05 June 2009
Why is Top Gear so successful?

It is hugely successful.  It attracts a large audience, a big fan base and a huge waiting list for studio tickets.  It has spawned DVDs, a live show and local versions in the US, Australia and Russia.  Satellite channel, Dave, has based an entire business model around Top Gear repeats.  Stars clamour to drive its Reasonably Priced Car and a nation held its breath when one of its presenters was badly hurt in a 300mph car crash.

Jeremy Clarkson even once got a custard pie in the face from an environmentalist.  High praise indeed.

All this for a show based around two elements, namely: cars and blokes - neither of which the BBC, the show’s broadcaster, particularly likes.

So, why is it so successful?  I think it revolves around two elements.

First of all, it brings out the nine-year-old in all of us.  So, it has the values of a nine-year old.  Speed?  Good.  Power?  Good.  Noise?  Good.  Futuristic looks?  Good.  Gadgets?  Good.  Worries about global warming?  Boring.  Sure Mr Megastar you’re a star but how fast are you in a Suzuki Liana?

But it also asks the questions a nine-year old asks:

  • Can you turn a car into a boat?
  • Why don’t you have convertible people carriers?
  • Can you drive to the North Pole?
  • Which is faster, a car or a train?  Or a plane?  Or a boat?
  • What happens if you put Boadicea spikes on your wheels or drive into a brick wall?  In a lorry?
  • Or if you strap a Reliant Robin to a rocket?

Top Gear has at one point or another asked all these questions usually with results that are as disastrous as they are predictable as they are hilarious.  No wonder “ambitious but rubbish” has become the show’s unofficial motto.

Secondly, and this is thing they keep quiet about, Top Gear is clearly the result of a lot of hard work.  Don’t believe me?  Watch any episode and ask yourself where the camera is.  You’ll quickly realise that that it’s in all sorts of funny places.  The other day I spotted that they’d managed to get on the top of a suspension bridge.  Think of the health and safety forms.  But often it’s a helicopter.  Think of the cost.  Oh, and the co-ordination.

One of the sadnesses of this is that you realise that if the races themselves are not fakes, most of the shots are. 

But the hard work continues.  There is frequently a dialogue between narrator and presenter.  Often the same person.  But often it reveals an extraordinary degree of planning an preparation.  Let me put is like this. Top Gear presenters do not simply jump in a car and ad lib.  They write it down first.  Top Gear is quite prepared to put a day’s work into 5 seconds of footage.

Or, to put it another way, you have to be awfully grown up if you want to be that childish.

Top Gear is also remarkable for the way it survives repetition.  I have watched some of the Dave repeats 3 or 4 times.  This is partly because they are very funny.  Watching a man attempt to negotiate his Triumph Dolomite Sprint over a cobbled road with a collander full of eggs directly above his head usually is.  And it is partly because of the in-jokes that you miss first time round.  It took me ages to realise that there’s one running joke about Jeremy believing that for every mechanical problem there’s a hammer-based solution, another involving James May having no sense of direction and another involving Hammond crashing into May.  I don’t believe for a minute that all this isn’t also carefully planned.

To sum up, Top Gear is successful because it deserves to be. 

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  1. Agreed.  I’ve wondered the same thing about the races and the camera angles.  I suspect that to the extent the races are real, they have to do the whole thing twice - once for the race and once for the shots.  But I think there is a lot of fakery, but it doesn’t *really* matter.

    And the filming is often beautiful.  Which reminds me: I should get round to ordering the polar special on Blu-ray.  Hopefully future series will be shown on BBC HD.

    You’re right: Top Gear is an extremely high quality production.

    (By the way, I made my own documentary about a motorcycle trip once, and we had all kinds of fun setting up the camera and riding up and down the road to get shots.  We didn’t get nearly enough of such shots because it was so much effort and we were also trying to enjoy our trip.)

    Posted by Rob Fisher on 05 June 2009 at 04:31pm

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