Clarkson on: Top Gear content
As Top Gear finished its much-delayed run a few weeks ago, the cheery continuity announcer said that the show would be back in the summer. Well, I’m sorry, love, but it won’t be. Not unless someone from the Greenwich Observatory suddenly decides that we need a new month between May and June.
The fact is that it takes four months to film enough material for a run of Top Gear. And then another couple of months to turn the miles of tape we generate into something you might actually want to watch. So trust me on this, no one has a clue when Top Gear will be back.
But assuming we do come back to BBC2 at some point in the future – October, if we’re lucky – our problems will be far from over. Because as I write, no one has much of a clue what the programme should look like. I’d therefore like your help.
Here’s the problem. When Richard Hammond went upside down last September, we had pretty much finished filming everything we needed for a nine-week run leading up to Christmas. Oh, there were a few loose ends to finish off: the limos, for instance, had been bought and converted, but not tested at the track nor used to deliver celebrities to a glittering gala do.
Then came the accident, the postponement and the news that only six programmes could be shoehorned into the slot we eventually used in January and February. We had material for nine shows. But only six to show it. So what to leave in? What to leave out?
Economics won the day. It is hugely expensive to make triple-header events like the America run, the farming story and the limousine test. And it’s fairly cheap to drive a manufacturer’s test car round some corners on a quiet country road or on our track.
So if we were going to ditch anything, it’d be the cheaper stuff: the road tests. And if we were going to show anything, it’d be the big films featuring James, Richard and me. The ones that need three crews, a few days on location and countless late nights at the edit.
As a result, and quite by accident, the series that’s just finished was full of us three cocking about, and almost completely devoid of anything you might fairly call ‘a road test’. You had us growing petrol, getting stuck in Fulham, being hounded out of Alabama and resurfacing roads. And about two seconds of a Porsche going round corners in Lincolnshire.
This has gone down very badly with the people in internet land. After every show, they dived into their forums and moaned like Nigel Mansell stuck in a jet engine that their beloved car show had become an entertainment show for the terminally childish. They’re right too. Perhaps we should have changed the name to Last of the Summer Petrol.
All these people want to know why there aren’t two or three proper car tests a week. And not car tests where I drive around shouting “poweeeeer”, but proper ones done by James where every nut, bolt and torque is taken out and examined.
"It is hugely expensive to make triple-header events like the America run, the farming story and the limousine test"
What they want, secretly, is Chris Goffey back. And I’d love to oblige. I’d love to spend the day hooning around in a 599 or a lightweight Gallardo. I’d love to make those cars live for you on the screen. It’d be great.
I’d even love to take that little Fiat Panda 100hp for a spin and wonder out loud how many Nurofens you’d need to take before the headache it generated went away. And whether that many Nurofens will actually kill you.
But galloping like a huge, shit-stained horse over the horizon comes the problem: is that what the vast majority of the viewers want? Not you. Not your mates in cyberland. But the vast swathe of people who just want to flop down on a Sunday night and watch entertaining telly. I suspect the answer is a Thatcheresque "No. No. No."
We always knew that when Richard Hammond made his triumphant return to the programme, the viewing figures would be enormous. And they were. We even beat the final of Big Brother into a cocked pig. And then we sort of thought they’d tail off again, when people realised the Hamster wasn’t going to suddenly fall to the floor and start dribbling.
But they haven’t. Apart from a slight blip for the America special, the figures climbed like an F-15 on combat power, until we finished with 8.6 million people watching the end of the final show.
To put that in perspective, it’s pretty much twice what a very successful programme could dream of getting on BBC2 or Channel 4. It puts us on level terms with Eastenders. It means we are, give or take, the most watched show on the BBC. And that’s just in Britain. Factor in the rest of the world, and TG is effing massive.
Great. Secretly, the producer and I take these figures to the pub and having read them, pour champagne into one another’s underpants. We are very proud. But what do we do when the next series begins?
Do we go back to the old days, driving round corners in saloon cars, to the accompaniment of Bad Company and ‘His Mobiness’? Or do we keep on annoying the internet dweebs from Norway and North Carolina by continuing to cock about?
I desperately want to make a film comparing the Audi RS4 Avant, the BMW M5 Touring and the Mercedes E63 estate. I want to show those of a 4x4 disposition that there’s a life in a stratum below where they normally live. A more fun-filled, oversteery sort of life, where you get home more quickly, and with a bigger smile on your face, and (because hippies and Communists only care about four-wheel drive) with less egg on your windscreen as well.
I want to test that new Punto Abarth Fiat is talking about. I want to wring its neck round our track, and drive it all over Wales. Then there’s the new M3. That, versus the new V8 Lexus, would surely be one of the great twin tests of the modern age. Which is fastest? Which generates the most g through the Hammerhead?
Who knows? And who cares? I suspect the majority of the audience would rather we loaded both cars into a large plane, flew over the Arizona desert and then pushed them out to see which hit the ground first.
You may say that, as a public service broadcaster, we shouldn’t care about viewing figures; and it’s true – we shouldn’t. We can take them to the lavatory for a little moment of pleasure, but we can’t skew programmes to make them as big as possible or we’d end up with Jade Goody and The Hamiltons being loaded into the cars before they were pushed out of the transport plane...
Anyway, although we won’t chase figures, we still have to give the audience something you want and like. Which means we should make Top Gear an entertainment show featuring cars, rather than a car show, that isn’t as boring as your wife and kids feared.
Or have I got that all wrong? I’m stuck on this one and would love to hear your views. Obviously, you can write to us here at the magazine, or you can go to our website and do a blog, or whatever it is you do on websites when you’re not masturbating.