April 22, 2013

Top Gear....?

The Outdoor TypeSunday evenings caused me a bit of a problem earlier this year. It's all to do with the television, you see.

There are two programs which conflict in their viewing. One is a ten-part period drama about a shopkeeper from the US who opened a department store in London. The other is Top Gear.

The first programme - 'Mr Selfridge' is ITV's attempt at creating something akin to Downton Abbey that they can show in prime time, get good ratings for, and sell to the American channels. It should become popular there as well. They've even included an American actor in it, the excellent Jeremy Piven. Normally I would look at this programme with a 'Meh' in my voice and switch straight over to the other side. But I have something of a vested interest in it, you see. During several months of last year I spent considerable time wandering around with slicked-back hair, 1920's clothes and a hat brandishing an old fashioned magnesium flash and plate camera playing the part of a press photographer on the show. So I have some skin in the game. We shot in Central London, Chatham Dockyards (where they built the exterior of Selfridges on a quayside) and in a carpet warehouse in North London which had all the interior sets. I even got to shoot at the Albert Hall where an extraordinary number of people/tourists wanted their photograph taken with me, but nobody actually asked why I was dressed like a 1920's character.

But on the other side is Top Gear. Lemme explain.

Top Gear is a sort of English institution. It's been going for several years and it is (or at least was) a motoring programme. Back when it first started it reviewed cars and had sensible pieces about the speed limit, fuel consumption and similar items relevant to the average motorist. It has been run by a veritable cornucopia of motoring journalists over the years, but is now presented by three gentlemen:.

First there is Richard Hammond. Known as the Hamster for his diminutive size. He is 'The youngest'.

Next there is James May -  "Captain Slow" - who was a respectable motoring journalist with Autocar magazine until he created an acrostic in one issue which led to his dismissal (read the letters in red on the article he wrote here). He is staid, traditional, and slow.

Finally, there is Jeremy Clarkson. He has been with Top Gear the longest - probably since it started. In fact I can't remember a time when Clarkson wasn't on the show. He has survived all manner of presenter reshuffles, program redesigns and media blunders. And he's still here. He is, of course, widely hated in various parts of British society - The Daily Mail, especially do not like him, and I can understand why. He is brash, opinionated, callous, loud and, sometimes, just plain wacky.

But he's the reason I, and many others, watch Top Gear.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I find him infuriating at times. His love of all things big, fast and gas-guzzling drives me up the wall. The Top Gear piece on electric cars was simply a hatchet job designed to ridicule anyone who owned one, and his christening of Porsche's "Caymen" as "A Cockster" has probably condemned that car to ignominy.

But he also has the ability to bring the show to life. He thinks nothing of diving head-first into the flights of excess that now form the show that is Top Gear. Whereas previously the show used to road test the new Ford Escort/Focus/ Sierra etc, the new Top Gear mentions them in passing and then moves on swiftly to the newest Ferrari, Lambourghini or (on occasion) Bugatti Veyron. Each of these cars is taken around the Top Gear test track (part of the new GTA 4 driving game) to determine which can lap quickest. And - in order to prove the superiority of the internal combustion engine - they regularly hold races where the presenters have to take different forms of public transport between two points and try and beat the car. Over the years they've done London to Paris, London to Verbieres and London to Gothenburg. Clarkson, invariably takes the car - pushing it to almost illegal speeds to win, and the other two guys are usually stuck sitting opposite each other on a train that is bound to get delayed at some stop out in the boondocks gifting Clarkson with the win. On the odd occasions that he doesn't win there's always a suitable explanation "It was the French" was the latest one.

But that doesn't matter. Because Top Gear isn't about winning or losing. It isn't even about cars. It's about wish fulfillment and entertainment. If you want road tests and MPG comparisons, and cars that you can buy in the showroom any day of the week you need to head over to a rival channel and watch Fifth Gear. Their show is excellent with quality presentation and great camera work.

But it isn't Top Gear.

Top Gear is about having fun in a way that may - tangentially - by related to cars. like the time Clarkson decided he could outrun a pack of hounds by playing the fox in a 4WD suzuki. Or the time they boys decided they could borrow some heavy duty mechanised equipment and destroy a house scheduled for demolition faster than a professional demolition crew. Or the time Clarkson decided that the best way to test a small car (at a viewers insistence) was to race an American muscle car round the inside of a shopping mall in Basingstoke.

The list goes one. None of these stunts has anything to do with real life. None of them is applicable to our day-to-day existence. They're flights of fancy. Whimsy, even.

But they don't half make exciting viewing.

And they make compelling, if infuriating, television.

They also make me wonder whether watching Top Gear and recording Mr Selfridge is sacrilege. Or whether doing the opposite is worse.
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc