Can Top Gear still cut it?

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarWednesday, June 25th, 2008

 
 

We’ve been watching the same old Top Gear repeats until we can more or less lip-synch along with Clarkson, Hammond and May. Until this Sunday when, finally, series 11 made its debut. So, was the first episode any good? Have the blokes found whole realms of untapped silliness to conquer, or is the format starting to get stale? Brits on Pole takes a look at the first episode and finds out.

Watch this episode on BBC iPlayer until Sunday June 29 >>

Ten top tips for supercar fuel economy

The programme starts with a little bit of unashamed stall-erecting and taunting of the unbelievers. Confronted with the perennial demands that the team do more for the ‘normal’ motorist and at least nod towards contemporary environmental sensitivities, Clarkson responds in typical style by organising a race between five supercars. We viewers are treated to a blatant and beautiful car-porn sequence featuring a Lamborghini Murciélago (with our presenter on board), an Audi R8, a Ferrari 599, an Aston Martin DBS and a Mercedes McLaren racing each other. The twist: each has only been given a gallon of petrol. How far can they get?

The answer is, naturally, not very far at all. First to drop is the Ferrari on a magnificent 1.7 miles per gallon, followed closely by the Aston. The McLaren doesn’t do much better and the fourth car to glide, superbly, to a halt is Clarkson’s Lamborghini on 4.1 mpg. His advice on the back of this? If you need to save fuel then drive an Audi R8 and get five whole miles to the gallon. Sets the tone completely.

The baton’s picked up by Hammond: “The BBC saw that film and they said we’d been stupid and we had to do something more for the normal person. And, well, it was [Clarkson] again.” Next is a deconstruction of the Toyota Prius’ environmental credentials and the provenance of its nickel batteries, backed up with a film that somehow succeeds in making the 1.5 litre four-cylinder Prius consume more petrol than a four-litre V8-equipped BMW M3 by virtue of thrashing it to buggery and back around a racetrack. (The M3 cruises sedately round behind it and I’d be stunned if it went out of fourth gear.) And the moral of this story? “It’s not what you drive that matters, it’s how you drive it… don’t change the car, change your driving style.”

Mocking the stupid

That’s the politics and the morality tales out of the way and our team can get on with laughing at the stupid. First is the debut of the Top Gear campaign to purge the roads of idiotic signs, then mockery of the styling of the new Hyundai Coupé. They may have a point: it was a lovely-looking thing and now it’s considerably more clunky. But that’s nothing to the treatment handed out to the new Toyota Urban Cruiser: “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that someone who wears a mac and isn’t allowed within two hundred yards of a primary school… that’s not going to work as a school run car”, then comparisons of the dirt cheap Tata Nano to a Pokemon character, cracking perhaps the best one-liner of the episode: “You know that’s not the base model, because if it was the base model you wouldn’t be able to see it because of the mule in front of it.”

Whether or not you find this lot entertaining viewing will depend entirely on whether you buy into the show’s central conceit — that the presenters, their interactions and their humour are all amusing. If it passes you by then so far this episode will have been infuriating. But the next bit, a review by the unashamedly Ferrari-mad Clarkson of the beautiful 430 Scuderia F1, goes straight to the stripped-down, race-tuned heart of why car fanatics watch Top Gear.

Unashamed aspirational fantasy

This is truly what the petrol-heads turned up for, not just to hear speed cameras and parking restrictions being slagged off, and PR pretentiousness mocked, but to see cars we’ll probably never get to drive being pushed to their 150mph-plus limits – and this feature does not disappoint. Clarkson sits in the drivers’ seat and has an epiphany (“I cannot tell you how happy it makes me feel to be driving a proper Ferrari again”) while we watch shots of him cornering sideways, teetering on the brink of losing a £150,000 supercar and playing with all the F1-style features like the traction control, the silicon brakes and the electronic gearbox. Then The Stig gets to play and, oh, the noise of that engine. Sorry to take the traditionalist view but this is pure aspirational fantasy and it’ll be a sad day when stuff like this isn’t on the telly any more.

