Don’t give way to the Top Gear bashers

What Clarkson’s audience understands that his shrill critics do not is that he is not to be taken seriously.

Patrick Hayes

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I wonder what proportion of the five million viewers of the Top Gear India Special over Christmas was desperate-to-be-offended members of the chattering classes? Skipping the second instalment of Great Expectations, they no doubt sat through the show solely to tweet about how awful Jeremy Clarkson and Co’s monkeying about on the road to the Indian Himalayas was.

In certain quarters, Clarkson-bashing has started to replace tennis as a favourite pastime. He was chastised for offending blind people when he called former UK prime minister Gordon Brown a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’, censured for driving while sipping a gin and tonic en route to the North Pole, and generated fury when a couple of years ago he called for the Welsh language to be abolished. But never has he generated so much controversy as the Twitch-hunt that took place against him at the end of last year, after he made a quip that public sector strikers ‘should all be shot’.

This was so evidently a joke, although a crap one, that you had to wonder whether the tens of thousands of ‘offended’ people who took to their keyboards to campaign to get Clarkson sacked were for real. Is it humanly possible to be that po-faced? Evidently so. Irony-phobic Labour leader Ed Miliband led the way, calling the comments ‘absolutely disgraceful and disgusting’. A sour-mouthed trade union rep even compared Clarkson’s comments to the atrocities carried out by former Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi.

So, when it came to Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s jaunt to India, it was not so much a question of whether it would offend, but which bits would offend the most. Would it be their use of the British imperial name of the city of Bombay, rather than Mumbai? (A name that many of the locals seem to prefer to the newer alternative, as it happens.) Their light-hearted mocking of Indian menus? Clarkson affixing a toilet to his car boot as a solution to his Delhi belly? Or their reckless speeding through congested roads while racing a train to deliver people’s lunches?

In the eyes of the humourless Indian High Commission, which complained to the BBC in an open letter published in the Telegraph, it seemed the Commission was pretty much offended by everything. The programme was ‘toilet humour’, which was ‘replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity that we expect from the BBC’. (Have they actually watched any BBC programmes since the 1950s?)

To its credit, the BBC this week declined to offer the kind of grovelling apology it’s given many times in the past to diffuse complaints, usually with the ‘offender’ (here, Clarkson) having humbly to follow suit. Nor had it any reason to apologisie, because the Top Gear India Special was an hour and a half of harmless, lighthearted fun. It was pub banter given a massive budget, stunning locations and a production team that catered to the Top Gear team’s every, often utterly odd, whim.

Tenuously plotted as a ‘trade mission’ to India, where the presenters would promote the best of British produce to Indians – from digestive biscuits covered with Marmite to trouser presses that Clarkson would demonstrate, semi-naked – it was rammed full of exactly the kind of antics you’d expect from three middle-aged, slightly juvenile petrolheads. Unlike certain comedians, their aim was not to offend people’s sensibilities as an end in itself, but instead simply to let their hair down and enjoy themselves. There were also some genuinely warm moments, too, such as their attempt to create a twenty-first-century version of the Ashes high up in the Himalayas – enhanced with the help of Clarkson’s souped-up Jaguar – in an impromptu cricket match between the locals and the production team.

Now it’s perfectly understandable that 90 minutes of Top Gear may not appeal to everyone. I can only enjoy the programme in small, infrequent doses. But far more disturbing than anything you see or hear in the actual programme – including Hammond’s intricate description of an insect biting at his right testicle – are those sad individuals who, instead of just changing the channel, take it upon themselves to complain and call for the programme to be toned down or even banned.

For these petty censors, it’s not enough simply to change the channel. The danger, so the argument goes, is that Clarkson could become a red-blooded role model to millions of impressionable viewers who will mimic his expressions and share his juvenile, PC-averse passions. Attempts to tame Jezza are invariably attempts to try to reform the viewing public, too. If not stopped now, it would seem, Top Gear could generate an army of misogynistic, environment-despoiling racists-in-the-making.

The danger doesn’t come from Clarkson, however. It comes from these Clarkson-bashing killjoys who are intolerant of informal banter, suspicious of anything ‘fun’, taking every word said in jest literally and moaning to the authorities because Clarkson sets a bad example. These are the ones who, to steal a phrase from the man himself, ‘should be avoided like unprotected sex with an Ethiopian transvestite’.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

David Bowden is away.

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