Top Gear as a Bastion of Irreverence

Alison Anderson's picture

Angela Smith (University of Sunderland, UK) and Philip Drake (Edge Hill University, UK) authors of "Belligerent broadcasting, male anti-authoritarianism and anti-environmentalism" provide a timely analysis of anti-environmentalism in Top Gear, the hugely popular UK television series.

Top Gear is the BBC’s most-watched and most profitable programme, with extensive franchising of both format and associated merchandise. It was, conversely, the BBC’s most controversial show, with repeated official complaints to the broadcasting standards authority (OfCom) and, eventually, widespread media disdain for the main presenter, Jeremy Clarkson. In the end, this all built up to a climactic crisis in late 2015 after Clarkson hit a member of the production team off-camera when filming. Clarkson’s contract had been due for renewal at this point and so, in the face of mounting media pressure, the BBC was left with little choice but to not renew that contract nor that of the two co-presenters, Richard Hammond and James May. A new presenting team emerged, including US actor Mat LeBlanc, German racing driver Sabine Schmitz, F1 racing team owner Eddie Jordan, and lesser-known motoring journalist Chris Harris, and after a public audition, Rory Reid. Headed by TV and radio presenter Chris Evans, the team seemed to represent many of the topics that had been the ‘soft’ target of Clarkson’s Top Gear: race, gender, xenophobia. The show was also split into two sections, with the online TV station BBC3 showing Extra Gear in which Harris and Reid reproduced the more in-depth car reviews and the ‘news’ section that had previously formed part of the main show’s format. The six-episode series that was first broadcast in 2016, with Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc as lead hosts, was alternatively criticized for being ‘too similar’ to the Clarkson era show, or ‘not at all like’ this. This leads us to the conclusion that there is a certain invisible factor at work in the show that led to its global popularity and widespread derision. 

As we discuss in our article, Top Gear under Clarkson was characterized by an irreverent tone that selected ‘soft’ targets, particularly relating to issues of environmentalism and traffic regulations. The underlying racism, xenophobia and misogyny may have been the trigger for many of the complaints raised about the programme, but overtly the anti-authoritarianism of the show was at its entertaining heart. Various challenges would be set up in such a way as the ‘winner’ would be the driver who used the most fuel, drove the fastest, or was wily enough to ‘cheat’ by going off-road, thus potentially damaging the environment. Any attempts to criticize the presenters for such destructive behaviour would be countered with an accusation of the critics being ‘killjoys’, not those who are part of the in-group of the Top Gear community whose ethos is irreverent fun.

Honk if you think Jeremy Clarkson is a pratOften, the presenters would embrace the criticisms of some viewers and incorporate this into their semi-scripted dialogue. For example, there was a running theme of hatred of caravans, largely as these were seen to cause congestion on the roads as they were driven slowly and carefully around the country. Rather than praise the drivers for their concern for road safety and the implicit eco-friendly notion of the mobile home, the presenters used caravans as a metaphor for all poor drivers and inconvenient road obstructions.  Thus the destruction of caravans in the course of ‘challenges’ was a common narrative trope. Should viewers complain, then these complaints would form part of the comedic routine of the show, with the presenters acknowledging their ‘fault’ in an apparent sincere admission, only for the sincerity to be unmasked as dissembling to the cheering delight of the studio audience. In this way, the studio audience were used to reinforce the anti-authoritarian stance of the presenters, and thus the show as able to continue to cause offence to a minority of viewers who were not part of the in-group of Top Gear. Even in the event of a complaint being upheld, such as Hammond drawing on unflattering national stereotypes of Mexicans when introducing a car (this resulted in the Mexican ambassador writing to the Director General of the BBC to voice his objection), the insincere fear of offending Mexicans in future shows became a running joke. 

The 2016 series of Top Gear, with Evans and LeBlanc in charge, was noticeable for a clear decision to avoid such anti-authoritarianism. The division of the show into ‘stunts and challenges’ on BBC2 with the more dialogic elements resigned to BBC3’s Extra Gear left the main show without fewer opportunities to engage in studio interaction, which is where most of the overt anti-authoritarianism was found in the Clarkson era show. Humour was largely found in Evans and LeBlanc making references to the things that should be unsaid in terms of what had ‘gone wrong’ with their previous incarnation of the show. From the mock-hushing of a reference to catering (linking back to the incident where Clarkson has assaulted the member of the production team, directly leading to the failure to renew his contract), to the mock-hushing of either host who was perceived to perform the Clarkson sign-off phrase ‘on that bombshell…’  However, other linguistic elements of the show were retained and enhanced. The in-studio introduction of The Stig, something which Clarkson had always been responsible for in the hyperbolic format of ‘Some say…., Others…, but all we know is he’s called The Stig’, was retained. This alternated between the Evans and LeBlanc, with the studio audience being included in the final noun phrase ‘The Stig’. As with Clarkson, this introduction of the ‘tamed racing driving’ was couched in hyperbole, often with oblique contemporary political references. As viewers took to social media to criticize the new format of the show, it is interesting to note that this solitary attempt at overt anti-authoritarianism is the only clear element of the show that was widely praised.

Whilst there remained an implicit lack of concern for ‘soft’ targets such as environmental issues, there was far less overt rejection. The division of the show into two essentially produced the high production value, beautifully shot fantasy car journeys on BBC2’s Top Gear, whilst the dialogic analysis as it appeared on BBC3 Extra Gear was more sincere and informative about cars and motoring. The more youthful and dynamic presenting team failed to generate the curmudgeonly humour of the Clarkson, Hammond and May team, with only Irvine coming close to the familiar Captain Slow persona (ironic, for a former racing driver and owner of an F1 team). 

The Clarkson era show really did manifest itself as ‘old lads in new cars’. This deliberate humour was framed by the obvious middle-aged affluence of the three presenters, something that the younger, more dynamic presenting team of the latest series couldn’t hope to emulate successfully. This might account for the criticisms of the 2016 version of the show, yet the underlying anti-environmental ethos appears to remain constant. It is also interesting to note that, despite the declining audience share in the Chris Evans' hosted series, the income generated from the show in overseas sales actually increased. Evans' departure at the end of the 2016 series indicates a possible more radical rethink of the show’s format. However, the underlying tone of anti-authoritarianism looks set to remain.

About the Author: 

Angela Smith is Reader in the Faculty of Education and Society, University of Sunderland and Philip Drake is Head of the Department of Media, and Professor in Film, Media and Communications at Edge Hill University.