Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Off with his head"...Or why I like Top Gear

There was a time when someone would say "off with his head" and we all laughed. No one took the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll seriously. Or "The Spanish Inquisition" of the Pythons for that matter. And what about their "I like Chinese songs", or "Never be rude to an Arab"? No one ever got their knickers in a twist assuming that this was really really bad or terribly irresponsible.

Comedians are
supposed to do this sort of thing.

No one takes comedy as prescriptive! 

But the Ofcom hooha some time ago - about Jeremy Clarkson's remarks on The One Show - brought home the realisation that there were winds of change about the landscape of British humour. A huge hullaballoo followed these remarks with people "really offended" and "really disappointed".  And cries and howls for pain and punishment for JC (not Jesus Christ).

This of course led me to reconsider why I like Top Gear. And why I like this trio who seem to really get up people's noses.  

First a qualifier (for those who don't know my political spectrum): I am extremely "left wing" fact one mad "test" I did, suggested that I was at the "grenade lobbying terrorist end of the spectrum". Really. In those words. In fact, when I got married, a good friend of mine, in one of the after dinner speeches, described me as "card-carrying communist". I believe passionately in Fairtrade, climate change, caring for the environment, and justice. I am mostly pacifist and I get fired up when I see racial discrimination or prejudice. 

Etc etc. If you get my drift.  

Why then, and how, can I possibly be a fan of Top Gear? 

Well for several reasons.

It is brilliantly comedy. One 
of the few TV series where the presenters have a huge laugh,  play a lot, enjoy each others company (while slagging each other off) and absolutely love what they do. They always remind me that enjoying the things we did as children is ok. That life is not too serious that it demands we give up the wonderful gifts of "play", "fun", "laughter". 

Jeremy Clarkson, and the other two petrol head lads are naturally funny people - they have a very high sense of the ridiculous. I do not say this lightly. As a (very heavy) fan of the Python clan I have discovered that JC is a comedy lover, not just a "petrol head". His heroes are - hold your breath here - the Python clan. And if you do not take that aspect of him into account, you will miss the many many Top Gear nods and references to the Pythons and their style of humour and comedy. According to Jeremy the Pythons are the last great thing that Britain produced. His most priceless possession is the Python "Big Red Bok" signed by the six Pythons. Moreover, if you check out James May's TV you cannot miss the Pythonic aspects they have - including the Terry Gilliam style artwork with introduction and credits.  

The gift of offending The insanity of the Python sketches, and Fawlty Towers is always evident in Top Gear. And Python fans know that almost everything the Pythons did was absolutely offensive and quite insane. The Pythons made Britain and the world laugh at itself and everything else. Even other races! Ooh lala! The thing is, everyone knew they were taking the piss. The clue being, that the Pythons laughed at everything, including themselves. One of the great traits of British humour - being able to laugh at oneself, not take offence easily, or oneself too seriously. And Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May have that wonderful quality of not taking themselves or each other seriously, of being able to direct some of the harshest send up to themselves. Hamster, Captain Slow, and the Orang Utan being their names for each other. 

In the hooha over the remarks made by JC, I realise that there is a generation out there that is losing this ability. 

It is a comedy act as well as about cars Top Gear might be politically incorrect, and the three lads might be "offensive" to some - but I wonder if anyone has considered the possibility that this might be a comedy act. And the three blokes - comedians. 

Well - most comedy shows do not pretend to be the truth or real. And surely no one believes that everything said on TV has to be taken absolutely seriously?! Especially in a comic act.

MOST comedians today tune their acts into a fine art of saying outrageous offensive things. As the Pythons and Fawlty Towers did. Most good comedians are able to do that and Top Gear is no exception to the rule. Most good comedians will question and send up anything and everything around. Most will be offensive. And outrageous. In fact most do say far more outrageous things about society and the world around than Top Gear or Jeremy does or did. Those who take offence at Jeremy ought to sit down for a few nights and watch a few recent comedy one is spared. And the language is way more ruthless and offensive than his. Trust me - I watch a lot of offensive comedy. Jeremy Clarkson pales by comparison. 

Their love for cars is infectious and educative
When I first started watching Top Gear I knew nothing or cared nothing about cars. A year later, I knew all the makes and styles. And understood what makes a good car. I had begun to appreciate the amazing creative genius and engineering skills behind cars. I started identifying those that looked beautiful - where care and imagination, and passion for beauty had kicked into the production - where beauty mattered with cars. Not even expensive cars. Ordinary cars. I understood the impatience and frustration that the Top Gear lads felt when cars were shoddily put together. And when I got my driving licence, and got on to driving different cars, I understood why they were so annoyed that the engineering of some cars was rubbish.

You only have to look at our roads to realise the actual rubbish styles and designs of cars - it won't cost much to have something aesthetically more pleasing. One does not need a duvet dumped onto the backside of a Megane cars, or the grimaces at the front of cars, or the clumsy shapes. A desire for excellence in production is not a bad thing - something the car industry has forgotten. 

I do sometimes find the level of environmental damage and wastage on Top Gear programmes difficult. But that is not the whole truth, is it? 

There are many TV programmes that cost a lot of money and ruin the environment far more than, say, running a car around a track or participating in a race. Or flying off to another country for filming a programme. It isn't black and white. There are aspects of environmental conservation and climate change JC supports and cares about (shock horror!). There are some things he says - with regard to politics and society - that I find refreshing.

I suspect he voices what many of us secretly think in the hidden places of our heads but don't want our images tarnished by saying out aloud. I suspect that what are often described as "racist" comments - often echo our own prejudices and hang ups about other races that we are too polite or lack the guts to show. 

I like Jeremy Clarkson. And James May. And Richard Hammond. And I know a lot of people will be quite annoyed by that.

But it is time people move away from black and white images of people. And the demonising of programmes or people. It is time they chilled a bit, resuscitated the great British trait of sardonic humour, self deprecation, and idiocy when it demands it. And trust me the world needs a lot of that. Britain does too.

For there is nothing more unattractive than the absence of humour and a plodding high minded misguided seriousness about the world and ourselves.