Watching Top Gear

How the motoring series Top Gear is not just a TV show, it's a British phenomenon

Now, only on BBC1…” said the continuity announcer bizarrely, “…it’s the brand new series of Top Gear.”


They wish. BBC1 would love to snaffle this show but no, it’s staying on BBC2 and the BBC2-ness matters because, despite being a hit all over the world, on BBC2 it can still slope around behind the bikesheds and behave like a naughty schoolboy.

And sure enough, here come the scabby-kneed gang of Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May, looking as shifty as ever. Straight out of the opening titles and Clarkson roars, “Tonight: can an Austin Allegro fly?” over a shot of a 70s hatchback reversing up a huge ramp.

Six words and I’m 12 years old again, too. Across the country, I’d guess, millions of dads are regressing in their heads to a time when they didn’t have to worry about the boss or the mortgage and could instead daydream about what an Allegro would look like airborne.

Which is why this show is such a phenomenon. It tickles the childish id in everyone, not just dads. The trouble is, no sooner are we reminded, via a teaser sequence on the series ahead, how blinding Top Gear is at its best, than they ruin it all with an extended soap-box session from Clarkson about the fuel crisis and why the Toyota (yawn) Prius isn’t the answer, and why we should ban roadsigns or something. Which reminds us what a drag the show can be at its worst.

When there’s too much in this vein, it’s like being trapped at a party by a blazered public-school boor who lectures you on political correctness gone mad and so-called global warming and bloody health and safety. Suddenly the Spain v Italy Euro 2008 quarter-final over on BBC1 (or possibly BBC2) starts to look tempting.


But then, wonderfully, there’s a classic Top Gear wheeze where the trio have to come up with an alternative police car for under a grand. The bit with the three of them in their absurd custom bangers chasing the Stig around the track had me weeping with laughter. For that we’ll forgive the big kids anything.