What I Got from Top Gear

By now, the dropping of now-former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson from the BBC due to a “fracas” with a producer has made the news. Many would think it’s not worth losing sleep over, but Top Gear fans like myself are saddened by this development, even if it had been a long time coming. With Richard Hammond and James May expressing their intent to not film without him, this version of the show seems effectively dead. It isn’t much, but I wanted to write something on what I took from Top Gear — my favorite show… in the world.

This post is not about lambasting Jeremy Clarkson’s termination or condemning him for physically attacking a co-worker — an act that can never be excused. This is about how he, with Hammond and May, entertained me through the years, even serving as therapy through rough patches in life, as well as the many things the show taught me about presentation and video production.

This is also to balance out the hate and negativity flowing through the Internet after the announcement of Clarkson’s untimely departure. Let’s not cry about how Top Gear is now gone; let’s celebrate how it gave us 22 series worth of automotive appreciation and sheer entertainment. If this pokey little blog can add to recognizing how brilliant that show was, then it’s all good.

My View on Top Gear and Television

The 2002-2015 iteration of the show (“Best” Top Gear, as I’d like to call it) got me through years of stress and depression, so I’m eternally grateful to its existence — as melodramatic as that may sound. Perhaps its later seasons showed indications of the magic beginning to fizzle out, but the three presenters never failed to be entertaining even at their worst (e.g. India Special). But even if it was overstaying its welcome, Top Gear was such an asset to a medium that is slowly dying out.

Television is still mostly beset by catering to the lowest common denominator and bending over backwards for the sake of political correctness, and it’s now being beaten down by the Internet through various live and on-demand streaming services. It can be said that its comedy replacing the straight-laced motoring theme of old Top Gear was in itself a part of the supposed slow death of television, but it was still a lot more substantial than the likes of Big Brother and Keeping Up with the… uhm… whoever they are…

The Lessons

These are “lessons” for me in video production and presentation, which I’ve been getting into lately. Mind you, these are mostly from personal observations and are to be taken with some salt. Pardon me if I do get some things wrong here, and I’d appreciate it if I’m corrected through the comments section below.

Good visuals make everything else better

Take the car reviews as example, wherein you do get the presenter telling you about the characteristics and performance figures of the car, which can also be done in a spreadsheet or something out of Windows Movie Maker. However, Top Gear’s production value was a force multiplier that set those segments apart from the rest of its kind.

It’s true that substance must always be the foundation, but you’d still want to live in a house that actually looks good over something like a shack. Naturally, visuals carry a great deal of weight as well, so improving on production value, cinematography, and video quality has to be part of the long-term process.

Present under the guise of seriousness

This was the basis of their comedy and overall mindset, whether they’re tackling something actually serious that they wanted to make fun of or something totally ridiculous to begin with. I’m not sure if this goes with my personal style, but I’ll keep it in the back of my head just in case.

Script loosely

Of course they wouldn’t script too tightly since it’s supposed to be a “factual” program, but there still had to be a rough outline to direct a film that would be fit for broadcast and actually entertaining. But if you stick to a script too hard, things can and will get derailed easily.

Things can and will go wrong, so use mistakes and mishaps to advantage

This is an extension of the previous item, and you can say this is the “show Murphy’s Law who’s boss” rule. The Patagonia Special is a case in point, wherein they were caught completely unprepared for that whole affair with the number plate and the chaos that followed it.

Instead of just scrapping the whole thing, they included the drama of their escape from Argentina into Chile and even made use of their resulting gratitude towards the Chileans as a running gag for the rest of the series.

Same thing as well in the America Special with their run-in with the hicks in Alabama who threw stones at them, as well as every other time they get into trouble that somehow makes a film more entertaining than first planned.

Proper dosage of hyperbole

Take note that hyperbole may have been abused a bit in Top Gear, but they’re mostly to sound tongue-in-cheek. In any case, using an analogy into something that’s seemingly ridiculous to prove a point was common in the show. Their prodigious use of figurative speech worked great for them at that level, but it can be different for other things.

