Sunday, October 21, 2012

Happy tenth birthday* Top Gear!

MANY happy returns, Britain’s most watched motoring TV show. Many have tried to better your three-blokes-and-a-Stig format, but nobody’s really managed it.

Even though I was naive, 16-year-old college student at the time I remember that first programme of the reinvented Top Gear like it been shown yesterday rather than October 20, 2002. What I remember most of all was not being particularly bowled over by the studio, sparsely populated by members of the Subaru Owners’ Club, the tedious piece talking the viewers through their new track, and by Jason Dawe, who despite being a likeable bloke with a lot of knowledge on used cars never seemed to suit presenting the revamped show. No wonder he was quietly dropped after a single series.

But the calls by Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Wilman to give Top Gear an overhaul were well justified. Old Top Gear, as it’s now called, had slowly evolved from the dry, technical show of William Woollard’s day into a thoroughly entertaining thirty minutes of Thursday night telly. Even though I’ve always maintained it was the triple whammy of Tiff Needell’s balletic oversteer routines, Quentin Willson’s caustic commentary and Jeremy Clarkson’s genius quips, in terms of mass appeal it was Jezza who made Top Gear in the Nineties so watchable, and the drop in ratings after he pulled out in 1999 proved it. By the time the original was “rested” in 2001 it was regularly being beaten in the ratings by Channel 4’s excellent and much-missed Driven.

Top Gear of course, is a very different beast these days;  three knowledgeable petrol heads with a genuine on-screen chemistry, packed-out studios with waiting lists which run into years, the enigma of the Stig and some genuinely brilliant production values and novel scripting have made it into unmissable television not just for car lovers, but their long-suffering other halves too. Admittedly, even I get annoyed when it strays into the slapstick – like that caravanning piece, for instance – but the point is it’s memorable and put together by people who have a passion for the subject.

The pieces which have made me cringe are more than outweighed by the dozens of great pieces of film-making they’ve put together. Take the Aston Martin racing the TGV across France, for instance. Or Jeremy’s poignant Senna tribute. Or any of the lovely classic car pieces James used to do (more, please!). Or my favourite Top Gear film to date – the wonderfully funny and spectacularly unsucessful efforts to buy a mid-engined supercar for less than £10,000. All pieces which highlight exactly why TG deserves its place in the primetime Sunday night slot.

What Top Gear has left though – and I’ve said it before – is a gap, a void in motoring telly where the old Top Gear, with its enforced diet of sensible reviews of superminis and used car buying guides, used to sit in the schedules. Even though Driven was dropped shortly after Top Gear’s introduction many have tried; many of the old Top Gear crew went onto Fifth Gear, which is still entertaining largely for Tiff’s reviews but has increasingly tried – and failed – to mimic the Beeb’s format. Sky’s The Petrol Age had a scholarly feel to it and a great presenter in Paul McGann, but still felt a little too inaccessible for non-petrolheads just wanted straightforward pieces on cars old and new, while Five’s latest effort, Classic Car Rescue, has been given an absolute pasting for its obviously scripted performances. Top Gear, meanwhile, has pretty much the entire population divided; everybody either loves it or hates it, but all of them, without exception, are familiar with it.

So long live Top Gear, and kudos to the first production company who comes up with the first genuinely enjoyable car show to fill the gap it left.

*Top Gear actually celebrated its tenth birthday yesterday, but what's a day between friends?

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