(First published in The Dominion Post, March 20.)
THEY’RE a strange lot, the Poms. They eat something called supper. They “take” baths (one a week is the norm, I believe). They drive lorries.They wear quaintly named garments (mackintoshes and vests, for instance), they get terribly excited about something they call foopball, and they invented the world’s only sport where you can play for five days and not get a result
As if all that weren’t weird enough, the Poms adore Top Gear.My idea of torture is to be strapped into a chair and forced to watch endless repeats of Top Gear. I would rather be tethered to a pole in front of an Islamic State encampment with an insulting cartoon of the prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) hung around my neck.
It’s not that I’m not interested in cars. I always read the Dom Post’s Saturday motoring pages and can even tell you that Fairfax Media’s motoring editor is 1.88 metres tall. (I know this because he tells us at least once a month, under the guise of illustrating the headroom in the car he’s testing.)No, it’s the juvenile antics and relentless “laddish” humour of Top Gear that I can’t abide. In fact I abhor the whole British cult of laddishness, which seems contrived to give grown men licence to remain in a state of perpetual adolescence.
Top Gear strikes me as a slightly desperate celebration of Britishness in a world where being British doesn’t quite cut it the way it used to. Its male fans are probably the sort of people who have erotic fantasies involving Kate Bush, or perhaps Nigella Lawson, and who yearn for Pink Floyd to reform.I cringe at the sight of James May. He’s one of those shabby, ageing Englishmen who seem to think it cool to still wear his hair long even when it’s grey and straggly. I can’t think of any older man with long hair who wouldn’t look better if it were cut short, but May probably imagines it makes him look like a rock god.
Then there’s the little guy whose name I can never remember – the cute, perky one that women probably feel like mothering. I can’t look at him without thinking of Davy Jones from the Monkees.But most of all Top Gear is associated with Jeremy Clarkson, whose main function seems to be to get into trouble on a regular basis so as to reinforce the programme’s image of irreverent laddishness (that word again) and devil-may-care disregard for propriety.
This plays well to Top Gear’s gormless fans (you know they’re gormless from the uncritically rapt looks on the faces of the studio audience) and ensures the show is never out of the headlines for long.Clarkson comes across as a loudmouth – a clever and witty loudmouth, but a loudmouth nonetheless. He’s a big man and I imagine he was probably a bully at school.
He’s casually disparaging toward other cultures, which reinforces the sense that Top Gear represents the old English mindset that the wogs start at Calais and all non-Anglo-Saxon cultures exist to be mocked.It was no surprise to learn that he’s a Chelsea Football Club supporter. That’s a laddish outfit too, of a deeply unattractive kind, with a history of hooliganism and xenophobia. (The racist yobbos who monstered a black man trying to board a train in Paris recently were Chelsea supporters. No surprises there.)
I can, however, understand why a petition supporting Clarkson would attract lots of signatures. People feel cowed and oppressed by political correctness and get a quiet thrill when someone has the balls to defy it, as Clarkson frequently does. Someone has described him as television’s answer to the Duke of Edinburgh, a man widely admired for the same reasons.We have yet to learn exactly what triggered the latest Top Gear furore. There was some sort of altercation in a hotel restaurant. One report said Clarkson punched a producer when he found out no hot food was available after a long day’s filming.
I was right, then – he’s a bully. It’s easy to become irritable when you’re tired and your blood sugar levels are low, but most people stop short of throwing punches.Clarkson has now been suspended by the BBC and the three remaining episodes of the current Top Gear series were cancelled.
The whole pantomime unfolded as if following a script, but it stirred up the tribal Top Gear fans and might breathe enough life into the tired old formula to keep it wheezing along for another series.Clarkson himself seems unchastened, as well he might be. It would be surprising if the BBC sacked its most precious talent for doing exactly what his fans love him for.
More likely the whole circus will blow over. The besotted fans will keep watching and Clarkson will bank a few more million. As I say, a strange lot.Footnote: Quite by chance, I caught a glimpse of a promo for Top Gear this week. It was the night before my column was published and I observed that James May appeared to have had a haircut. Clearly he did it purely to embarrass me, but he does look much improved.