Friday, December 16, 2005

T#9: Top Gear

Morning, peeps. Sorry this is a little later than usual but I was literally up all night doing an unnecessarily elaborate layout for handing in today.

Anyways, here's a little citation I had to write for a class earlier in the week.

Top Gear won a what?! Yes, an Emmy.

What can you say about Jeremy Clarkson that hasn’t been said already? Well, you could say he’s a tree-hugging friend to the environment, but that may have some “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”-type factual issues.

Why am I talking about Clarkson? Well, because the BBC’s motoring magazine program Top Gear has won the international television Emmy for best non-scripted entertainment show. And without meaning to be unfair to the others involved, Clarkson has been the driving force behind the re-incarnation of this series.

Attitudinally mal-adjusted, opinionated, inconsistent – he is all of these. But since leaving the stuffy, fact based original iteration of the show in the 90s, Clarkson has also matured as a television broadcaster. And it is this combination or character and competence that has driven the new format’s rising reputation as adrenaline fuelled entertainment since his return.

Driven, yes, but fair to say not dominated.

Televise Clarkson on an empty stage with nothing more than a soapbox to stand on, and people would watch it. But that doesn’t make for an award winning television program. Top Gear has moved beyond the love him or hate him personal image of a single man – Top Gear exists as a whole. A primordial soup of personalities, product, and performance – let’s take each of those in turn.

Besides Clarkson, the show is now blessed with two other presenters in Richard Hammond and James May who are equally entertaining to watch. The joy here is in the rapport, and the differences between them. Like three ordinary blokes in a pub, they talk cars, they argue cars – but best of all they are passionate about cars. Without the genuineness of this enthusiasm, the willingness of all three to look silly because of it – or anorachy, or plain obstinate, even inconsistent – the show would not be such a success. We are entertained by the fact that they are entertained – it is their enthusiasm that enthuses us. And because each is different to the other there is a broad range of appeal – from over-the-top Clarkson switching between cynicism and excitement, to Hammond’s boyish enthusiasm and willingness to argue his point, to May’s more stately appreciation and apparent stoicism. The difference in appearance adds to the mix – Clarkson towering over Hammond as they dispute the merits of a particular model as Hammond refuses to back down, the laidback sheepdog look of the let-the-kids get on with it May. It’s the strength of their personalities as much as the content of the show that makes for great television – and allows a narrow subject to appeal to a wider audience.

And isn’t it great television? They’ve taken a fact based format and turned it into entertainment. By inviting an audience to participate, and having a recognised base of operation, Top Gear has become a kind of automotive Mecca for petrolheads everywhere. They’ve successfully mounted the celebrity bandwagon, with their Star in a Reasonably Priced Car feature. They wield such power now from their success that they get all the best drives – epitomised by their “race” series, where Clarkson in a car takes on Hammond and May in another form of transport. And they perform outrageous stunts, like playing football with cars and conkers with caravans. All the things that any motoring enthusiast dreams of doing, they are able to do it. The product is an appealing one because they are able to express enjoyment on our behalf.

And then there’s the performance. After going through a tricky patch where the camera shots in the filmed inserts often appeared too clever for their own good, the Top Gear format has also matured. Filtering to make colours vivid and the most of natural light and weather conditions gives the appearance of such slickness, almost beauty, that their ever-the-same test track still fails to become over familiar. Locations and set pieces are chosen with panache – whether it be Clarkson sitting on an enormous log being towed by a 4x4, or matching epic supercars to epic scenery. The dialogue is sharp [though the author notes that it is partially pre-written – despite the non-scripted category award!], though one criticism may be that the information they impart is somewhat selective – it is often only the headline facts that make it to the viewer, rather than the nitty-gritty. But remember, this is entertainment we’re talking about now, no longer journalism – too much information may turn some people off. For those who are really interested in the subject matter, Top Gear will never be their only source.

The Emmy press release describes Top Gear in this way:

Top Gear, now in its fifth series in its new studio-based format, introduces new cars to our roads, new motoring technology, and the very latest in concept cars. The show combines the elements of factual entertainment with motoring journalism.

But I’d say it’s polished, professional, enthusiastic entertainment, pure and simple, that garners Top Gear such an award.


Blogger Rachel said...

As a Top Gear fan, I really enjoyed reading this article. It was very well written (Clarkson and May would be proud) and I'm sure you're going to do great on your course if this is the kind of standard you're working to.

12:05 pm  

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