Is Jeremy Clarkson really bigger than Top Gear?

Mark Lawson examines the future of the troubled motoring show - and of its often controversial star...

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Although the presenters’ union is understandably reluctant to admit it, most of those who front TV shows are dispensable. But a sudden hole in Sunday’s BBC2 schedule begs the question of whether Jeremy Clarkson is the exception to the rule that shows are more important than their hosts.

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The final programme of the 22nd series of Top Gear is missing from the 8pm slot following the suspension of Clarkson in the row known in tabloid shorthand as “steakgate”.

Are there lessons to be learnt from an American TV controversy that recently generated as many column inches as Clarkson’s implosion? Brian Williams, the $10-million-a-year presenter and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, was suspended from his anchor role for exaggerating the danger he faced during a war report. But his show’s ratings haven’t changed.

It may be revealing of the priorities of the BBC that, while an American TV star was disciplined for a serious broadcast falsehood, the British telly celebrity was pulled off air for allegedly losing his rag with an underling getting his supper.

Five million viewers in the UK and 350 million more in 214 foreign territories will feel bereft of this weekend’s Top Gear fix. But on what does the brand’s global appeal depend? To the annoyance of Clarkson’s detractors inside and outside the BBC, few other programmes have become so associated with their presenters.

Top Gear, in its post-2002 version under executive producer Andy Wilman, is a clever format that projects genuine expertise and enthusiasm for the subject through compelling repetitive elements (Power Laps, Star in a Reasonably Priced Car) and a jokey approach. The Great British Bake Off, though, does the same for the field of patisserie, but that show – as is standard with most TV franchises – is tweaked for and hosted by locals when sold abroad. Top Gear is almost unique in that the Britons travel with it intact.

And perhaps even more surprising is that this particular vision of Britain should have proved so super-exportable. Two UK broadcasters who were committed Americanophiles – Andrew Neil and Piers Morgan – failed to achieve screen success in the US and yet Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, whose material depends largely on the assertion that the rest of the world is inferior to Britain, seem somehow to be loved by the rest of the world.

Even though the various Clarkson controversies that have involved on-screen speaking rather than off-screen eating have turned on allegations of racism – after jokes invoking stereotypes about Mexico, Germany, Burma, among others – the series has managed to be become a sort of televisual Esperanto, apparently understood almost everywhere. 

This could reflect the fact that, depressingly for the United Nations, a gag against a particular nationality will only prove offensive to that nation – and possibly in parts of media London, including the BBC’s Broadcasting House – but be enjoyed by other races.

It may, though, be a mistake to assume that viewers abroad are endorsing the performers. Apart from its astonishing international appeal, another distinction of Top Gear is to be a show made for adults that also appeals to children. A rare other example is, intriguingly, Dad’s Army, which also features a cast of anti-German Little Englanders.

Another useful comparison may be Mr Bean who, though obviously less outspoken than Clarkson, transcended international barriers by being an idiot who bumped into things and got into embarrassing scrapes. So it may be that, away from home, Clarkson, Hammond and May are enjoyed as cartoonish figures, relics of a lost age, like petrolhead Captain Mainwaring or Mr Beans on wheels. 

It’s impossible to calculate reliably the relative significance of faces and format to television success. Perhaps there’s a schedule later in the decade where – because of the recent row or another one – Top Gear without Clarkson still flourishes on the BBC, while Clarkson without Top Gear struggles on ITV, Sky or Netflix.

But, although he has never had his name in the title, the series feels more Clarkson’s – driven by his childish, bullish, God-bless-Blighty spirit – than NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams depended on Williams. 


The story so far…

Clarkson inquiry to report to BBC director-general next week

Final Top Gear of series pulled after delays to Clarkson inquiry

Clarkson hints at BBC exit

Clarkson “considering quitting” BBC

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Top Gear postponed after Jeremy Clarkson “punches” producer