When it was cancelled in 2001, Top Gear was a dreary product reviews show watched solely by dull dads. But a year later, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond (James May didn't join until 2003) rebooted the show as a vehicle for their hell-raising. Usually, that means exterminating Volvos, or violating innocent motor homes in front of a five-million-strong audience.
Series 15 begins this weekend (8pm, Sunday 27) and the buzz is that Clarkson, May and the tiny Hammond man might be about to unleash an all new, offensively toned down Top Gear. "[Expect] a slight retreat from the Last of the Summer Wine tomfoolery," James May told the Radio Times. If he's not kidding, (alas, we weren't able to get an advance copy to check for ourselves) then prepare for a drawn out on-screen suicide.
Here's an idea: Why not simply scrap the show in style by staging a Thelma and Louise-inspired exit? Naturally, Clarkson and co. would want to get maximum laughs and so opt to plunge to their deaths in the car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a fluorescent yellow Lamborghini or on a unicycle. At least this way we’d remember them for all the right reasons. The slow-down-and-die route is just embarrassing.
Top Gear only works because of its insane, over scripted stunts, pokes at political correctness and public-school snarkiness. Everything else is just padding. If it’s been decided that the show should revert to its priggish roots, then really they shouldn’t hang on to presenters who are only entertaining when they’re up to no good. Surely a work experience kids could have been sent down to BBC archives to retrieve Angela Rippon from whatever dusty shelf she’s been stowed on since the mid-eighties. Put her in a racing car green trouser suit, get Eamonn Holmes to co-present and job done. No one would watch it, but Ofcom would stay away.
If anything, Team Top Gear should be looking to better their stunt back-catalogue. Though, stepping it up from car darts, a caravan airship crash landing and making Clarkson drive around in the world’s smallest car will take ambition, cunning and boundless imagination. If the real issue is that the BBC’s out of innovative stunt ideas, take some of that lovely licence fee money and buy in some fresh brains.
It’s also worth remembering that Top Gear is a useful decontamination chamber for Clarkson’s irksome political views. Here, his bile is buried under harmless gags and set pieces. Release him into the wild and it could be harnessed for evil. Imagine, Jeremy Clarkson, MP. Or, worse still, his retirement from Top Gear frees him up to plan that documentary he’s always wanted to make (we imagine) on why climate change is a lesbian gypsy conspiracy. We’ll let you know as soon as it goes into production.
For now, though, we’re hoping that news of an emasculated Top Gear is silly PR stunt. And this evening we’ll watch and grin as James May and Richard Hammond undergo a procedure to have their hands and feet replaced with wheels, before being raced around a man-sized Scalextric track by Clarkson.