So Top Gear is off the road, for now at least. That’s a huge shame, as the million people who put their names to a bring-back-Jeremy petition would certainly agree.
As a former presenter on the programme for 11 years, at a time back in the 1980s and early ‘90s when viewing figures – even then – were on the high side of five million, I feel qualified to comment. Old Top Gear was an undoubted success, but modern Top Gear was a global phenomenon, mostly thanks to one J. Clarkson in the driving seat.
Funny, talented, outrageous, devil-may-care and often completely over the top – such as in the recent utterly lamentable piece about Peugeot – the tall, curly-headed one certainly knew how to shock, amuse and engage.
Some of his excesses made me shudder, much as they enthralled the bulk of his gargantuan fan base. But I happen to think that the world of motoring journalism owes him a lot. There was a time, around the turn of the Millennium, when motoring coverage in newspapers was contracting, car supplements were running off the road, and the demise of the professional motoring writer was being widely forecast.
At the same time, the popularity of Top Gear started accelerating again after a time off the air. The Clarkson factor re-energised viewers’ engagement with cars on-screen, and helped put motoring journalism back on the map.
So much of modern Top Gear has been utterly brilliant. The genius notion of The Stig, the ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced car’, the Cool Wall, all of it has earned an iconic place in TV history. Yes, it was excessively laddish, and starting to look like ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. Yes, the star trio were beginning to look older than many of their fans’ dads. But nobody would have predicted it would end the way it did.
JC, May and Hammond will doubtless be the comeback kids on another channel. Meanwhile the race is on to find another winning team to vocalise our national passion for cars on air.
All this has brought back happy memories of my days on old Top Gear. Such as dressing up in 60’s-style mini-skirt and PVC boots for an item on the old Mini. Best of all, was when one of my co-presenters overturned an Austin Maestro on the very twisty mountain road to Ronda during the car’s launch in Spain. While upside down, he heard the dulcet tones of the car’s voice synthesiser saying soothingly: ‘Warning, low oil pressure.’
Top Gear is on low oil pressure today, but here’s hoping the BBC conducts a thorough service and gets it back on the road again next year, pressing the throttle pedal as hard as ever with a new team.