Nigel Pauley is a car-loving Fleet Street journalist who is currently Acting TV Editor of the Sunday Mirror.
Marmite doesn’t make television programmes – but if they did, they’d call it Top Gear. Like the sticky, black, salty spread, you either really love Top Gear or really despise it. There is simply no middle ground.
So, as Top Gear returned to our screens on Sunday 25 January, to begin its 22nd series, half the nation was watching with interest; others were watching to find something to complain about; and the rest were definitely not watching at all.
After their travails while filming their Christmas special in Patagonia, which sparked a diplomatic incident and provoked many column metres in newspapers, you’d expect them to be on their best behaviour. And the overgrown schoolboys – or Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, as they’re better known – were well behaved. Sort of.
Each of the trio wore a little lapel pin-badge of the Chilean flag. No explanation necessary: it was a clear reference to the help Chile had given them as the trio – and their 30-strong crew – fled for their lives from an angry Argy mob. That badge said more than words ever could.
It seems that sending Clarkson & Co. on a road trip to the port the doomed Belgrano set sail from was not such a bright idea. Who saw that coming?
Midway through the show’s weekly ‘News’ section, Jezza – looking more grizzled than Grizzly Adams these days – suddenly broke off and went all serious as he offered an ‘apology’ for something he’d said in the Patagonian special. What could it be? Was the H982 FKL number plate really a reference to the Falklands, after all?
Of course not. This is Top Gear. Clarkson doesn’t do apologies, unless someone has pointed a metaphoric gun to his head – or last orders are being called in the BBC’s Last Chance Saloon.
No, Jezza merely wanted to correct his mistaken assertion that the Condor is the world’s largest flighted bird – it is, of course, the Kori Bustard. ROFL. He is such a card, that Jeremy!
So, what great new treats did the boys bring us for the new series, which was being screened simultaneously in over 50 countries across the world, with America on +24 hours catch-up? Well, none really. Top Gear doesn’t do new or ground-breaking programming.
They’re like a trio of old rockers getting back together for yet another lucrative world tour playing their greatest hits. No point in playing anything new or tracks off the ‘experimental concept album’. The fans have tuned in to watch the stuff they know and love.
Clarkson, May and Hammond have become the Status Quo of TV Land. BBC 2’s very own Three Chord Wonders even dress like the old 70s rockers. The ‘Road Race challenge’ and ‘News’ sections of the show have become their very own ‘Caroline’ and ‘Down Down’ – why risk anything new and untested?
It is fairly easy working out why many people despise Top Gear, Clarkson in particular, and all it stands for. Even some of the Beeb’s own top brass aren’t big fans. What’s much harder is working out why so many people love it – 5.5 million tuned in for its return, over 1.5 million more than tuned into Wolf Hall on the same channel.
The show is such a paradox. It is provocative, irreverent and politically incorrect on the one hand, and yet mind-numbingly safe and predictable on the other. Its return is like slipping on an old favourite leather driving glove: it’s not really necessary, and a bit embarrassing, but you do so out of habit.
So, what did naughty boys offer us? This week’s daft ‘race’ challenge saw them tearing along the roads, waterways and subways of the beautiful Russian city of St Petersburg. Which meant Jezza causing carefully scripted chaos in a petrol-driven Hovercraft; the Hamster riding, and wrecking, a £9,000 racing cycle; and May in a pint-sized Renault electric car.
But, as so often, it was The Stig who stole the show – without saying a word – as he made his unsteady way across St Petersburg’s public transport system, ending with him banging his helmet against a metal fence as he drooled over a Porsche Carrera.
Supercar porn was provided by the new, and sadly disappointing, Lamborghini, which the Stig took for a thrash around the track.
And Ed Sheeran was the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car – even though he’d never driven any car before, let alone a cheap Vauxhall. After a few spills and thrills, the ginger-haired pop sensation managed to make it around the soaking wet track quicker than Jack Whitehall.
That’s one down, nine more to come in this 22nd series – but don’t expect anything too ground-breaking or earth-shattering. When it comes to Top Gear, it seems that the more its devout fans have seen it before, the more they want to see it again. And they kind of like it that way.
- Guest Blogger: Nigel Pauley. Journalist