My name is Patrick. I am a Top Gear viewer

In his new TV column, Patrick West confesses to having a soft spot for Jeremy Clarkson.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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Admitting that you like Jeremy Clarkson is not the kind of thing that wins you many admirers. And confessing that you watch Top Gear, the BBC programme which he co-hosts, either solicits derision or looks of bafflement. I recently told a friend that I secretly and devotedly watched Top Gear, which somewhat confused him, because I don’t own a car, I can’t drive, and I don’t even actually like or approve of cars. I largely have no idea what anyone is talking about on Top Gear, what with the presenters prattling on about V8 engines, brake horsepower, super-charged turbos and other such gibberish. But nothing can detract from the fact that Top Gear is one of the best shows on television.

No. Let me rephrase that in Clarkson-speak. Top Gear has to be, possibly, the greatest television programme I’ve watched in the world. Ever.

Top Gear has come in for a lot of criticism ever since Richard Hammond, one of Clarkson’s co-presenters, came close to dying after crashing a jet-powered car in September last year. Clarkson is routinely accused of glamorising speed, and even in the wake of Hammond’s accident, he has refused to tone down his invective. Upon Hammond’s return to the programme in January, Clarkson sarcastically declared ‘speed kills’, and then cheekily pointed to his co-presenter, as if to suggest that this well-worn maxim were a transparent falsehood.

‘This glamorised speeding’, said Dianne Ferreira, a spokesperson from the road charity Brake. ‘The programme is watched by impressionable young people and they are mad about cars. They are easily influenced and remarks like that are very irresponsible and could tempt them to speed.’ Scottish Green MSP, Robin Harper, added: ‘People die on our roads every day and speed is often the main culprit. Mr Clarkson’s almost childish arrogance contrasts sharply with such a serious problem.’

This may be true. And it would be tempting to try to refute their arguments, or nuance them, by pointing out that it is not speed on the motorways that mostly kills, but rather drivers breaking 30mph limits in urban areas, and that our 70mph limit on motorways is a pointless anachronism.

It would also be tempting to side with Clarkson from a libertarian point of view. After all, the motor car represents individual freedom. His ‘glamorisation’ of speed is an overt challenge to the miserable, anti-life, health’n’safety brigade, which he incessantly excoriates. One might also say Top Gear represents a celebration of masculinity, albeit of a somewhat juvenile variety, but one nevertheless for which such concepts as ‘metrosexuality’ or ‘getting in touch with your feminine side’ are an anathema. Top Gear could also be perceived a celebration of anarchism and the contrary spirit, in opposition to the hegemonic behemoth of political correctness.

These factors may be its unwitting charm, but in the end, and foremost, Top Gear’s appeal for non-drivers such as myself is not any subconscious political message. It is simply that it shows people having so much fun. The programme is a celebration of life, and of living. The audience, with their mesmerised, beaming smiles, resemble children in a sweet shop. Celebrity actors and comedians, many of whom are often otherwise known for their egotism and arrogance, are routinely reduced to figures of giggling, supine humility, disbelieving that they are having an audience with Clarkson.

The clincher is Clarkson, along with his co-hosts Hammond and James May. Clarkson is undoubtedly the commanding father figure, who teases Hammond, his proverbial son, who in turn looks up to Clarkson with reverence, but also in an oedipal manner: you can see he is plotting to supplant him as the alpha male one day. And then there is May, who, like the keyboard player from the Pet Shop Boys, or the fourth member of the SDP’s ‘gang of four’, is usually known as ‘the other one’. But you can see that May is unfazed by this, and that, unlike Hammond, he doesn’t care what Clarkson or anybody thinks of him.

Clarkson himself knows that he is a slightly ridiculous figure, a cross between Richard Madeley and Alan Partridge, but it is his transparent realisation of this – he even knowingly ends each episode with the refrain ‘And on that bombshell…’ – that makes him an endearing figure. He is somewhat absurd, and knows it, but insists on remaining so. His trademark employment of superlatives, in which he declares every vehicle to be ‘simply the worst/best car I have ever driven’, does somewhat detract from the reliability of his automotive reviews, but Clarkson wouldn’t be Clarkson without it.

Neither would Top Gear without the relentless adrenaline, the joking and the constant laughing. At the end of the day, it is a fine programme because, Clarkson, Hammond and May are a trio of television presenters you would like to have a pint with.

And on that bombshell, things must come to a close. I hope you will enjoy this new television column. I can’t promise that it will be the best column you will possibly read ever in the world anywhere, but I’ll give it a damn good try. Until next week, goodnight.

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