The universal appeal of Top Gear

You don't have to like cars to love the BBC motoring show

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The universal appeal of Top Gear
Written By
David Whitehouse

Top Gear is television's greatest anomaly. It is the specialist interest show made all-inclusive.

I, for instance, know nothing and care even less about cars. If the conversation turns to motoring it's as unpleasant as having my every facial orifice packed with wet bread.

What’s more, I feel no affinity whatsoever with Messieurs Clarkson, Richard Hammond or James May. They're like the great guffawing boobs you'd find at the back of the school bus on a day trip, pressing their arses against the window at passing truckers. And yet I LOVE Top Gear, and I'm not alone.

Though it started as a rather weedy, serious look at automotives - about as much fun as finding out how much your MOT is going to cost - Top Gear's recent history is one of freshly broken ground. No longer just pornography for mechanics, the show now has more in common with a mental schoolboy's comic.

It brims with more ideas per episode than most programmes might have in a series, and more importantly it executes them with a perfectly realised and sustained tone. It is, in parts, wonderfully made, creative and more importantly funny. And Clarkson is the reason why.

Many assume that Clarkson is the bullish, cocksure everything-o-phobe with the spray-on jeans we see on TV. And he probably is.

But hate him or loathe him, it's indeed Clarkson's downright refusal to stop being such a pig-headed petrol-burning ape that has saved Top Gear from the specialist programming dustbin reserved for Belgian pastry, sand and Michael Barrymore. The last episode of the last series was watched by more people than this year's finale of Big Brother. In appeal terms it makes Clarkson a TV Goliath.

But why do we watch it? Well, firstly, it's funny. The Stig? Funny. The incessant bullying of the posh one with the hair like an Afghan hound? Funny. Pretending that since Hammond's horrific high-speed crash he's a little less of a man (though to be fair he does look a little haunted these days)? Funny.

Secondly we watch it for its shameless machismo. The things they'll do in order to prove how fast a car is are the kind of ideas a child might have if it had won the lottery and had eaten one million pounds’ worth of sweets.

And we are attracted by their reckless abandon… "I know, shall we tie Hammond to the propellers of a helicopter and then fly it into the moon?", "Yes, why not?". It looks and feels like a giant playground full of glamour, celebrities, money and speed, not a car showroom, which is how it should look.

And finally, secretly and with no fanfare, it is also the best-looking series on TV. The set pieces wouldn't look out of place in an action movie much of the time, bar perhaps an action movie featuring no cars.

Everything about Top Gear should be unappealing, but everything about it just isn't.