Finding that right dose of hyperbole is crucial, especially if what you’re planning to make is not intended to be as flippant as Top Gear, whether it’s even more, sparingly, or none at all.

Refer to current events lightheartedly

They did this all the time in their news segments, editorializing on whatever goes on in motorsport, roads, and many other things in the UK and beyond. It’s not to say that they’re irrelevant or not serious — far from it — but you can be both serious about a major issue and still poke fun at it. Comedians do it all the time and the good ones actually get to be noteworthy social commentators.

But from how I see it, it also has to do with making something feel relevant for a longer period of time, which is something I always keep in mind for this website. I never write news here because while news ensures a steady stream of regular content, they have the lifespan of an adult mayfly.

(I still have to wrap my head around this one, so bear with me. But for now, that’s what I take from this item.)

When in doubt, use famous historical events

There was that segment on car advertisements where Jeremy and James tried to make their own VW Scirocco advert. James ended up with a green one, while Jeremy went with something akin to an apocalypse scenario. The latter had the slogan, “From Berlin to Warsaw in one tank.” Jeremy concluded with, “When in doubt, use the War.”

This rule of thumb may have some potential application in many other things, at least in my view. It can actually be useful in proving points through analogies with famous events from the past since they’re the best examples we can draw from.

(It’s also great for “sounding smart” and falling flat on your face later on by referencing another event that counters a previous point.)

Running gags are great, but they also have a shelf life

Richard’s tooth whitening, James’ good news on the Dacia Sandero, the stuff Jeremy tends to find on the Internet, and so on — they all lasted for a series or two. The crew are aware that if they use them for too long, they can wear thin and become flat.

There are the running gags that have always been there like James being Captain Slow, Richard being short, and Jeremy being an orangutan, but those are part of the overall lore of the show and new material can come from the foundation that forms the basis of the hosts’ identities within the show.

But with most others, they’re retired after some time to make way for new ideas. They’re used “for the moment” and keep the show fresh and interesting for the viewers. You can see that all the time in any medium of entertainment that last more than a year or so.

You are your own best joke

It’s basically self-praising and self-deprecating humor, especially when mistakes are made or points are proven wrong later on. This isn’t really that much of a lesson, but Top Gear did show how entertaining it can be. However, there are a lot of people who get this wrong to the point of them being cringe-inducing. Perhaps it’s a case of either you got the formula down or don’t attempt it at all.

Influence

With everything going on in his life at the moment, it seems best for him to take a step down and rest for a bit. Despite the end of this chapter in the Jeremy Clarkson saga, his influence in car journalism and broadcasting through Top Gear is tremendous, a lot of which can be seen on the Internet.

Regular Car Reviews is a YouTube channel that combines a similar approach to reviewing automobiles with a deranged sense of humor — a style that I’m very much a fan of. I may write about RCR more in a separate feature, mostly because it is one of the best things I’ve seen on the Internet in recent years.

There’s also all the motoring websites and channels that may have been seen as “car bore” at first, but are made more interesting through what Top Gear had done and making use of some tropes taken from the show. It’s not to say that they wouldn’t be successful without Top Gear having existed, but they did benefit from it. There are car enthusiast who are in the scene despite Top Gear, but many more are there because of it.

On a personal note, if I ever achieve even an iota of the entertainment value that Top Gear had consistently delivered for even a sliver of a moment, I’d consider my efforts to be a success. Of course, if I ever do have fun with it, then I won’t just stop there. The Top Gear crew made it look like so much fun and I hope to experience a bit of that too.

Conclusion

BBC is planning to continue Top Gear in 2016, but it’s safe to say that its very soul has been ripped out. Despite that, I’m willing to give it a shot like I did with Top Gear US. I have most episodes of the show in my network storage, so I’ll marathon through them like I usually do once I’m no longer moping about its abrupt demise. Maybe I’ll even write something more on Top Gear in the future since I do have a lot of things to say about the show.

Also, it’s too bad that he didn’t get a chance to get his name changed to Jennifer. (The race between the McLaren P1, the Porsche 918, and the LaFerrari would have been insanely good. Alas, it’s not to be.)



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