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Tags:   Cars,   Top Gear,   Reviews,   Autos

By Colin Fitz   -  December 04, 2014

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Photo credit:  www.topgear.com

Another Sunday, another 'Driving' supplement and another hilarious article in the 'Times of London' by one Jeremy Clarkson: petrol-head supreme and quite possibly the most controversial motoring writer in the known world.


“It’s never too early to cash in on Christmas, so last week I was making my annual crash-bash-wallop DVD for your yuletide viewing pleasure. Mostly this has involved filling old cars with petrol and blowing them up, and driving new cars round corners much too quickly, while shouting.” How's that for attention-grabbing introductions?

The tongue-in-cheek style and unashamed advertisement for a product set to continue lining his pockets very nicely is something that, curiously, has become an expected trade-mark by legions of readers of the motoring section of that newspaper. Some years ago that section was just four pages inside the sports supplement. Now ‘Driving’ is a fully-fledged supplement that stands on its own: and it is said that this became so through Clarkson’s musings single-handedly raising the overall circulation of the 'Sunday Times' by seven per cent.


As we all know all too well in this country, people need personal transport, and with the human psyche being what it is, if that mode of transport can be had more beautiful and faster than anyone else’s, then you can be sure that steps will be taken for that to happen.


Mix in the unrestrained libido of the young male, at whom the car-themed magazine or television programme is primarily aimed. This leads to said magazines and TV shows being lapped up as the imagination, lingering from those boyhood days of sports car posters on bedroom walls, is stimulated: in part by the whole motoring industry keen to sell, and by motoring journalists keen to make their living out of something they instinctively love.


Car reviewers will always have a job while conversations in bars continue to revolve around the age-old dilemmas such as: “Do go-faster stripes on a car actually work?” or “Lamborghinis are better than Ferraris”. When the bar isn’t showing big-screen football that is.


The British have honed down the art of reviewing cars down to a fine art. Of course, car review programmes and publications exist all over the world, including here in Malta. But it could only have been the Brits, led by the public school system that has for so long mixed a love of intricate use of language with aspects of satire and irony in comedy that brought us Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Private Eye and Blackadder, that could have turned simple descriptions of cars into an entire fantastic adventure.


Couple that with their innate sense of the absurd and their knack for cynicism and not taking things too seriously and you are presented with programmes such as Top Gear, presented by Mr Clarkson and his sidekicks, James May and Richard 'Hamster' Hammond.


It's no accident that this programme managed to grow and achieve enormous popularity (and notoriety): after all, it is produced by the BBC that is free of the constraints of depending on advertising revenue and the risk of offending big-spending carmakers. Of course, rumours abound that the reviewers/’presenters may be provided with ‘hospitality’ or even ‘compensation’ that results in more favourable attention to certain makes… But that is the kind of rumour that always circulates when certain parties feel injured by some sort of negative reference and is hard to prove.


Personally, I feel that the prestige and seriousness of an organisation such as the BBC would not allow such practices to go unpunished, and as someone who has followed Top Gear for many years, I can’t remember any particular reviews that stood out like a sore thumb when compared to the general consensus of reviewers across the motoring world. It is simply the style of presentation that is different and fresher.


The freedom that comes with making a car-programme for the BBC (which is funded by a licence fee paid by UK citizens who own a television rather than advertising revenue) results in the producers having been able to slowly develop the show into a half-hour entertainment-fest featuring their fantasies becoming reality for the viewers’ pleasure.


So: not needing to stick to a format of plugging advertisers’ cars, Top Gear can present features such as ‘the star in a reasonably-priced car’; the car racing the boat and the jet plane; the attack of the killer skip (dumping a skip on an old Maserati Quattroporte “because it’s a horrible car”; and re-enacting famous rock music album covers such as driving a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow into a swimming pool.


And if the show has sometimes offended, the backing of a huge corporation has guaranteed protection for Clarkson and co, although there are protestations from the UK green lobby at the programme’s glorification of speed and what is termed ‘irresponsibility, particularly towards environmental concerns’.


Clarkson dismisses these accusations as “wierdos with beards who should go back to hugging their trees”.


This is, of course, a slightly inaccurate swipe, but the millions of car and driving enthusiasts the world over do often despair at the strait-jacketed approach of people who only seem bent on ‘spoiling a bit of fun’.


However Top Gear itself has often been criticised by car-lovers over its obsession with exotic machinery and wild stunts, when, with Britain (and the world, including Malta) close to polluted gridlock, perhaps a more mature approach to ‘sensible’ cars and fuels should start being considered.


Thanks to their larger than life personality, and, it must be said, an actual talent for using the TV medium and the English language to it’s fullest potential, the presenters, Clarkson most of all, have become bigger than the programme itself.


Apart from his presenting Top Gear and writing in its spin-off magazine, and his Sunday Times commitments (which won him the UK’s motoring writer of the year accolade), Clarkson has presented various series of his own, including a non-motoring-related (but just as juvenile) chat show and a number of hilarious one-off series such about what he sees as the top tens best/worst/fastest etc cars. He also produces at least one best-selling male stocking-filler DVD or book every year.


But it's hard to rue him his good fortune.


After all, as he himself put it in an article about the end of carmaker Rover: whatever he says is simply opinion. He is not forcing anyone to buy or not buy any machine. In any case, the afore-mentioned tongue-in-cheek style he uses has, by now, made readers immune to his rantings and he is often more read for his skilful use of metaphor and observations of the absurd.


The piece that started this article actually went on (eventually) to talk about the new Aston Martin DB9 Volante, after a lengthy introduction that was more about raising a smile over breakfast on Sunday morning than trying to convince people how to part with their cash. Although he often still manages to spring a surprise twist to a review, most people can smile quietly to themselves at his opinion that can be seen speeding towards them from miles away. His reviews are more about Jeremy Clarkson than the cars he tests.


He was once asked his advice on how to become a motoring journalist. His answer was probably the most honest statement he has ever consigned to print: “Like cars: but love writing.”


With his talents being harnessed outside the confines of motoring journalism and millions in the bank (and in his garage), it seems like that philosophy has served him very well.


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