvo XC60 D5 SE Lux Premium drivers certainly, especially those with the powered-tailgate, side mirrors with memory, and blind-spot sensor options. But who else? I don't think the answer is 'children'. Caravan owners, perhaps (it's a suitably lightweight, space-saving coffee-table book to impress other Club enthusiasts). And Reliant Robin owners no doubt (even though there is no Reliant Robin to find in any picture).

Let's conclude. I've presented my credentials. They cut the mustard. The question now is: what should the new, Evanised, Top Gear look like?

I think they should retain the opening and closing Top Gear music, because it gets you into the right mood for any kind of exciting fantasy motoring entertainment. After all, the Car is the Star - or so you'd suppose. And the format of 'charismatic host greeting viewers from inside a vast hanger at Dunsfold Airfield, with a massed crowd around him' would still work fine. After that, Evans could feel free to tinker.

It would be a great idea to have some knowledgeable girls fronting the thing, alongside Evans. It gets away from May's gentleman's club ethos, and Hammond's Porsche 911 fixation, and Clarkson's silly jokes about farting and Latin America. Evans can't call any of the girls a 'bell-end', and they can wittily poke fun at him when he isn't watching. In the films, I'd like to see a girl's approach to challenges (shades of Ellen MacArthur) and a fresh, car-focussed, enthusiast side to Evans.

I just hope he keeps it tasteful. I also hope he actually turns up, and keeps on doing so.


  1. Sometimes they had me in stitches and sometimes, especially some of the overlong road trip specials, i hit the off switch and read a book...

    Few on TV felt as confident as those three to be honest about some of the stupid things going on in the world and now there is nobody left.

    There was a time when fairly humble cars were mentioned and everyone I liked they called a hairdressers car which at least confirmed that how I felt about myself was spot on...

    I nearly fell of my seat when Clarkson drove a van based vehicle and deemed it interesting! It had been on my wish list for a while and that helped us get one. No road rocket like yours but Jeremy liked it!

    My interest in the programme had waned to the point that there is a whole series on the "machine which watches TV for us" waiting for when the mood retakes me.

  2. Postscript. One reason I kept watching was because I hoped that one day they would invite a real star to show how that reasonably priced car could be driven by a pension. Sadly Stirling Moss never did turn up...


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