While little detail has been provided thus far as to why – other than to say he was involved in a “fracas” with a producer – the BBC has suspended Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson. It remains unclear whether the latest series of the popular motoring entertainment show will even run to its intended conclusion.
In many ways, though, this news comes as no surprise. Clarkson has a long list of priors.
Clarkson has built his personal brand on a “no bullshit” style that wins just as many loyal fans as fierce critics. His shtick is controversy and political incorrectness. The controversy is made all the greater when his biggest platform is a public service broadcaster of the highest repute.
Since it began – or, more accurately, was “reborn” – in 2002, Top Gear has become one of the world’s most popular television programs. It has made household names of its hosts – Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May (not to mention The Stig) – and spawned a number of local versions across the world, including in the United States, China and Australia.
It is worth noting that Top Gear is now far more than a TV show: it is an entertainment phenomenon that crosses many platforms. There has long been a magazine of the same name – although it is now much more closely connected to the TV program. It now also generates significant revenue from DVD sales, merchandise and an increasingly successful set of live shows across the world.
But what has made Top Gear so successful?
There are a number of different reasons for Top Gear’s success. First, on a purely aesthetic level, it’s beautifully produced. The cinematography, editing and music selections are of the very highest quality.
Second, Top Gear very often opts to talk about (or “review”) cars in interesting and creative ways.
Very often, Top Gear doesn’t even “review” cars, but just uses them to go on an adventure – such as their multi-part Africa or Burma specials – or do something spectacular. This is perhaps best illustrated by the time Hammond and May attempted to convert the three-wheeled Reliant Robin into a Space Shuttle.
Top Gear has focused on having fun and producing an entertaining show, rather than getting bogged down in the boring details of car mechanics that are the purview of more “factual” motoring journalism.
As I have previously noted, Top Gear’s significance is therefore its ability to attract the interest of people who otherwise don’t care much about cars or motoring culture.
As a car enthusiast, I used to possess somewhat rarefied knowledge. But Top Gear has democratised that knowledge considerably. Now, a much larger swathe of the population know, for example, what a Bugatti is, and that the marque produces the fastest production car money can buy.
The final element in Top Gear’s success is the personalities of the hosts. While their banter can often come across as very staged, Clarkson, Hammond and May are generally likeable characters who seem to have a real off-screen friendship. Their interactions in obscure parts of the world are often the main focus of entire episodes.
By way of comparison, when Top Gear Australia made its debut in 2008 it lacked some of the high-end production values of the original. While Australia doesn’t often provide the stunning backdrop for filming that many locations across the UK and Europe have for the original over the years, what let it down most of all was the hosts’ lack of personality. They were pale imitations, and it meant the show could never live up to the standards set by the original.
That’s why the latest news regarding Clarkson is so significant.
It remains possible that this latest incident is the “final straw” for the BBC, but the broadcaster has always seemed quite tolerant of the controversy that inevitably follows Clarkson – perhaps due to the commercial value of the program he hosts. Top Gear remains popular, even if numbers have dropped slightly from its heyday.
Clarkson might be abrasive and obnoxious, but it is not hyperbole to say that he “is” Top Gear. The show wouldn’t be the same without him.
Another possibility is that Clarkson will take the opportunity to quit while he can. The show is in its 22nd season and seems to be struggling to stay fresh. He may be tempted to try his hand at something new.
Unless that happens, the BBC will need to decide whether to persist with the polarising host.
There is no doubt that Jeremy Clarkson is a goose, and the BBC will need to decide whether it wants to keep hold of him and continue to tolerate his antics, or let him lay his golden eggs elsewhere.