What did Austin ever do to you?

After this it’s time to introduce a new member of the team – Top Gear Stuntman. He’s well-upholstered, unshaven, looks prone to arse-scratching and dwells in the kind of Sierra-plus-caravan habitat that would normally propel Clarkson’s barnet into space. But what’s really interesting is the idea that, following Hammond’s near-death experience, someone with a bit of training has finally been roped in to do the really phenomenally stupid stunts. It’s no longer acceptable to attempt to kill presenters, apparently, even if doing so does send viewing figures through the roof. Do we detect the long arms of the Health and Safety Executive and the BBC Board reaching into the production meeting?

As for the rest of this package, a bid to break (or, as it turns out, set) a record for aerial progress backwards, it’s ruined for me by the car they use — an Austin Allegro. I hate watching classics being smashed up, wanted to hang James May from his own rigging for sailing that Triumph Herald round a reservoir. So the wreckage of the Allegro rather spoiled it for me, as a proud former Austin owner. But one to watch and a courageous bid to refresh the format nonetheless. Not sure TG Stuntman will ever catch on as well as The Stig has — but I could be wrong.

Not a petrolhead at all, Mr Clarkson, sir

The Star in the Reasonably-Priced Car feature remains — and are there any celebrities left in Britain whose names don’t already appear on the leaderboard? Even The Queen is represented, albeit by Helen Mirren. The joy of this episode is how this problem is dealt with — recruiting not one but two celebs who barely know the bonnet from the exhaust. Neither of The Friday Night Project’s Justin Lee Collins nor Alan Carr are petrolheads — in fact, one can barely find the route round the track while the other spends quite some time hunting for the ‘on’ switch and is thrilled by learning about the positive effects of engaging fourth gear. Clarkson displays a quite unusual patience and courtesy with his guests and thus manages to conduct a really entertaining interview (“It’s been an absolute joy having you here… thank you so much”). Satisfied with both familiarity and novelty, the viewer moves on.

What seems to be the trouble, officer?

Time for a quick stocktake. So far, we’ve had pretty much what we’d have expected, with a few clever tweaks to freshen it up. But there’s one huge part of Top Gear yet to come — the silly film. Executive producer Andy Wilman said in a recent Radio Times article that he meant to cut the length of these films while still preserving their central place in the show’s mythos. And has it worked?

In my opinion the film that plays out for the remaining 20 minutes of this episode alone justifies making the whole 11th series, and also amply replays the hour I will have spent watching it. It takes ridiculousness to such refined heights as to render it into an art form. Our team starts from the premise that no self-respecting police officer, least of all one that’s going to find him or herself featuring on shows entitled Police, Kill, Action, or similar, should have to drive a diesel-powered Vauxhall Astra. The chaps are given a grand to spend apiece on a suitable used automobile and, as always with these things, each makes his purchase in accordance with his on-screen persona and customises it in the same spirit. When the aspirant police cars are ready a series of challenges must be undertaken.

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what happens — except to say that I always thought the Fiat Coupé was rather sexy myself, with those great slashes in the bodywork that were meant to make it look like a cut-price Alfa. But one of the funniest bits of all is when the real cops turn up mob-handed for a testosterone-fuelled display of How It Should Be Done, complete with an earnest spokesman, £130,000 worth of Volvos and a helicopter. I should not be surprised if this comes to be regarded as one of the all-time classic productions.

The only fitting response to this film is to quote the late and very much lamented Humphrey Lyttelton, chairman of the world’s daftest radio panel game, who said: “As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness. It preserves the soul from desiccation.” If you’ve never liked Top Gear then you still won’t like it. However, if it’s already part of your required weekend viewing, and you’re prepared to lose yourself into a less hide-bound, humourless and frankly sanctimonious world for an hour or so each Sunday, then you’re definitely still going to be onto a winner.

Comments are closed.

 
  • McLaren eshop

    McLaren store

  • F1 gear (and more) at OnPole.com

    2012 F1 Merchandise from OnPole.com