Top Gear: Peppercorn, Jaguar, Black Shadow… and the man they call The Stig

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarWednesday, June 24th, 2009

 
 

So… it’s a tough call, taking a series into its 13th season. And we’re asking the question we always ask at this point in the run. Is the format still fresh? Can the guys still cut it? Is it still, basically, as silly, as laugh-out-loud funny and as occasionally poignant as we’ve come to expect?

Read on and find out… Or catch the programme on BBC iPlayer until Sunday.

Modern life is rubbish

The episode starts with those credits that look as if they owe a great deal to the Life on Mars franchise (although we’re not going to absolutely assert that Top Gear wasn’t using them first) and Clarkson in a shirt that makes him look like a human personification of a Ford Focus ST – the car he was so incredibly rude about two years ago.

“Since we were last here,” he says, “the whole world has gone wrong.” And we thought he didn’t get F1! It turns out the show’s recipe for tuning out the discomforts of modern Britain is to take the well-trodden path of pretending it doesn’t exist. The guys have the task of racing from London to Edinburgh on forms of transport that were available 60 years ago – a vintage car, a vintage bike and a beautiful recreation of a steam train.

But first we are treated to a thrilling montage of cars going sideways in deserts, on ice, underneath aircraft, being crashed, shot at and eaten by dinosaurs – all to whet our appetites for the remainder of the series. Consider them whetted, especially by the tantalising little shot of a McLaren logo which suggests they will be doing a preview of the new P11. Oh, and also a shot of May crashing what looks like an elderly Fiat into some shopping trolleys while the others crack up laughing.

So, plenty to look forward to, it would seem.

The fastest car in the world

And suddenly it’s 1949 and the show’s in black-and-white. The fastest car in the world is the Jaguar XK-120, the fastest bike in the world is the Vincent Black Shadow, and the Peppercorn Class A1 locomotive is the pride of the London and North Eastern Railway (and has since been brought back to life with a new build from a group of rail enthusiasts, and named Tornado, hence its ability to star in this programme) .

Which of them can get from Kings Cross in London to the bar of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh first? The train uses the East Coast Main Line, naturally. But the car and bike have to use the Great North Road (that’s the A1 to you, young’un) because motorways didn’t make it to Britain until the 1950s.

So, the guys draw lots. We believe in this utterly, oh yes we do, ever since we saw an interview with Hammo where he explained how he had to do all the really rotten stuff on account of being the youngest and fittest of the trio. And having a bike licence. Anyway. Hammo is on the bike. “There is a God,” yells Clarkson.

But God won’t smile on him twice, because Clarkson gets to drive the train, to the dismay of trainspotter May. However this brief moment is practically the making of the entire episode when you realise that Clarkson is going to be the fireman which means shovelling coal for 400 miles. Comedy gold. As many observed on the night, how often does Bigmouth get the hard job? This is rubbed in by the other two explaining at length how absolutely thrilled they are to be driving their allotted vehicles. “I should think he’ll be dead by the end of the platform,” May opines.

Bring the talc, Hammo?

The clock chimes 7.30am and they’re off – except Hammo, who may not be anything like small enough to clamber into his bikers’ leathers in the confines of a gents’ toilet cubicle. He is, however, a bit on the short side when it comes to getting some downward force on the bike’s starter. Stop laughing – this is all too familiar to female bikers, actually.

But, gosh, Tornado is a work of art, isn’t it? And we can assume that the people who built it knew their stuff, which means that Clarkson’s out of the race to be the first to the side of the road with a dead engine. That honour goes to Hammo, remarkably quickly as well. All that jumping up and down on the starter for nothing… And now he is even more seriously behind.

But of course, there’s no drama in an easy journey so roadworks, a dodgy fuel gauge on the Jag, an unexplained steam leak, the need of vintage trains for copious refills of water and the ability of a motorbike to dodge through any and all kinds of traffic jam all come into play.

And at the train stop Clarkson utters what Twitter told us was the most popular line of the episode: “If I die, fling me on the fire. Use me as fuel to beat Hammond and May.”

A supercar for the saga-lout

And on this note we pause the film and return to the studio for a bit of the banter we all know and love, centred on the same old green leather automotive upholstery. The fashion for showing the audience pornography seems to have bitten the dust, alongside the well-reported-on Dacia Sandero. But we do get a mobile phone that is said to have been through the digestive system of Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

Next up is the car porn segment and this week’s is fun in a way particularly suited to the advanced-in-years Series 13 – a review of the Lotus Evora, a supercar comfy enough to allow those nearing 50 *cough* Clarkson *cough* to fit in. Unlike the Elise, which imposes some tough physical restrictions on its driver and passenger. “I’m not steering,” says Clarkson, “but using the power of suggestion.” To demonstrate its advanced safety features and comfort, he does a few donuts in some long grass, followed by the obligatory shots of it going sideways and the standard niggles about the interior. “Some say you’d be better off spending your £50k on a Porsche Cockster [Pardon?] instead. Trust me on this one, though: you aren’t.”

Back to the studio, and there’s a palpable air of excitement because we’ve all heard from people who were at the filming what’s up next. The Stig is going to storm into the studio, disrupt the filming and – gasp – remove his helmet. Who will it be? Actually, we get a fairly major clue in the form of the car that introduces this next segment – a 860hp Ferrari FXX that isn’t road legal and which they don’t usually let out of the factory.

“A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.”

