It’s our habit to review the first episode of Top Gear in a new season to see how well the formula is still working – and this time around we’ve come to rather a startling conclusion.
Increasingly, it’s all about James May.
Why on earth would we think this? Surely the peculiar geeky bloke can’t really be the centre of attention in the face of so much loud and testosterone-fuelled competition.
Well, for a start, watch the first episode of season 14. Who gets the most screen time? Eh? He even does the track test, which is not something you see every week, and subverts it very nicely while he’s at it.
And, for another thing, think about it all in a slightly broader context. The three presenters each have their well-established personalities that have developed over time.
Clarkson is the constantly-undercut gobshite who dominated at the beginning then plateaued – and now has restricted potential for character development, since he’s also thoroughly exploited the trick of being unexpectedly polite.
Hammond with his short bloke syndrome was (with unfortunate literality) catapulted into the public consciousness when he had his accident. The resulting wave of concern and hope for his sound recovery made him the star for the next few seasons.
But it’s May, the latest developer of all, that’s now coming into his own. It’s the ultimate tale of the patient geek come good – and we love him for it.
Here’s an idea about why. May is easily the most three-dimensional of the Top Gear presenters. It seems like he’s hardly off our screens at the moment, what with all those series about wine, space and toys.
Meanwhile Clarkson is contractually tied to only present Top Gear and Hammond has tended to get his most prominent exposure outside the programme’s studio by promoting a certain well-known supermarket brand.
May has also got a surprisingly passionate female following. While this is presumably also demonstrable for both Clarkson and Hammond, their appeal might be somewhat easier to understand.
But read the comments May routinely gets on his Telegraph column and you’ll soon learn he has an indefinable something all of his own and that there are plenty of takers for it.
Which seems like the perfect time to give a polite cough and move on to the actual episode
Another California, another trip to central Europe
What is it right now about driving supercars around Eastern Europe that seems to be fascinating motoring journalists? We imagine the answer to be a very successful promotional drive by Ferrari to promote its new GT model.
In the hands of the Top Gear producers, however, this proposition has become a completely, magnificently surreal road movie that takes up half the episode and proves that the programme certainly can still deliver 14 seasons in.
Notable is the confidence with which all this starts. There are few introductions, little more than a couple of sentences of banter (with Hammond threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue if he doesn’t get his own way) and then we’re off.
The gang has got its hands on two other supercars in addition to the California, which Hammond will be piloting. Clarkson is waxing lyrical about his lovely Aston Martin DBS Volante, definitely the car we would choose from the selection on offer. May, in an unlikely move, will be behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder.
Their mission is to take them to Romania in search of the world’s best road. We don’t have too many details about this at the moment, but the joys of discovery are to come.
First, the gang must take its collection of supercars across a country that has made a rapid journey from Iron Curtain dictatorship to paid-up member of the European Union in the course of just two decades – and they find a few of their assumptions about Borat-style Warsaw Pact countries and donkey carts busted on the way.
However it is, as we are reminded quite early on, the home of the oft-referred-to Dacia Sandero – and here is one, driving innocuously down a road. Also we have plenty of opportunities to laugh at presenters being baffled by the in-car gadgets, a silly nod to the idea that there’s a practical car review going on.
But easily the highlight of the first part of this film is the sheer joy with which the presenters drive their supercars around a network of tunnels underneath the national parliament, formerly the residence of Nicolae Ceausescu. “This is our best game yet,” yells Hammond, before putting down his foot and roaring off.
The bit in the middle
That’s it for the first part of the film and now we are into the programme regulars – the news segment, the track test and the star in the reasonably-priced car, all of which old favourites have made it into season 14. The first couple of items are a long way off being news and give the distinct impression of being chosen more for their humorous potential than their currency – the new McLaren supercar (cue jokes about dangerous prams) and Bathurst booze ban.
But then it veers off into complete surreality again with Porsche fan May rolling out what is said to be his only phrase of fluent German in the middle of an item poking fun at the new Boxster Spyder: “Aber ja, natürlich Hans nass ist, er steht unter einem Wasserfall.” (“Naturally Hans is wet, he’s standing under a waterfall.”) For some reason, this is laugh-out-loud funny, though it is hard to explain why.
Then, in a moment of comedy gold, Clarkson is made to build a cardboard portable loo designed for roadside use with audience participation – which he then sits on and falls through. “Do you know what? Honestly? I think I would rather crap myself.” Hammond: “I think I just did.”
