Top Gear originated as a BBC TV car “magazine” based on a traditional but dull consumer product review format. A category was selected e.g. family hatchbacks and then 3 almost identical machines were tested – eg a Ford, a Toyota and a VW. Like a game of top trumps, statistics were compared – price, miles per gallon, top speed, time for 0 – 60mph etc etc.
This was Boring.
Fortunately, the program makers realised they were in the entertainment business not the car business. They needed to differentiate the program and engage the audience. So, over time, out went comparisons of how much space there was in the boot for the groceries and in came supercars, caravan smashing and gently subversive humour.
The trick was to take their audience with them as they transitioned from dull infomercials to true originality. This was pulled off in the same way as boiling a live frog in an open pan – because the change in temperature is progressive there is never a single point at which the frog exits the pan.
The audience statistics reveal how successful this was. Top Gear managed to appeal to everyone from CEOs in gated “communities” to young offenders on council estates.
Everyone likes razzing cars but budget and context are important. If you are Roman Abramovitch and you want to do doughnuts on a Surrey airfield with someone else’s cars, Ferrari will lend you them and invite you onto their mailing list. If you follow the more traditional budget route and do your doughnuts with “borrowed” wheels after closing time in the pub car park in Scunthorpe, then the police will want to speak with you. The genius of Top Gear was to appeal to the entire spectrum.
Top Gear has made its 3 presenters rich. But it is obvious that they are not doing it primarily for the money. They are living their vocation and doing what they love. A nice side effect of that is getting paid handsomely to clown around.
Its not about the cars. Really. Many of the audience will not understand this.
If you are 17 years old and watching from a council estate or the only TV in an African village then I get how you might yearn to be rich enough to buy the cars on the show. If however you watch the show and just think “I’d love to own that Ferrari” then you have not properly understood what you are watching.
Philosophically, as I get older, I wonder whether we can ever really own an object like a supercar, any more than we can “own” a wife / husband. I know there are some people who think they own their wife or children…they tend to live in Austria and have several locks on the cellar door. Eventually the neighbours will tell the police and the TV crews that they always kept themselves to themselves.
Buying a Ferrari or Lamborghini is like buying a tiger as a pet. If you are as smart as Mike Tyson, it may seem like a good idea. In reality however, it is an impractical beast that will cost you a fortune. Every now and again it will crap on your carpet and eat your children. It will come to possess you rather than the other way around. All posessions do this to varying degrees.
Note how the show carefully omits all the downside of car ownership. We see no hire-purchase instalments, no oil leaks, no trips to the garage, no speeding tickets, no court appearances, no dead pedestrians, no fraudulent mechanics bills, no insurance forms, no one nagging you to clean the damned thing.
In the fantasy world of Top Gear, the latest Lamborghini Insaniti or Ferrari Viagra are raced hard, doughnutted and powerslid and then handed back to the car companies with no maintenance or post-coital cuddling– like many male fantasies, it is totally unrealistic. Only an idiot would watch Top Gear and think it would actually be a good idea to incur debt and pay life changing amounts of money to own and maintain a rapidly depreciating asset with ruinous operating costs.
The process of repositioning the programme away from mindless consumerism reaches its apotheosis with the Top Gear Specials where the guys are “sent” to a remote part of the world to undertake long and arduous journeys involving clapped out old vehicles, twatting about and just enough danger to keep things interesting.
What can we learn from these adventures?
1. Frugality is more fun.
The cheap junkers driven have way more soul and generate more comedy than an expensive, new car. It is also essential that the guys do not stay at a bland corporate Hilton (at least not on camera). They rough it – either at a local fleapit or they sleep in their vehicles. The Escape Artist has some experience of sleeping in cars and can confirm that it is a rich source of humour as well as backpain.
2. Possessions are a liability, cash is king.
The guys travel light. They do not have kitchen sinks, TVs and electrical appliances in their vehicles other than as stage props to be smashed up or set on fire. It does however, help to have hard currency to hand to provide the option to buy your way out of trouble when needed.
3. The obstacle is the way.
Challenges are undertaken, obstacles are encountered and dealt with. Whether its dodging tarantulas in the jungle or building a bridge across a river blocking the road, setbacks are essential to the narrative. It’s about the journey not the destination. The idea of personal growth and happiness through overcoming adversity has ancient roots in the philosophy of stoicism.
4. Progress results from experimentation.
The programme demonstrates – with comic references to The A Team – a truth about scientific progress. Most inventions come from blokes messing around in a shed, applying stochastic tinkering in response to a problem. Top down central planning is only successful in the fantasy worlds of communist dictators, Labour politicians and Fortune 500 CEOs. Similarly, experimentation is a great source of personal progress…how will you improve if you don’t try new stuff?
5. Guys need genuine mates.
There is competition between the guys, yes, but not too much and not about the wrong things. One suspects that Clarkson, Hammond and May don’t feel the need for a pissing match (spoken or unspoken) about who has the most money or the neatest lawn. They seem old and rich enough to realise how pathetic that would be. Ridicule is dished out and practical jokes are perpetrated, gently letting the air out of egos. We need proper mates and not just suburban acquaintances, business contacts or sycophantic sub-ordinates at work.
6. The guys set their own destiny.
Top Gear shows a vision of life where the guys are in charge of themselves. They are not emasculated or henpecked. Their bosses are unseen and we are never shown the guys asking “permission” from their wives / girlfriends to go away.
7. Corporate and political incorrectness is funny.
The guys have a political correctness exemption certificate. The BBC hands these out like MI6 hands out 00 licences – rarely and grudgingly. If one of the guys drives like a little girl’s frilly dress, the others will tell him – on camera. Everywhere else in our pathetically sanitised modern world, this is verboten.
8. Risk is part of living.
Part of the appeal of the specials shot in the Third World is the element of risk. In the West, most of us live in a health and safety manual. We are like pampered battery hens rather than living free range. You need to think about how different this is to the life lived by all our ancestors over the last 100,000 years. We evolved in an environment where death was never far away. This kept us on our toes mentally and physically.
We see the stunts and the messing around and we know that much of it is staged. But equally, we know that the presenters take real risks. Some of those mountain pass scenes with precipitous drops can not be faked. We know that Richard Hammond walked the walk when he crashed a drag racer and damn near died in a coma. They guys may be ageing. Clarkson may be overweight, May has girl’s hair and Hammond may have whitened teeth but they are not wimps. This is rare and we respect that.
Ultimately, Top Gear is not about cars. You could replace the cars with bikes, boats or bouncy spacehoppers and it would still make great viewing. It may not all be real. It is nonetheless valuable in showing a vision of freedom in an overly-sanitised world.
1. No frogs were harmed in the writing of this article
2. The Obstacle is The Way is a phrase that I shamelessly stole from the title of Ryan Holiday’s book about stoicism