Tonight at 8pm was aired the final episode of the current series of Top Gear. I was in the audience for the first episode of this series and saw surprise guest Michael Schumacher interviewed live and up close.
It was a very enjoyable experience, something that almost all fans of the show would love to do no doubt. It takes a whole afternoon to film the 1 hour show, and bearing in mind that all the track/challenge/review segments are recorded in advance, it’s quite a ridiculously long time. However, it doesn’t feel that long and I daresay I’ve never stood still for such long periods without complaining about it. It would be nice to go again and yet… I don’t watch the show wishing I was there. I’m quite happy with my vantage point.
When I attended the F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone a few years back it was the same thing. I had a great view looking down over the last section; 4 or 5 winding corners before the cars disappeared onto the start/finish straight. The noise was incredible, and as an obsessive, timesheet-watching fan, to see it all up close was a great experience. And yet… I don’t watch grands prix wishing I was there either.
This is the power of television. It dismisses space and time. When Jeremy Clarkson does a gag 4 times, with the 4th time having the perfect wording and intonation it’s great for the home viewer who only sees an impeccable laugh-out-loud line. Standing in the studio audience though you laugh genuinely at the quite funny first attempt and then laugh on command every time after that. You don’t get to enjoy the polished, finished article. Time is dismissed by the mighty television; minutes and seconds litter the editing suite’s floor.
With Formula 1 it’s distance. For 2 hours you are everywhere, wherever something’s happening; there you are. You track individual cars through lap after lap, you dart to every overtaking attempt, every lockup. When it’s over you don’t wonder where you could get a vantage of the podium from, you’re right there. Miles and miles litter the floor of the production truck.
In both cases television facilitates bringing you the best. The cameras are always rolling, and the best performance, the most significant action, the best entertainment is brought straight to your living room, your television, directly to you. Which is the other thing. Crowds. Think of it this way. You are going to meet your hero, whoever it may be. Would you rather run into them alone, in an unguarded moment? Or as a nameless face in several hundred other people? It’s another wonderful illusion of television; that it’s YOURS. They’re talking just to you. Especially these days with the proliferation of channels and programmes meaning that there’s almost always something on that’s to your taste (God bless Dave).
So what on Earth am I getting at? Well I’ve been pretty unimpressed with this series of Top Gear. It’s gone a bit too entertainment-y for my liking. I miss the complicated scoreboards for challenges. I miss the news segments actually talking about cars. Top Gear used to either make me laugh, have my inner (outer) child grinning inanely, or feed my inner nerd for the entire 60 minutes. It’s not a sudden transition, but this series saw them finally slip over the line where even my inner (outer) child was thinking “this is just silly. It’s TOO obviously fake.” I wasn’t alone in my living room anymore, everyone was in on the joke and it wasn’t funny anymore. Parts of every episode were still very, very funny. But it just wasn’t quite Top Gear.
Tonight was a typical example of this. A mixed bag, a funny but peculiarly ordered show that seemed to end with an interview with Jay Leno. Who did a rubbish lap. And is unknown in this country. And despite being a petrolhead didn’t talk much about cars. And said one funny thing. Ending a show with this, let alone the series finale?! A brain fart of the highest order. But oh no, it was not over. 8.57pm according to my stereo but no not over yet. There was one final segment to go. In no preview was it mentioned, nor at the top of the show, nor was the Aston Martin in the corner shown until this point. Top Gear has always been allowed overrun – up to 5 minutes sometimes – but even using all of that, this would a brief outing in this particular Aston. Very strange since Aston Martin is the brand championed by the show. Very strange indeed.
What followed, was stunning.
All told it was 4:24 in length and featured no explosions, no stunts, no comedy, no one liners, no power slides, no caravans, no celebrities, no stopwatches and no test tracks. Just Jeremy Clarkson, in a new silver, V12 Vantage. Driving through the most mountainous and deserted miles of our green and pleasant land.
In a previous Aston Martin test a while back, Clarkson quipped early on that we probably expected him to cue the Elgar and sail off into leaden skies on a cloud of engine noise. This time the sentiment was implicit rather than comical. It’s allowed to sink in as, for the first minute, Jeremy is uncharacteristically silent.
Winding roads, mountains, wild flowers, skies of white and black clouds shifting over bright blue chinks of sky. The car and landscape blend together. He is alone, plunging through these mountains that speak so strongly of home. There are long periods of silence where he says nothing and only haunting, pared-down, Sigur Ros-esque notes touch your ears. He says just 87 words in the entire thing – about the length of one simile in his usual tests.
There’s no stuttering and searching and grasping for hyperbole; he’s calm, assured, concise, controlled and quiet. The camera in the car next to him isn’t fixed on him as usual, it pans very slowly over to him when he speaks; his hands creep into view and he doesn’t speak until it reaches his face. This happens several times and builds the expectation of what he will say, brings great weight to his words.
“Weeeell it’s an Aston Martin vantage with a V12 engine. So what do you think it’s gonna be like?
“It is fantastic. It’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”
“What it makes me feel though, is sad.”
“I just can’t help thinking that thanks to all sorts of things; the environment, the economy, problems in the middle east, the relentless war on speed … cars like this will soon be consigned to the history books.”
“I just have this horrible dreadful feeling, that what I’m driving here is an ending.”
And this is the atmosphere of the entire video. It’s the end of an episode, end of the series and he presents to us the end of an era. It is an epilogue. Top Gear could end now, because in a thousand series they could never end it a better way.
We’re used to Jeremy Clarkson the clownish buffoon. The performing entertainer. Those who lambast him sometimes forget how well he plays the fool. A full minute and a half passes before the camera slowly pans to him a final time… he reaches down to change gear… glances at the camera… looks back to the road… and with a little sigh, and just the barest trace of a tight, wry little smile…
The credits roll as the film and music continue. He drives off into the distance as the camera rises through clouds until everything is gone. I’m not too macho to admit that the whole experience made me quite emotional. Some will say that this is just manipulative filmmaking, and they may well be right, perhaps I have been manipulated. But when done with such care, such attention to detail, such beautiful camerawork, I don’t care.
For the record I don’t doubt the sincerity of the piece, and for my money, one reason why Clarkson smiles, just slightly, is because he knew. Recorded weeks or months ago no doubt, sat in the car, probably before they even had all the shots, he knew that the segment would have a big effect. “I’m not just a clown” he seems to say. I couldn’t help but think it was the greatest advert imaginable for Aston Martin; ironic given how his failed comedic adverts for a VW earlier in the show were panned with horror by experts.
What British shows will this era of TV be remembered for? Well, the people I know who don’t watch Top Gear don’t watch television. I felt like I was watching a significant moment in TV history tonight. A moment that will be preserved in our collective memory. Or not. Maybe it’ll just be me. But if so, then so much the better. That’s the power of television, used to its full effect. And I’ll treasure it.