U.S. Auto Know Better

There’s a British show you can’t avoid when watching TV with Americans, and it’s not for want of trying. Not only is it mis-representing what British telly is all about, it’s also drastically underselling us as a people. The American’s televisual window into the British psyche used to be Benny Hill, where Britons were shown to be highly sexist though only moderately successful at defiling women but prepared to go that extra mile to make it happen. Now we’re seen the world over for a whole host of bigotries, thanks to this programme, and for an array of approaches to bigotry. Yes, I’m talking about Top Gear (or ‘I’ve got a car, have you got a car?’ which I have renamed it in honour of the two lines that can substitute for any dialogue in the show). This car review programme has been around on British TV since the late 1970s, but has in the last decade splintered injudiciously into a barn-based talk show, a sub-Terry and June sitcom of endless campsite misunderstandings, and a version of The Cannonball Run without the debonair wit. Whereas host Jeremy Clarkson once saved his idioctavely (somewhere between idiotic and provocative) opinions on politics and news for column inches, he now puts them more and more in the show, and has even recruited a couple of crapprentices, James May and Richard Hammond, to one day be as hateful to the world as he is.

Disgracefully, Top Gear is consistently the most popular and beloved programme on British screens, and has proved to be the BBC’s most profitable export around the globe, particularly in the US market. What is even more baffling about the show’s international popularity is that Clarkson, May and Hammond (the Kirk, Spock and Bones of prejudice) are majorly responsible for its success. American audiences prefer to see the UK hosts rather than having a native re-make, which would normally be how to translate it overseas. The British establishment of TV academics seem resolved to resist explaining the global popularity of Top Gear. At a conference two years ago, a member of the editorial board for the ‘BFI TV Classics’ book range said outright that they would not commission a monograph on the show because ‘we didn’t want another book about Jeremy Clarkson’. Now I wouldn’t want to feed into Clarkson’s publishing empire either, but finding out what makes Top Gear so coveted might tell us something about what viewers are like across different nationalities, if only to force us to recognise our bad habits and change them immediately.

The Twataman Empire

People wanted more than one volume...look at yourselves!

But there’s a few things I’ve learnt from talking to Americans about Top Gear that helped me to understand its appeal in the US a little more. While watching the show with a friend in San Francisco, I asked why Americans were still so taken with the BBC version and remained lukewarm towards Top Gear USA, the US re-make. My friend told me she liked how the programme lambasted some of the major car companies in the US, and thought that this would be impossible to do on a US network show, where the same companies would most likely provide the advertising consideration. So maybe the cult of Clarkson, May and Hammond is not solely responsible for its success in the US. Maybe it’s also the vicarious and anarchic thrill of a programme breaking free of the dependence of advertising and loyalty to sponsors which has characterised American television since the 1950s. My friend openly admitted to finding the slapdick (my term) comedy of the three hosts hilarious, commenting that ‘we don’t have people like Clarkson on American TV’. ‘Fox News’ I thought, but didn’t say.

Nevertheless, the hosts’ freedom from corporate affiliations goes against an industry where hosts, especially on daytime TV, will suddenly starting doing a promotional spot in the middle of the show. Because it so freely flouts the commercial conventions of American television, and the presenters challenge the notion of an US TV host as a corporate spokesman, I can see how the programme would appeal to Americans on the left of the political spectrum, especially those who believe in and thirst for a non-commercial alternative to heavily sponsored and company-loyal TV. For UK viewers, the hosts are outwardly known as right-wing bigots, the competition to get products featured (positively or negatively) on the show is fierce between car companies, and the commercial-free, independent BBC  is accused of promoting consumer capitalism. Something has clearly been lost in the translation.

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One Response to “U.S. Auto Know Better”

  1. Patient Ferris Says:

    I remember being able to watch the revamped Top Gear and marvelling at the cinematography and visual tricks used in the car tests, enjoying the clearly-staged-but-still-quite-fun cross country races and genuine insight of some of the factual pieces, all the while putting aside the presence of the hateful Clarkson.

    But the format has become very tired and a bit beholden to itself and in particular Clarkson’s ego. It hasn’t come anywhere near something like the (whisper it) genuinely moving ‘ Toyota Hilux tested to destruction’ piece of the early years.

    It’s interesting that the most resent successful cases of Brit TV going to the States have all involved a big, controversial, slightly grating to us personality. People like Anne Robinson, Cowell and Piers Morgan.

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