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Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear and the BBC

It has been said for some time that the BBC, the darling doddering Beeb, has been having an image problem. The swarm of sexual allegations triggered by the Jimmy Savile scandal continues to shudder the broadcaster.

In May 2013, The Independent ran a column claiming that, “Sexual allegations about 81 BBC staff have been reported since the Jimmy Savile scandal came to light – with almost half still working for the corporation.” Much has been made that the program sets were vestries less of worshipping television and radio than providing ample opportunities for assault, harassment and smut.

The sordid past of BBC practices should not, of their own accord, be linked to the latest round of noise created by Jeremy Clarkson, whose brattish antics culminated in his sacking from one of the network’s most popular programs.

Top Gear’s brat set of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond have been running their toy set since 2003, titillating a certain demographic (the sex-car one, in particular) with their various performances, globetrotting and smatterings of casual racism. They do what many would like to do, be it driving the monsters they feature with each episode, and duly denigrating others who don’t quite get it. Much of this was painstakingly orchestrated, the paradox being that the more orchestrated the acts would be, the more spontaneous they would look.

So much for the onset japery – the point has been what the BBC superstar heavies have been doing off the set. Sexual molestation was one such nasty feature of the broadcasting culture, a plague feature that was all too readily tolerated. Clarkson’s offences are of a different sort from those of the Savile tribe, not necessarily the type to land him in the nick, but perhaps the cooler.

The BBC has remained steadfast in tolerating, and using the Clarkson brand. Suggestions of equal treatment within the organisation have always been sniggered at. His puerile attention seeking seemed to make him invulnerable to the sack. That is, till now. “It is with great regret,” said Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, “that I have told Jeremy Clarkson today that the BBC will not be renewing his contract.” Clarkson’s physical assault of Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon on March 4 was one act too far. The boss was not for punching.

The brat, in other words, deserved a serve, even if Top Gear was earning the corporation £50m a year. It all seemed all the more extraordinary given Lord Hall deeming of the BBC as “a broad church,” one of “diversity”. This was, of course, qualified. “We need distinctive and different voices but they cannot come at any price. Common to all at the BBC have to be standards of decency and respect.” At least, what standards have been left.

As with other celebrity prats, Clarkson has been feted by the BBC establishment, being its resident offender-in-chief. Over the years, he has become “a sitting target for elitist Guardianistas,” as Brendan O’Neill of Spike likes to call them. There has been some glee at this announcement from the Beeb – the “Clarksonphobics”, claims O’Neill, chant for his removal because of “what he represents: car-loving, free-speaking, un-PC folk, those eco-unfriendly, somewhat rough sections of society that the chattering classes would rather didn’t exist.”

The Clarkson publicity machine functions as part of a mass controversy complex. He makes a point of insulting his hosts, though no one could ever be surprised by that. A modified toilet-car, he argued while doing a Top Gear Christmas special in India, was “perfect” for the country “because everyone who comes here gets the trots.” The Mexican government complained after an episode featured the Top Gear gang mocking Mexican cars as being much like “a lazy, feckless, flatulent oaf with a moustache, leaning against a fence asleep.” Clarkson suggested in December 2011 on The One Show that public servants participating in a 24-hour strike should be hauled out in front of their families and shot. Again, cue Clarkson, expect the laddish remark, and fill the columns after feigned shock.

He is also the visible character of climate change denial, a message he spreads with greater effect than any GOP strategist. This has been a running theme in the show, which has sought to romanticise the car in the face of the ecological onslaught. Hammond has argued that “cars create less of a problem than our desire for superheated homes in winter” (Daily Mail, Nov 25, 2014). May puts down climatic upheaval to flatulence, rather than “the internal combustion engine”. But it is Clarkson as a celebrity guest on quiz shows, and a widely read columnist, who continues the assault on the science fraternity with his variant of bollocks in commentary.

In 2012, he hoed into the terrifying vision of Bill McGuire with venom tinged by disbelieving mirth. “Science fiction is thriving; only today it’s all being written by global warming enthusiasts.” This was all fantasy – the extinction factor, the disappearance of countries. “The man is talking here about an extinction-level event. And the word is that when the film rights are sorted, Denzel is earmarked for the lead.”

This move on Clarkson might be seen as a revenge on the brats, a good slap across their often smug, playful faces, fiddling and toying even as the earth goes to seed. Hammond felt “Gutted at such a sad end to an era. We’re all three of us idiots in our different ways but it’s been an incredible ride together.” Fellow traveller on the ride of idiocy May also expressed the sentiment of the usual regarding Clarkson, which was: manage the beast, control his outburst, and the ship will right itself. “I’m sorry that what ought to have been a small incident sorted out easily has turned into something big.”

The BBC is not taking the toy set away, and May and Hammond will continue to string something together. They will be an interregnum of sorting out, though it is hard to see the triumvirate not reuniting. That is a Britain that won’t go away, rehearsed contrarianism for those who are not “Guardianistas”. Clarkson will be wooed by another set of moneybags, and will duly perform the condescending half-lad mad act he is so accustomed to doing, the British establishment’s version of anarchic conservatism. May and Hammond may well follow. The lads will ride again.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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