As I was beavering away in the edit suite last week, cutting the films together for the latest series of Top Gear, I got a phone call from the Radio Times. Terry’s a commissioning editor on the magazine and he does go on a bit, but in essence his question was: “This new series is your 21st, 21 is the age when people are considered to be grown-up. So is Top Gear now going to grow up?”
Now if there’s anybody that likes to chunter on more than Terry, it’s me, so over the next many, many minutes I told him that yes, he’d hit on a very good point, that yes, I definitely thought Top Gear was indeed looking at the world through more mature eyes, and that yes, I could write a piece explaining all this.
Then I put the phone down and looked across at the wall planner on which all our new films for the new series are laid out.
Programme one: 80s Hot Hatches extravaganza, in which we hold a timed rally stage in the aisles of a fully stocked supermarket, a tank smashes through a building and several cars are blown up with massive – and I’m talking Die Hard-size – explosions.
Programme two: Pointless but glamorous and exciting race on the Italian lakes involving revolutionary James Bond-style machine.
Programme three: Ah, this is more like it, an economy run in one-litre cars. Oh wait a minute, the destination is the world’s worst nuclear disaster site, and, as an aside, is it possible to learn embroidery while driving?
Programme four: A six-wheeled Mercedes is tested on one of the rides in a water park, and so on and so on. Absolutely nothing here qualified for the phrase “more grown-up”.
Wait a minute – quite a few viewers often complain that we don’t review real world, everyday cars that people actually drive; maybe we’d matured here then. Sadly no. In show two Jeremy drives the new £900,000 McLaren P1, (mind you we do get real the following week with a Danish supercar that’s only £750,000). I scoured the wall thoroughly but, bottom line, almost everything we’d filmed was, once again, aimed at people with a mental age of nine.
I gave that last point some thought and quickly realised that it was too important to mess around with. If you’re actually nine, you need something to watch that isn’t a computer screen, and if you’re 29, 39 or 59, part of your brain will most likely still have a mental age of nine, and that part struggles to get nourishment. Modern life for adults is, after all, bloody hard. The workplace is not freer, but more regimented by management systems and nonsense enforced by going on “courses”. Email hasn’t decreased the workload but in fact piled it on. The demand to be accountable and produce results hangs heavy over every worker, and by the weekend they need a release valve. That’s where we come in – an hour a week where three badly dressed middle-aged men bicker, fall over and catch fire. An hour a week where nothing is achieved, but the path to nine-year-old escapism is briefly lit up. This is an important service we provide, and therefore essential that being nine should remain a massive remit of our films.
But for all of that, I hadn't been talking complete drivel in my phone conversation with Terry, because although series 21 couldn't claim to see us having become grown up, there is clearly some sort of cheese-type maturing process going on with Top Gear. Now at this point regular viewers will say “No s**t Sherlock! Have you seen Jeremy, James and Richard on an old episode on Dave recently?” And while I’ll admit that the chaps have weathered somewhat, their ageing is to be embraced.
I like the way we show it. I like that in series five Jeremy didn’t need glasses to read the news, but in series 20 he does, or that as they pass 50 they naturally talk about ride comfort more than they used to.
I also like the way they bicker more as age makes each other’s foibles that little bit more irritating. In fact, one of my favourite moments in the 2009 Bolivia special was when Richard Hammond had driven into the back of James May for the tenth time, and James got out, marched up to him and said: “That stopped being funny three series ago.” He was genuinely sick and tired of Hammond’s antics.
The point is, most TV shows that have been going for as long as ours refresh themselves by forcibly injecting new elements into the format, but on Top Gear we keep ourselves young by ageing. You’re watching (and apologies for sounding like a farmers’ market poster) an organic journey of those three going through their motoring lives.
You’re also watching their friendship played out via crap cars on road trips and I suppose if there’s one area where Top Gear is slowing down, or growing up if you like, it’s that these days we probably give Jeremy, James and Richard’s relationship a little bit more screen time.
When I look at some of our previous episodes – crossing the Channel in amphibious cars, or building a Reliant Robin space shuttle, you can tell that we’re squeezing the dialogue down to make room for more explosions or calamities. Nowadays, though, I like to let their banter have a bit more breathing space, simply because it’s funny and it’s warm, and when you’ve blown up or raced every machine you can, it will always be there.
I was a bit nervous when we transmitted the search for the source of the Nile special last year, because in truth not much happened. It turned out to be one of our most popular and well-received programmes ever, and I’m convinced what people bought into was just watching those three bumble about. Now, given that Jeremy and James have both passed 50 and Richard has finally admitted that 39 candles is fooling no one, you might think the production office would be going a little easier on them.
All I’d say, then, is watch our latest road trip. This time they have to cross the vast, wild landscape of Burma, not in cars, but in knackered, cantankerous old local lorries, and then at the end of their 750-mile journey, undertake a humungous challenge. It is the most brutal and exhausting trip they’ve ever undertaken – proper zombie-eyed fatigue stuff – so, no, on the physical front, no quarter is being given, or asked for. Yet.
If we can pull off a trip like Burma, and people are still happy to watch these three blathering on, then there’s life in Top Gear for who knows how long. After all, last time I looked, there was still a nine in 90.
Andy Wilman has been at the helm of Top Gear for all 21 series, mostly in the role of executive producer
Top Gear returns on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC2.