Top Gear: another casualty of our humourless age

It’s incredible that this un-PC, blokey motoring show survived as long as it did.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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In hindsight, it’s surprising that Top Gear survived for as long as it did. The show has officially been axed this week (or cancelled ‘for the foreseeable future’, as the BBC puts it), after presenter Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff was injured while performing a stunt last year. In truth, the show had been troubled ever since the forced departure of the (in)famous triumvirate of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond in 2015.

There followed the jarring, catastrophic helmsmanship of Chris Evans, succeeded by the bland Matt LeBlanc. The appointment of Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris in 2019 returned some soul and spirit to the show. They have been an amiable trio. Valiantly, they sought to return some charm to the car show that was never really about cars. In its heyday, Top Gear was essentially about larks and laughs.

Yet beneath such superficial difficulties, Top Gear’s problems were far more deep-seated. It has been a programme that has increasingly jarred with the zeitgeist. When it was revamped in 2002 by Clarkson, the ‘lad culture’ of the 1990s was already on the wane. As the Noughties progressed, it increasingly appeared an anachronism. Even in the days before people started to talk about ‘toxic masculinity’, Top Gear embodied a kind of dysfunctional, puerile masculinity. It was the very epitome of male arrested development – and it revelled in that status.

The three presenters of that era cared not a bit for contemporary sensibilities. Going against the grain was the show’s very appeal. Clarkson proudly railed against ‘political correctness’, ‘eco-mentalists’ and ‘health and safety’. Hence the emphasis it placed on stunts and undertaking perilous journeys across foreign lands, such as Botswana and Vietnam. There was even the hilarious 2007 episode when the three drove across the southern states of the US, their cars daubed with slogans such as ‘Hillary for president’, ‘Country and western is rubbish’ and ‘I’m bi’ – a provocation that almost led to them being lynched.

Looking back, Clarkson-era Top Gear seems offensive even to the un-PC sensibilities of the Noughties. Watching reruns on Dave these days, you can detect a lot of homophobic innuendo and implicit sexism (pretty girls were always placed at the front of the studio audience). Evident too is the jokey xenophobia, directed, for instance, towards the Mexicans or Argentinians. Most notoriously there was Clarkson’s use of the racial slur ‘slope’ in the show’s Burma special in 2014. In today’s uber-cautious climate, it’s surprising that repeats of Top Gear don’t come with trigger warnings, or that they are aired before 9pm.

There was a time, perhaps in the Noughties and certainly in the Nineties, when such knockabout humour could be excused or waved away as ‘banter’. But this defence no longer washes in our age of the New Puritanism, when risqué humour is no longer tolerated and being ‘offensive’ has become blasphemous. In these po-faced times, all jokes are taken literally.

The BBC has tried to keep Top Gear on life support largely because, one suspects, it is such a lucrative product. It’s the corporation’s most successful export, with the English-language version being sold to 139 territories. Yet everything about it seems out of joint in recent years. Just the fact that it has three white-looking, middle-aged, male presenters (even though Harris is mixed-race) seems out of kilter with our era of hyper-tokenism.

Although the cancellation of Top Gear was notionally caused by Flintoff’s car crash last year, it’s clearly a programme that belongs to a different time. One suspects that the BBC just saw no future in it, even with new presenters. The Beeb would be damned if it kept the show in its traditional guise, and damned if it tried to radically revamp it, to try to make it appeal to the younger generation.

In an age when masculinity is always regarded with suspicion, and seldom prefixed without ‘toxic’, and when white middle-aged men are routinely mocked as ‘gammons’, there just isn’t a place for programmes like Top Gear anymore.

The rise and rise of victim politics

Back in the 1990s, sociologists, journalists and commentators began to talk about an emergent ‘victimhood culture’. Many people, it was observed, had begun to confer victim status on themselves, either to garner sympathy, moral superiority, financial advantage (‘where there’s a blame, there’s a claim’) or to shield themselves from criticism. This manifested itself most obviously in confessional television programmes, such as The Jerry Springer Show in the US or Kilroy in the UK. In these shows, guests would line up to protest that they had been a victim of their partner’s infidelity, malfeasance or whatnot.

Now ‘victim claiming’ has gone into overdrive. It has also increasingly taken a political rather than personal dimension. Only the other week we read of transwoman Steph Richards, newly appointed head of Endometriosis South Coast, complaining that he felt ‘bruised and upset’ after he was grilled by a Woman’s Hour presenter on his suitability as a male to lead a women’s health charity. That same week, The Times reported that Lisa Nandy, the pro-trans shadow international development secretary, said that criticism levelled at her by JK Rowling over the trans debate ‘breaks my heart’.

As Jo Bartosch has written on spiked, the radical trans lobby are masters at playing the victim card. But they are not the only ones. Sinn Féin cottoned on to it years ago. So has BLM’s British branch. And supporters of the Palestinian cause in Gaza have been at it in earnest since 7 October – the date Hamas instigated the current conflagration by murdering 1,200 people.

And the victim-claimers love conflating causes. ‘White-supremacist patriarchy to blame for Palestinian deaths, declare feminists’ read a Times headline earlier this month. The article went on to explain how Sisters Uncut, a ‘women’s organisation that held a pro-Palestinian blockade at Liverpool Street station in London’, has now ‘formed a “joint struggle bloc” with Black Lives Matter, LGBT and social-justice groups’.

Ostensibly, these causes have little in common. But as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has argued, the propensity to divide the world between oppressor and victim is one of the hallmarks of social-media discourse now. And so, according to this logic, all victims are united in one common struggle.

Victimhood culture has given us a world of iron certitudes and trite simplicities.

Why Tolkien still speaks to us

Last week, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni opened an exhibition in Rome about her literary hero, JRR Tolkien. Apparently, the author of The Lord of the Rings was very big among the Italian far right in the 1970s, when Meloni moved among such circles.

Tolkien has traditionally been viewed as an ultra-conservative writer. But he has truly become a writer for our times, for people of all political persuasions. After all, he wrote of a Manichean world divided between good and evil. That’s exactly how many on the woke left view politics today – as a never-ending war between good and evil, oppressor and victim.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

Picture by: Getty.

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