Hmmm, who would Ferrari trust with a car like that? It looks like Knight Rider… “Almost as much power as an F1 car! Stig working hard,” Clarkson points out.

The car (in the hands of such a competent driver) easily tops the leaderboard. But it would appear The Stig is finally ready to address his audience. Into the studio he comes and wants to make his point about “newspapers and Internet geeks speculating.” He’s ready to remove his helmet, to huge applause.

And so to the bit of the show everyone’s talking about. It’s impossible to express in writing just how funny it was to see Michael Schumacher take off the helmet, even with half an idea that it would be him (see Ferrari supercar, above). We suggest you just watch the clip. And watch it. And watch it

What follows is a pretty decent interview. When invited to criticise his former colleagues, he says: “My English isn’t so good.” When shown pictures of himself slightly the worse for wear, he concludes: “That must be my brother.” He kept that sense of humour pretty well-hidden for his 15-odd years in F1, didn’t he?

Our favourite question: “Are you finding it a bit boring when one person endlessly wins?” But Clarkson’s world nearly comes to an end when he learns what the legendary Schumacher drives routinely – a Fiat Croma.

And, returning to the Great North Road…

Returning to the race, Hammo is looking forward to exploring the capacities of his bike’s reserve fuel tank while Clarkson waxes lyrical about the Golden Age of Steam and May experiments with the dangerous notion of overtaking. At York Clarkson, ahem, surrenders his shovel to a couple of far fitter men, and suddenly the train is cruising at its top speed of 75mph. And Hammo is fighting with the bike’s starter again.

And now it’s all a bit surreal. James “Captain Slow” May is raging at his fellow motorists to pull over and let him pass, while Clarkson tries to cook a fry-up on the stoker’s shovel – does Health & Safety allow that kind of thing? And suddenly Hammo is 20 miles south of Doncaster in the rain with a broken bike. He left the reserve tank switched on and utterly buggered everything up, in a nutshell. A man has to come and rebuild the carburettor while Hammo’s colleagues take the piss by the distinctly un-vintage method of mobile telephone. “If you wouldn’t mind taking your head and boiling it,” says the damp motorcyclist, “that would be wonderful.

May, in his baby blue sweater, is all fired up now: “He’s had it. It’s me and Jezza. It’s car versus train. KEEP GOING!” But Clarkson, on the outskirts of Durham, is ruthlessly confident: “We’re so far ahead it’s embarrassing”. “Keep calm and carry on,” says May. And he has a point – the train must stop for half an hour to take on supplies at Newcastle. And the bike’s had its creases ironed out, but Hammo is probably out of the race.

Suddenly it transpires that the Jag is only 20 miles south of Newcastle and May is in serious danger of overtaking the train. And he is driving one of the most reliable cars ever to feature in a Top Gear silly challenge. Could the train possibly fail to take the strain?

And a last-minute saga of a seemingly-abandoned Fiesta in a Berwick petrol station, a steam train that is threatening to explode, a slow commuter train that cannot be bypassed (“Ram it! Ram the stopping train!”) and the sorest arse known to motorcycling history all conspire to bring the race to a climax, complete with epic music and long shots of the train steaming through a lush Northumbrian landscape.

Even Clarkson shovelling like a madman can’t beat the Fastest Car in the World, however, and when he enters the bar of the Balmoral Hotel, face black with coal smoke, May is sitting there waiting for him: “You have permission to say: ‘Oh, cock!'”

We like it when May wins, because the other two are usually so incredibly offensive to him.

So? Did this episode cut it?

What did we think? Well, as episodes of Top Gear go, this one was more than good enough for a season launch. The vintage vehicle race could rate with some of the classic Top Gear films and likewise you don’t get much better than Schumi in guest terms.

But here’s the worrying thing. The format is absolutely and totally unchanged from any other episode that we’ve ever seen. On one level, this is fine – a bit like eating at Pizza Express, you know exactly what is coming out of the kitchen regardless of where in the country you encounter it.

On the other hand, the programme is walking a pretty fine line. On the form of this episode, its success can only continue while the producers and guest bookers are working their fingers to the bone to ensure the ideas keep coming. On their creativity the series will sink or swim. And it’s not going to be easy to keep on serving up novelties like Tornado or studio guests like Schumi.

Television dramas that go past their sell-by date have a concept known as “jumping the shark” – named after a sadly regrettable moment in Happy Days where Henry Winkler in his iconic Fonz role does just that, on a pair of waterskis. Now, Top Gear certainly hasn’t jumped the shark yet. But it could. We are sadly afraid that it could.

This series? We’ll have to watch and see, won’t we.

And no, guys, we didn’t mean that you should literally go out and jump a shark on waterskis… Oh wait…

Footnote: Schumi in ‘not The Stig’ shock

It has evidently come as a surprise to some members of the British public (and media) to realise that a multi-millionaire with seven Formula One world championships to his name, a mansion on Lake Geneva and more or less unfettered access to Maranello would in fact probably not choose to spend his days at a damp Sussex airfield driving base-spec Ford Foci.

So we think that Schumi is probably NOT The Stig, no, and the whole thing was a fairly successful visual gag for the benefit of those of us who haven’t yet had the sense of humour bypass operation.

To this end, there is a little skit at the end of the show in which the suited and booted driver totals the Reasonably-Priced Car.

And the legend lives on. (If not necessarily the Chevy Lacetti.)

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