Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Top Gear

I've been wanting to write something about Top Gear for a while now, and, as if by magic, we have two complementary pieces in today's papers. First Michael Gove praises it:
Thanks to Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, the programme has become a celebration of individual freedom, capitalist excess and private-sector innovation. It is also laced with laddish distrust of political correctness, nannying and Ken Livingstone-style finger-wagging. Some viewers might find its sensibility just a bit too juvenile, even public-schoolish, with the presenters mobbing each other up and addressing each other by their surnames. But I find it totally absorbing.
Nowhere is more nonsense spoken about this issue than on the BBC. Its Top Gear series has become a sort of looking-glass Crimewatch in which the presenters enlist the public to help criminals foil the police. There are tips on how to avoid prosecution and endless suggestions that speed cameras are useless or counter-productive. The tone was set in 2002 when the team demonstrated that you could beat the cameras by driving past them at 170mph. Since Richard Hammond's crash last year it has had to temper the message a little - but only a little. How, while BBC editors are sacked for misnaming the Blue Peter cat, does Top Gear remain on air?
While noting that I can think of few things that would give the Top Gear team more pleasure than being slagged off by George Monbiot, the latter article unwittingly points to what it about Top Gear that makes it so much fun. It's basically a joke. There are, admittedly, elements where someone discusses why the limited slip differential makes the new BMW so much more stable on the road. But it's OK, because to prove it they drive the damn thing on an ice-rink or a salt pan.
To prove the echoing depths of my sadness, I'm going to compare Top Gear, a programme about cars, to Amiga Power, a magazine nominally about computer games that closed in about 1995. In both cases they were brilliant because they stopped being tied to their subject matter. In Amiga Power, forced admittedly by the death of the Amiga, they diverted into entirely random subject matter, leavened by incomprehensible in-jokes and a set of editorial features that have been widely adopted by grown-up magazines since. On Top Gear they convert Triumph Heralds into amphibious sailing dinghies, badly, and drive knackered old crocs across Botswana.
The reason more people watch it than read George Monbiot in the Guardian is that Top Gear is unashamedly about enjoying itself. It's far more about people doing fun things and talking rubbish than anything else, and the fact that it annoys George Monbiot is just another mark in its favour.

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