A car that has been running for 46 years would either be deemed a classic or branded unsafe. Top Gear, which at its peak would have aspired to the former, has finished as the latter, “Rested for the foreseeable future” by the BBC. This, it seems, is because the motoring series would struggle to meet duty of care or insurance requirements after one of its presenters, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, was badly injured in a crash last December.
In a piece of showbiz synchronicity, Top Gear is stood down in the same week that its first presenter, Angela Rippon, was voted out of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing. Rippon was perhaps an unlikely host for franchise’s opening series, whichhints at the troubles one of TV’s longest-running shows has seen in its time. Although Top Gear is officially an April 1977 vehicle (R registration, for UK motor heads), the rubber only really hit the road from October 2002 (52 on a numberplate) until March 2015 (registrations including 15.)
During those 13 years – and 185 episodes – Top Gear was fronted by Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond. Hammond himself was almost killed in an accident in 2006 while filming the show. Though the show has had more than 50 presenters in its time -including Noel Edmonds and Quentin Willson in the early days, as well as Matt LeBlanc later on – the trio of Clarkson, May and Hammond are the first (and, for many, the last) that most viewers could name.
Introducing the newsreader and ballet enthusiast Rippon as the face of the series when it debuted in 1977 feels like the BBC deliberately opting for someone as far removed as possible from the stereotypical car obsessive – male, driving gloves, bore. But, launching the revamped 2002 format, producer Andy Wilman deliberately and firmly put his foot down on the bloke pedal.
Clarkson was a public schoolboy, but the audience would have guessed that only from his CV rather than his TV persona. Clarkson democratised his manner and accent – helped by an end-of-sentence ironic swoop borrowed from Clive James – so successfully that, as the BBC began to lose sports rights to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky, audience research showed that Top Gear was often the only BBC show that working-class men watched.
Liberals see Clarkson as the Nigel Farage of the garage, and he is fortunate to have largely survived two serious scandals. His attack on a Top Gear producer led the BBC to cancel his contract in 2015, and his revolting “sexist” Sun column about the Duchess of Sussex led his current employers, Amazon, to seriously consider his future.
Clarkson, though, has a rare talent for writing factual scripts that underline or wittily undercut the pictures. And he and Wilman also had a level of visual invention that, perhaps surprisingly, is far from obligatory for TV makers.
When Toyota claimed its Hilux truck was indestructible, Clarkson memorably tested this by driving it into a tree and then the sea, dropping a caravan on it and parking it inside a demolition zone, it remained drivable. A trend for microcars led the 6ft 4in Clarkson to build the smallest vehicle possible – essentially an overcoat with wheels – and drive it on a motorway.
A major inspiration often seemed to be the American TV cartoon series Wacky Races (CBS, 1968-69), in which eccentrics representing good and evil raced each other across deserts in custom-built cars. Clarkson and his wing-mirror men were always competing in wacky jalopies – racing self-designed motorhomes to Cornwall or cruising through Republican states in the US after painting each other’s car doors with slogans (pro-Hillary, pro-gay) that risked gunfire on freeways.
As always with Clarkson, there were controversies, often involving cultural insensitivity: a film shoot in Patagonian region of southern Argentina had to be abandoned after violent local objection to number plates that seemed (accidentally, the show claimed) to refer to Argentina’s loss in the Falklands conflict.
Watching these clips now – or footage of Tom Cruise taking racing track corners on two wheels in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment – it’s hard to believe that risk assessment and insurance forms were signed off for these shoots, or that Hammond and Flintoff were the only serious casualties.
After the central three, the presenter who made the longest-lasting and most positive impression was the former England cricket captain Flintoff. A world-class sportsman, his thoughtfulness and on-screen skills were also showcased in Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams, a superb 2022 BBC series (season two is due next year) in which he introduces disadvantaged children to cricket.
So, with no chance of Flintoff returning to Top Gear, it seemed doomed. A possibility would have been to continue without the high-speed drives. But, rather like rugby union, which faces an existential threat from escalating concerns about the impact of concussion, Top Gear does not feel like a game that could be played completely safely. The programme without the stunts would, for many, be like the Six Nations without the scrums and tackles.
Clarkson’s rare televisual talent continues to be displayed in his Amazon series Clarkson’s Farm, which is genuinely educational about agriculture and, to a lesser extent in The Grand Tour, the Amazon successor to Top Gear, in which he, Hammond and Clarkson have to avoid, sometimes strenuously, veering towards BBC-copyrighted elements of their first show. But Top Gear without those three was always running out of road, and kept on track only by Flintoff. It was a 46-year franchise in which 33 of them don’t really count.
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