Top Gear returned to our screens last Sunday, and like most, I was a bit disappointed by what was served up. There were moments, to be fair. It was amusing watching the section involving Jesse Eisenberg and Gordon Ramsay, which subverted notions about which of the US and the UK is the bombastic show off nation, and which is the more restrained and dignified one. Overall, what was most notable was how it cleaved so closely to the Clarkson/Hammond/May formula to the extent that it demanded comparison with its predecessor. One would have thought they would try to take it in a slightly different direction, but if any word best characterises the BBC these days, it’s fear. The producers and Chris Evans must have known that a pro-Clarkson mob would mobilise on social media to condemn their efforts, and castigate the new Top Gear (TNTG, for convenience) as a pale imitation. This series might yet evolve, as indeed can first impressions. Some commentators have bemoaned TNTG for being more politically correct than its earlier incarnation, but as I pondered that assertion I wondered was it actually true?
At first appearances, TNTG doesn’t appear to offer the red meat of the Jeremy Clarkson version. The chauvinist politics openly espoused by Clarkson and Richard Hammond (James May tended to be less controversial, as I remember it) was prized by people who (erroneously) felt it was being stamped out everywhere else in the media and public life. The kind of people who aren’t inclined to give TNTG a fair go. How shocked many of his devotees must have been in March when Clarkson, somebody they might have expected to rail against Johnny Foreigner during the EU referendum campaign, outed himself as pro-EU. Though it is perhaps more accurate to say he likes the idea of a European army, a military power (that isn’t the Russians or Chinese) that could conceivably face down the United States. Or at least make them shut up a bit. This blog hasn’t yet concluded whether Clarkson belongs to that curious strain of the British conservative continuum that enthusiastically celebrates Britain’s military glories, particularly victories that came at the expense of France and Germany, yet still idolises Rommel and Napoleon. It is certainly not ruled out.
How then, you ask, could TNTG, seemingly with a much more play-it-safe mind-set, succeed in topping Old Top Gear for political incorrectness? Well, to start with, any show that celebrates petrolheads in an era of existential environmental concern will simply never be a lefty programme. Furthermore, and one acknowledges this is another case of the jury still being out, but this writer is somewhat intrigued by the role occupied by Sabine Schmitz in TNTG. How could this be, you cry? Is she not a woman? Does this not represent a clear break with Top Gear’s male dominated past? Perhaps that is so, and she has a serious part to play as the ace driver not hiding behind a helmet of anonymity. But what to make of her first appearance, where she and Chris Evans chased each other round an American military airbase? Sure, watching her mangling lines from Top Gun was entertaining, and sure, they were pitching a Viper against a Corvette, but it was difficult as a viewer to accept Evans (the man, take note) as the hero of these japes and Schmitz as the villain. The question arises, is Schmitz being cunningly cast as TNTG’s resident Hun? Because even Clarkson et al. never took that step. For example, Michael Schumacher might not have been everybody’s favourite in Britain during the 1990s when he was regularly making Damon Hill eat dust on the racetrack, but he was so revered on Old Top Gear he was once revealed as The Stig himself.
There will likely be tweaks and modifications to TNTG as it evolves over the course of this and future series, but at least one observer will be keeping a close eye on how Frau Schmitz is presented to the viewing public. If it involves more set ups involving Schmitz whose primary purpose is to make Evans look good, then this observer will not be shy about remarking on his own prescience.