Headlines tried to outdo each other in banality. Television transmitted endless loops of Clarkson in various poses, getting inside his car, driving his car, getting out of his car, riding his bicycle, smoking another ciggy waiting for news of the inevitable.
The Guardian went mental publishing three columns and two news reports a day, ‘BBC Meets to Decide When to Meet over Clarkson’ and kept up the feverous interest until the inevitable arrived and Clarkson, et al, was out of the BBC for clocking his producer.
Whichever way you turned there was a photograph of Clarkson’s lined and pouched face looking lugubriously askance, and smoking a fag. Nevertheless, I regard his departure from Top Gear as an indication the end of brutish, callow Laddism is gaining pace.
An over-stretched elastic band
Top Gear under Clarkson was a good thirty minute car programme stretched to fifty-five minutes. That left half its length filled with ephemera or plain rubbish. Over all its series you could argue sixty per cent of its content was awful. It pandered to young men who see cars as fantasies. Attend car meets and you will meet them in their fast cars, polishing queens with few exceptions. When viewers complained Clarkson reminded them the programme content was his to devise.
There were some genuinely funny moments interviewing celebrities; sentimental moments remembering long-lost unreliable British sports cars underneath Union Jacks, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ played over and over again; good informative editions such as the years of Saab, and entertainment watching celebrities tackle a race track, average drivers in an average car. Praise is also due for a lot of ground-breaking, superb fast-car-on-the-move photography with added dramatic music.
Yet, in the end it was sound and fury amounting to nothing. Three fast-aging teenagers and a lot of smashing of caravans linger in the memory. As Sunday evening chewing gum for the eyes it was half-decent.
The real world of cars.
It was full of sly right-wing crapology (carpology?) there to give the BBC an excuse to claim the BBC catered for all political attitudes, not only bolshie left-wing reporters and filmmakers. As such, it dominated car programmes for too long, to such an extent few of a different kind were commissioned while Top Gear ruled the goggle box. That was our loss.
Car makers run government policy, get vast sums in ‘welfare’ investment, taxpayers money not spent on resurfacing roads, are almost the entire GDP of small countries, dictate what we will drive rather than what would be better designed for the modern age, cover up accidents and deaths caused by unsafe, badly engineered vehicles, have union agitators for better conditions removed or shot, (see Ford and support of Argentinian Junta) and pollute the planet. On top of all that are the oil companies. They too are able to change government policy. Their bosses tell us how to vote. The ugly side of automotive love and profit was never represented by Top Gear.
Whilst there is every good reason Top Gear should exist so should other types of car programmes. That situation is easing now.
The dominance of popularity
To take the wind out of his critic’s sails Clarkson remarked the show was an entertainment that happened to have cars in it. Fine. But its influence blocked alternatives. Producers ran shy of commissioning competing car programmes. Alternatives have begun to appear, but unless jokey with lots of meaningless banter they can seem second-best to Top Gear when in fact they are superior in content, properly informative.
Top Gear magazine is not much better. It sells more copies than all other automotive rags put together but is almost unreadable, visually cluttered in layout and print font, and textually in its throw-away content of car critique. Adverts break up what clarity of presentation exists.
The three caballeros
Hammond took the role of enthusiastic, effervescent schoolboy always ready to have a go; James May the plodding introspective philosopher, eternally capable of offering a greater intelligence than the show allowed him to express, and indeed in his own subsequent television series proved he was; Clarkson was the one who had a quick smoke behind the playground toilets, a belligerent bully. He was smart. He crafted the non-insulting insult.
And he was also a jerk. Ridiculing female presenters as incompatible with car shows has taken years to overthrow. Suggesting public sector striking workers should be taken out and executed in front of their families was crass in the extreme. (See Ford and Argentinian Junta.) Was that part of his shtick? I think we got the real Clarkson every time. His need to stay in the headlines by making outrageous comment was his undoing. In the end, it was always going to be Clarkson who broke up the trio by a selfish, undisciplined act. Perhaps he knew his time was over, suicide by public antagonism. The producer he thumped will not regain his lost authority, no matter where he moves to next.
All in all, the programme needs a new format. Top Gear is another aspect of television as hamburger and hot dog stall – fast food that does you little nutritional good and probably harm if taken too often.
