Top Gear – the Clarkson era – is over. Last night, Sunday 28 June, the BBC screened the last ever episode of one of its most popular television shows.
And it was all a bit weird.
The studio links were filmed by a very subdued James May and Richard Hammond. And that felt a bit like a Batman film starring Alfred and Robin but where the main guy doesn’t turn up because he’s somewhere else … oh, I don’t know, in prison or drunk or something.
The last episode featured two films that the production crew shot before they realised that these would be the last ever bits of Top Gear. Perhaps fittingly these two films showed why this iteration of Top Gear was coming to an end.
In the first film, the producers challenged our three heroes to buy classic cars. So their researchers bought a trio of cars which matched the presenters’ personalities and which had a variety of amusing faults.
The three presenters then had a conversation about each other’s cars, picking holes with their choices and pointing out the faults. First one presenter talked about his car to camera, then the second one arrived. They talked about each other’s cars. Then the third presenter arrived and we talk about all three cars.
Then the producers gave the team a challenge which was designed to make the cars break. The classic cars are entered into a race.
Then the presenters were given further challenges which basically involved driving around until the cars break. About half way through the cars were given to an off-camera crew of mechanics to make hilarious improvements to them. And then there were more challenges designed to break the cars. The camera filmed the three presenters getting exasperated and fed up as their cars … predictably … broke down.
And the second film was … exactly the same. The only thing that changed was that the three cars were SUVs and not classic cars. They were rolled down a cliff to make them break. And then they were driven round in circles in muddy fields pretending to be heading to a function in a posh hotel.
Without the extra bits padding out these films, it was pretty obvious that it was all done to a formula. The same formula that they have been using for years.
Top Gear had turned into your Grandad telling a joke. You love him dearly because he’s your Grandad. He fought in three world wars. He’s a part of your life history. But his jokes have long since stopped being funny. You have heard them too often.
Top Gear used to be edgy. It used to be innovative. It used to be a two finger salute to the establishment. It used to put its hand down your underpants and give your naughty parts a cheeky squidge. It reminded you that you were not too old to have fun. It wasn’t yet time to nail the coffin lid down on top of you.
But over the years it has become the thing it used to parody. Top Gear has become the establishment. It has become stuck in a rut like a £250 SUV driving around a field until it could find a muddy bit to get bogged down in.
Jeremey’s subconscious realised this before his conscious mind did. He has been slowly self-destructing before our eyes. Making increasingly awkward racist comments. Punching producers. Becoming an embarrassment for his employers. His body has known that it was time to quit, even if his ego and work ethic wouldn’t let him.
Clarkson was like the shoplifter who wants to get caught. He knew deep down that he had a problem but didn’t know how to deal with it.
Let’s be fair here. Top Gear is enormously popular. When it is good it is very very good. The production values and the camerawork are fantastic. The team puts in a hell of a lot of work behind the scenes to make it all look effortless. I have watched every single episode and thoroughly enjoyed most of them.
But it’s time for a change.
My advice for Jeremy would be to take a long holiday. Then try to recreate some of that creativity you had when you first put Top Gear together. Please please please don’t make the Netflix Top Gear 2. That part of your life is over. Give us something new.
Don’t be bitter. This end was going to come sooner or later. You know it, and secretly you needed it.
And to Chris Evans, I’d give slightly different advice. You need to split Top Gear into two parts. One part – roughly 50% – needs to be the familiar. We need to see the star in a reasonably priced car. We want the cool wall back again. You will inject your own personality into those elements, but you do need to have them. Top Gear needs to be partly like a comfy pair of slippers.
The other 50% should be new and original. Bring some new ideas to the table, just as Jeremy did all those years ago.
Should the fans mourn the passing of the Clarkson era? Yes and no. It was fun while it lasted, but it was also time to move on. There are only so many times that you can write “Penistone” along the side of a car so that when the door opens it removes the letters “tone”.
And now it’s back to the studio.