The third biggest loser in this sad saga of Top Gear is the wider car media, and the business that surrounds it. Of course the first is the vast fan base that has followed the show for many years. The second, assuming the brand struggles to survive, is the team who work on it - and I can’t imagine how they feel right now. But sitting here it strikes me that so many people also engaged in this business of writing or making films about cars haven’t stopped to understand just what Top Gear did for all us ordinary folk. Nor what it did for the car industry in general.
Top Gear has acted like some vast, entirely free marketing service for all of us. I have always viewed it as the primary sales funnel for my videos, and the analytics support the theory: 350 million people watch the three boys doing their thing on a Sunday night and a very small percentage think they might want to know a bit more about the car featured that week, and so they type the car’s name into YouTube and they might just happen across one of our low-budget productions. A very small percentage of 350 million is still a very large number.
I’m like that little, nagging fish constantly nibbling a whale shark’s barnacles. I’m a TG parasite, and it’s worked bloody well for me up to now.
More importantly Jeremy, James and Richard have not just maintained the public’s love affair with the motor car, they’ve grown it – a feat I’d have thought impossible ten years ago in the face of political and environmental pressures. The conventional car print media – the one I have always been a part of – has failed in many ways with dwindling circulations and diminished influence, but its biggest crime is a total failure to connect with a younger audience. Thankfully for all of us, Top Gear’s role as compulsory Sunday night family viewing has excited a whole new generation of youngsters to not only be interested in cars, but to love cars. And for that I think it has already shaped the car industry as we currently know it, and how it will be in the future.
So on a selfish, professional level, I’m gutted TG is in a state of flux because I think fewer people will now watch my videos.
As for the show? My kids will miss it and I’ll miss watching it with them. Of course it wasn’t intended to enlighten geeks like me, but it certainly entertained me almost all of the time and as someone who spends much of his time standing in front of a camera and then watching a bloke called Neil turn it into a beautiful film, I can’t tell you how much respect I have for the three presenters’ abilities or the team of people who make the show.
Last year, when we filmed the McLaren P1 video at Yas Marina, TG was there patiently waiting to film a 918 which was still being held by customs. We had the track from about 9 pm to midnight and handed over the track to Richard and the TG crew who worked through the night until sun-rise to produce that beautiful film. Yes, they have budget, but fuck me they work hard. I hadn’t quite realized how much effort they put in until that point.
And I cannot say how thankful I am that it kind of became less about cars over time because in doing so it gave my little show the oxygen to survive. The only creative rule myself and Neil have ever consistently adhered to is to never try and be TG. Never try to be too funny. Don’t go on adventures. Don’t do anything that could usher you into direct comparison with TG because you will automatically look shit.
And as TG became more entertainment based, it kind of allowed us to pursue the genre of being geeks and smoking tires and doing stuff on a shoestring and having massive fun putting it all together. Without that shift, I wouldn’t have survived.
Does TG work without Jeremy? Probably not. Does it work without Richard and James too – absolutely not. I think the BBC would be completely mad to try and maintain the same format with three new people, but I don’t doubt it will try. In the UK people are citing the example of a show called ‘Have I got News for you’ which lost its anchor, Angus Deayton, through some scandal, was then expected to die an immediate death, but which has flourished with a series of temporary guest hosts for a decade now – one of them, ironically, being Jeremy Clarkson.
But I think the TG format is much more invested in Jeremy, James and Richard than HIGNFY ever was Angus Deayton.
I genuinely think that if James and Richard choose not to continue then the format has to die with them. No one can ever do with it what they have, because they defined it in the first place.
What comes next? I have no idea. I’ve always struggled to understand how Jeremy could do his thing on a commercially-funded channel. I suppose therein lies the crazy paradox at the center of this whole episode. Jeremy and his pal Andy Wilman turned a car program into a mouthpiece for an entire tranche of middle England fed-up with the nanny state and in search of simple entertainment, but the only place it could flourish was within a quasi-state-funded broadcaster that didn’t have to answer to advertisers, but which is fundamentally left-leaning and against the type of personality Jeremy represents. It would be easy to conclude that they couldn’t live with each other, and that they won’t be able to live without each other.
I don’t think it’ll end like that. I suspect TG will continue on the BBC, and it might well succeed. But much more interesting is where the three chaps who’ve redefined the space will end up. We probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.
I suppose this epoch had to end at some point. The manner in which it might well have ended is regrettable, and I want to remind everyone that there are many talented people who work on all the TG brands – the telly crew, the magazine, the events and much besides – who must be shitting themselves right now, and I think we should spare a thought for them.
Illustration By Sam Woolley