Why should a television show where they review new cars be so popular? The answer lies in its humour, fun, irreverence and extreme silliness. Top Gear is now so popular it has an estimated 350 million viewers worldwide
The show has been airing on BBC2 since 1977 and in the early days was a straightforward, worthy programme, giving serious information about new cars. The most interesting thing about it was the theme tune - Jessica by the Allman Brothers. They kept the theme tune but relaunched in 2002.
Jeremy Clarkson began hosting and with his current fellow presenters Richard Hammond and James May, he has turned it into cult viewing. The reviews are often not very serious and can be extremely rude – sometimes involving bashing the car to pieces with a series of props (they can only get away with this as the BBC does not have to worry about offending advertisers). However, reviews are a small part of the show. The team love to have silly challenges and absurd races.
For example, a recent show had Richard Hammond and James in the Isles of Scilly in the extreme south west point of Britain. They post a letter addressed to a house on the Isle of Orkney in the extreme north of Scotland. The plan is to beat the Royal Mail and get to the address before the letter does. The two men are driving a Porsche. I won’t tell you who wins!
Another time, Jeremy Clarkson drove east to west across London, while a runner ran the same distance. Who do you think won? They also had another member of the cast attempting the same journey using London public transport – The Stig. Let me tell you about The Stig. Well, there is little to say because his identity is secret. He is a racing driver but always wears a racing helmet with dark visor and full leathers and he never speaks. A recent report claimed The Stig was in fact Formula One driver Michael Schumacher but many people think this is just a hoax. Anyway, The Stig will test drive a car by driving it round a special track to see how it handles (they usually claim he listens to romantic novels on cd or self improvement books or other silly things while driving).
The Stig also coaches the ‘Star in the Reasonably Priced Car’. This is when a celebrity will come on Top Gear, be interviewed by Jeremy Clarkson and then the audience will see film of the lap they drove in an average family car. Their lap time is then announced and they are put up on a list according to their speed with the fastest on top. Celebs’ street-cred shoots up when they appear on this segment. They have included Simon Cowell, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Tennant and Philip Glenister. Michael Gambon, (Dumbledore) went round one corner on two wheels causing Clarkson to name that bend ‘Gambon’).
Of course there are critics. Clarkson and the team are accused of environmental damage by their disregard for the environment (they hate public transport and love to drive across sensitive areas such as the North Pole, deserts or other delicate territory). Clarkson is the original unreconstructed male – arrogant, rude, selfish and – pretty funny. Plenty of people find him very annoying (especially women) but the show keeps going from strength to strength.
And its ultimate success can be gauged, not just in its BAFTA and Emmy awards, but the fact that people who have no knowledge or interest in cars, will still enjoy watching.