Last night marked the end of an era.
Last night was the last time we’ll see The Orangutan (Clarkson), Captain Slow (May), and the Hamster (Hammond) frolic and play with fast expensive cars for our amusement. Last night was the last time we’ll see a producer hand the boys a golden envelope. Last night was the last time we’ll hear Jeremy yell “POWWA” and then proceed to hurl a car into the breech. Last night was the Last Top Gear episode featuring Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond.
For those who didn’t know our dearly departed, let me fill you in.
Top Gear is a car show that airs on the BBC which has been running in various iterations since 1977. The version most loved and cherished by the rest of the world has been around since 2002. It all started when Clarkson and Producer Andy Wilman saved the show from cancellation by pitching a new format for the series. Up until that point Top Gear was a car show for car enthusiasts giving typical car reviews talking about horsepower, trunk (or in British “boot”) space, and complaining about or praising various design elements. In 2002, the format changed with the addition of two more hosts and an elongated timeslot of an hour. Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe were to star alongside Clarkson, however Dawe didn’t work out and by the second season James May was brought on board.
The second season also brought on the appearance of the Stig, Top Gear’s Tame Racing Driver. Some say he’s half man, some say he’s half robot; all I know is that he’s called the Stig and he’s a really good racing driver. The idea for the Stig actually came from Clarkson and Wilman’s school days when new boys at the school were called a Stig. Clarkson wanted a driver who could expertly drive cars very fast around the track, but couldn’t find a good driver who also made a good TV personality; so the Stig was born.
Clarkson and Wilman’s Top Gear format has remained largely unchanged since 2002. They have shows with three, four, or six segments. The segments are races (like racing a Nissan GTR against the Japanese Bullet Train), challenges (like building an amphibious car), car reviews (where a presenter reviews an exotic car in an unusual way followed by a power lap on their test track with the Stig), Star in a Reasonably Priced Car (where famous people drive the Top Gear reasonably priced car around the Top Gear Track), and the cool wall. (where the presenters argue like children about how cool new cars coming out are.) The last of these segments is, of course, the Specials, where the three presenters are told to buy a crappy car, meet in a foreign, often poor, country, and try to drive said crappy car an absurd distance. These specials morphed from being a single part of an episode, to a whole special episode, to even two episodes in the last couple seasons.
While changing the format of the show has helped the show maintain its freshness over the years (Trust me, I’ve watched a couple of episodes of “old old” Top Gear) what really makes the show so much fun is its presenters. Clarkson, Hammond, and May have a chemistry almost unrivaled on television today. They are all three amusing on their own, but when they get together on a special or a challenge, the camaraderie and hijinks are magical. Their genuine amusement and sometimes sheer hatred of each other is just a ton of fun to watch. Whether they’re driving a pickup truck to the North Pole or driving estate cars (station wagons) in Africa trying to find the source of the Nile, you can count on them to mock and annoy each other constantly for your benefit.
But even on their own they are all great to watch. A regular part of the show is, of course, car reviews. In these reviews, a presenter will generally do a review by themselves. Each has their own style and sense of humor that really shines in these segments. Jeremy, often called “The Orangutan” by his co-presenters, has very hamfisted reviews of fast cars. They are filled with smoking tires and joyous shouts of “POWWAA” as the car slides sideways. He also shouts at the cars as he drives them and it’s great to watch. Richard tends to review off road or American cars. His tests often involve witty dialogue and some sort of challenge for the car, like a drag race or being winched up the side of a dam to recreate a commercial. His reviews often evoke the emotions the car makes him feel as he drives it and his connection to the act of driving through that car’s steering wheel and pedals. May, being very thoughtful and, well, slow, tends to review old cars. May connects with the car through the mechanics of driving it and its history or the history of its company. He takes you through the way the car was built and why it is the way it is and what it feels to drive the car. After 14 years of doing this, it’s clear that these three presenters were really good at what they did.
So why is Top Gear over if it was so good you ask?
Well, Jeremy Clarkson punched a producer. He’s not proud of it and, sadly, the BBC had to let him go. And while it may make bad business sense, I think they did the right thing. The punch was unprovoked and you can’t go around punching your subordinates. When the BBC let Jeremy go, Richard and James were quick to announce they too would leave. While this is very sad, rumors began to circulate that the show only had a few years left anyway. What makes me really sad is that Top Gear didn’t get to have the proper send-off it deserved. Clarkson’s sacking (firing, for any Brit-talk illiterates out there) happened before the current series was over and a couple of episodes got left on the cutting room floor. Even though they were able to edit them into an episode, it just wasn’t the same. I was able to watch the final episode last night and would like to give some thoughts on it.
So obviously this wasn’t the send off we all wanted. I mean, for one, no grand pianos were dropped on a Morris Marina. By the time the “Punch Heard Round the World” had happened, the last episode had been shot and was being edited together all that was left was to film the part in the studio. Thankfully, the BBC saw fit to release this episode. These last two seasons have seen resurgence in the “magic” of the show. While they would like you to believe otherwise, a lot of Top Gear is in fact scripted. The last few seasons leading up to 21 and 22 had felt a little stale, a lot of the bits felt a little too scripted, a little too rehearsed. It also seemed as if the presenters didn’t quite have their hearts in the challenges. Season 21 seemed to fix that. It was as if the presenters and crew were re-energized and came back with the flash and excitement of the first few seasons. The saddest thing is that Top Gear was just getting its mojo back and now it’s canceled. This season was one of the best they’ve ever done. Everything seemed genuine, even if it was scripted, and the presenters looked like they were genuinely having fun. This final episode is no different.
There were two challenges. Obviously, no one involved knew these would be the last challenges and reviews they would do together. For this episode, the first challenge was for them to buy well-known unreliable classic British cars and try to actually enjoy spending the day with them. It was hilarious. Even my girlfriend who doesn’t really like cars was cracking up as the poor hosts tried to keep their ailing cars alive to make it to the end of the day. It was genuinely amusing and it taught her an important lesson: never buy an old British car. The second segment of the show was the second challenge, they were to buy old SUVs for 250 pounds and try to become leisure enthusiasts. This was also very funny as they poke fun at people who buy SUVs but then never really use them. The in-studio segments were really muted. They had a fake elephant in the studio as a placeholder for Jeremy. There was no audience and you could tell the other two were visibly contemplating the end of an era. When the show was over it played without music. It was sobering. I feel like it was a fitting tribute to the end of the show considering everything that caused it and how it had to end.
Top Gear’s passing is truly a blow to civilized society. The three presenters had such good chemistry and such a fantastic producing staff that everyone was watching it. In fact, the series holds a Guinness world record for being the most watched factual program on earth. That was the magic of Top Gear: it got non-car people to care about cars, or at least watch a show about them. I have several friends that don’t really care about cars. They don’t get excited when they hear about a new Aston Martin; the Ferrari LaFerrari doesn’t make them “fizz;” the latest Range Rover Sport is just another dumpy SUV to many of my friends. But you know what? They all like to come over and watch Top Gear whenever a new episode is out. It turned a lot of people into at least passing gear heads. Top Gear even got two of the other writers and myself here at ShowVote into F1! I think that’s what I’ll miss most about the show – its ability to bring people of all creeds and walks of life and have them sit down to watch three middle aged men screw around in cars. I’m really sad the run is over but all good things must come to an end. Luckily it looks like we might get a few more years of the three presenters goofing off; rumors still run rampant all over the Internet about them doing a new show somewhere else. Here’s to hoping that’s exactly what happens.