Laddism and good taste
The ascent of Clarkson and Top Gear ran parallel with a fundamental collapse in social sensibilities and the rise of social media conceived as private clubs where anybody could say anything about anyone. Laddism had arrived big time. Insulting your best friend, or telling a complete stranger he is a knob-end (repeated by the intelligent Mays of Clarkson) was the banter of the moment. “You can give it but can’t take it’ rang out across the land.
Women, let men do the driving!
When it came to exploiting women, automotive periodicals were the worst manifestations, where girls who hung around boys who hung around cars all day were asked if they ‘spat or swallowed,’ and every car and motorbike magazine had a scantily clad female arranged over bonnet, saddle and handlebars. Some still do. Car companies cannot break the habit at auto shows. Nor can F1 racing throw its hands up in horror, not with its troupes of attendant ‘pit babes.’ Still, if seeking a wealthy racing driver as husband F1 is as good a place to start looking as any.
Viz, an often scabrous comic folded. It never quite attained satire. MaxPower encouraged adolescents to spend all their money on over-the-top after-market gadgets and body additions to their mass-produced cars in a futile attempt to appear individual and noisy. It was one-long automotive Saturday binge and barf, sexist as hell. It hated women. It folded.
Loaded, one of the titles synonymous with the mid-1990s lads’ mag boom, is to close after 21 years. Loaded was once a top ten leading title in a booming sector, with sales of a reputed 350,000 plus only ten years ago. In recent years the rise of the internet has seen sales plummet.
The magazine’s past is not exactly littered with ethical owners. Simian Publishing, the current owners, acquired the title from Paul Baxendale-Walker, a wealthy businessman who made his loot directing and occasionally starring in his own pornographic films. The company he used was, Blue Publishing, now in administration. Before that it was owned by Vitality Publishing which got into serious debt. Vitality owned a string of laddish magazines: Superbike being one.
Incidentally, the internet petition seeking signatures to keep Clarkson in Top Gear, almost one million I am told, had very few women sign it. I wonder why?
The rot sets in
The rot began in 2009, Bauer shut down the monthly Arena after 22 years. In the same year the enterprising Dennis Publishing closed Maxim after 14 years. And Conservative politician, Michael Heseltine, saw his Haymarket Publications profits fall away a second time. There were obvious reasons his magazines fell out of popularity. They alienated the intelligent reader and went for uneducated youth.
The weekly Autocar is one of several car magazines Haymarket publishes, a place where new cars are promoted, particularly fast sports cars, duffers given less attention. It is well on its way to becoming a website only. No Robert Maxwell to bail him out, Heseltine sold off his main offices. All of those magazines once the preserve of the serious driver and mechanic altered direction to catch adolescent boy racer with little expertise in vehicle design and maintenance but a ton of arrogant opinion. That at a time when pensioner numbers throughout the United Kingdom are increasing.
Nothing lasts forever, especially crap comedians
The emergence of foul-mouthed stand up comics – fine, if you think that boosts humour – arrived at about the same time as Top Gear gained a prime-time slot. Like Top Gear presenters, the comedy of most stand ups rarely sustains anything intelligent, most are puerile. Stand ups monopolise television and radio; every show, panel show, game show, competition, or documentary, must have a stand up to front it. Three is better, laddish banter for a large fee, but far cheaper than original drama, good natural history programmes, or anything about art.
As for the Top Gear trio, they could be very funny in how they addressed each other, but just as cringe worthy when acting the fools – watch their epic failure at being clowning actors and stunt drivers on the Sweeney edition, a case of the Three sub-Stooges.
Standing room only
Two things perplexed me. How the producers managed to keep all those members of the audience standing for hours every edition, in rehearsal and recording, never offered a seat. And how the pretty girls managed to be at the front of the crowd nearest the cameras.
And then the penny dropped. No elderly people.
The show was for the lads. Cool, like. Know what I mean, mate?
The show was resurrected in 2016 led by radio chatterbox Chris Evans because he owns some expensive Ferraris cars, though he knows little about automobiles generally. Why would anybody watch a car show because Evans was chief presenter?
The original quartet of Clarkson, Mays, Hammond and their hardnosed producer Andy Wilman accepted megabucks to make a pastiche show for Netflix.
Since going off screen Top Gear’s competitor car show, Fifth Gear has improved immeasurably, learning a lot from TG photography techniques, and presented by a trio of knowledgeable car drivers and writers.