The track test is a comparison of discreet wallets on wheels, presented as a spoof consumer item for newly-rich bankers. It starts with the BMW 760LI (or “the BMW Move Over, Poor Person”) which gives us a rare glimpse of May out on the circuit: “It’s like swimming over a waterfall of double cream.” By the end of the film he’s sitting in the back demanding “dignified driving” from his hired chauffeur, on the basis that if he can afford the car then he can afford to have it driven for him. The Stig is not happy.
Next up is the Mercedes S63 AMG – May and Stig profess themselves unable to choose between the two and have to resort to a game of Top Trumps. Until Stig throws a tantrum and overturns the table. All they can do is race them – the Merc wins out on the track but, in May’s judgement, the Beemer would prevail overall if both cars weren’t completely pointless.
The star in a reasonably-priced car is generally one of our least-favourite bits – but tonight’s candidate is considerably more interesting than many. Aussie actor and racer Eric Bana (a Ford bloke, not a Holden bloke), a veteran of films such as Chopper, Black Hawk Down, Troy, Star Trek and The Time Traveller’s Wife, says the Bathurst beer ban is “a serious restriction – practically teetotal.” He gives Clarkson well and truly as good as he gets on the old England-Aussie rivalry. He’s a bit silent on the subject of the Ashes, however.
But he’s definitely one of the better reasonably-priced guests (and, let’s be frank, sometime you’d get them on for a fee of 50 pence) due to having a bit of a clue how to put the car around the track. The documentary he is here to promote, about racing his classic Ford that he’s had since his teens, also looks good.
“Nice, throaty little warble – a happy little car”
Then it’s back to Romania in search of the world’s best road. After covering all 143 alleged miles of Romanian motorways, and waxing lyrical about the pleasures of driving supercars (nice to know you don’t get blasé after 13 series and one episode) they present May with the keys to his very own Dacia Sandero, which he abandons his Lambo to go and drive.
“Nice, throaty little warble – a happy little car, the Dacia Sandero.”
But not for long. After what looks like a period of pure, unadulterated enjoyment during which he states his manifesto for uncluttered, gadget-free, basic motoring, he stops to rejoin the others in a car park – and an articulated lorry backs over it, destroying it as thoroughly as one of Clarkson’s Austins.
And you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be with May on this one.
Then it’s time to take a few supercars off-road (if you buy the myth that there’s not a comfy SUV full of handlers just behind the film crew). And to drive hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of automotive luxury over a couple of planks across a stream. And May gets his unspoken, subtle revenge by driving the Lambo into a local taxi. Top Gear – taking you where other motoring programs won’t venture.
At this point, locating the best road in the world looks set to be a McGuffin and the trio ends up parked on a dirt track, supposedly unable to find the hotel, low on fuel and drinking a paint-stripping liqueur that Clarkson found at a petrol station.
And when it comes to sleeping in the backs of cars, the 5ft 7in Hammond has a considerable advantage over the 6ft 6in Clarkson, as you might imagine. In fact, he gets wedged with his folded-forward driver’s seat jammed on the horn, which does not make him particularly popular with his colleagues.
And, wouldn’t you know it, come break of day they turn out to be parked at the bottom of a towering, disused, Communist-era dam. With just four and a half minutes of the programme left, they set out once more in search of the road they came all the way to Romania in three arse-tinglingly expensive supercars to find.
To be fair, when they do arrive at the Transfagarasan Highway, which we learn took 6,000 tons of dynamite to build and killed 40 people in the process, it is pretty special: “From above it looks like every great corner from every great racetrack in the world has been knitted together in one unbroken ribbon of automotive perfection.”
The programme winds up with the perfect feel-good ending with the three whizzing along in their cars, each opining that it is definitely the best one to have brought along.
You go all that way, take all that trouble… and then find yourself in convoy behind Captain Slow. Bloody typical. But even he’s inspired to put his foot down a bit on this occasion.
- Top Gear – Season 14, episode 1. Available on iPlayer until 9:59pm, Sunday January 10 2010
- Read our S13 preview here
Transfagarasan Highway: learn more
- View it on Google Maps
- Read about it on Wikipedia
- Get travel information from InYourPocket.com
- Read a blog post from a biker
- View photos on Flickr
- Read a Guardian article on Ceausescu’s Folly
- Check out videos on YouTube