It was time for Clarkson to move on, anyway

‘Ah, Paxo,’ reflects Malcolm Tucker with a cigar, ‘I’ll miss him when he has that massive coronary.’

Perhaps the same sentiments apply to Jezza. Be honest: how many of you thought it was to be an early grave that got him first? The notorious glutton has radically aged and paunched since Top Gear’s 2002 return and it’s a telling contrast that Richard Hammond is now the same age as Clarkson was then (dyed hair and teeth whitener aside, of course).

The announcement by the BBC not to renew Clarkson’s contract – up for renewal at the end of March, anyway  – comes as no surprise but to Top Gear fans and the hosts themselves (their respective Twitter accounts have been nothing but complacent twiddling since Clarkson’s suspension.)

For all the japery during Clarkson’s suspension between the three presenters, including the can’t-decide-if-it’s-real vlogging interludes of May, there’s still a feeling that it will all be all right in the end; that this is all good material before they’re reunited in a studio, somewhere.

Perhaps it will, providing the three take a hefty dose of humility from the experience. See the problem with Top Gear isn’t that it ended under less than auspicious circumstances, but that it ended in precisely the blaze of shame befitting the arrogance and ill-thought humour that’s been listing the show for the last 3-4 years. The delectably proper inappropriateness that was once always joshing, ironic and British was getting out of hand. Most people noticed that something was ‘off’ with the 2011 India special; it delved too freely from acerbic wit into crass toilet humour and occasional downright racism. The problem was replicated again with the 2013 Burma special and the infamous “slope” remark.

This, of course, was not the first time or the last that the show went down the particular line. The show’s Wikipedia page has an embarrassingly long sub-article of it’s controversies, including Richard Hammond’s Mexico comments, the Argentine number plate debacle (possibly the most cosmic of coincidences if the official line is to be believed) and the unaired and entirely unforgivable ‘nigger’ mumble by Clarkson when reciting a nursery rhyme. The halcyon days of old, even then, were showing noticeable wear.

The explanation is one of excess: Top Gear began as a car show but morphed into a show dependent on a triptych of personalities because of the show’s hugely popular and memorable specials and challenges. The quirks of three otherwise plain presenters with a penchant for cars was thus rejigged to be top heavy toward their personalities and hijinks in unlikely, staged, but hilarious circumstances. Clarkson himself said in an interview with the American programme 60 Minutes that: “The chemistry that exists between, Richard James and I has sort of taken over…you can’t engineer chemistry, that just happens.”

The tragedy is that a successful formula tipped from an accidental gold mine into thinking the three could do no wrong. Personalities became the show’s sense of self and there is a genuine feeling, watching it from start to finish, that while it turned into a global phenomenon because of its presenters, no one bothered to introduce checks on what they were saying.

Indeed, one of the reports doing the rounds was that Clarkson was to return with an executive minder appointed to specifically keep him in line because the show’s producer, Andy Wilman (an old school friend) was unable to control him. Not an unfair assessment, and it would be interesting to know how far these discussions got, or if Clarkson himself would ever have accepted it (better to die on your feet than live on your knees some might say).

Balancing their brand of humour was like standing an egg on the equinox, and it proved to be as easily tipped into failure. Was Clarkson’s downfall inevitable? We’ll never know. In any event, what has been overshadowed is that quality wise the show has been lagging for some time. The pre-launch to series 22 included a preview interview à la some kind of film launch. Re-watching it now and the writing is clearly on the wall as the trio, and the show had become too self-aware and too regal.

A few years ago there was a beautiful closing segment to series 13 that saw Clarkson driving off into the sunset in an Aston Martin. Long, contemplative shots were accompanied by ethereal music and Clarkson reflecting that: “I just can’t help thinking…cars like this will soon be consigned to the history books. I just have this horrible, horrible feel that what I’m driving here, is an ending. Goodnight”

Many suspected that this was the death knell. Perhaps it should have been. It certainly serves as a contrast. Would viewers rather have this been the end, or some kind of montage or spectacular stunt or a blaze of impropriety? The ridiculousness of what wielded the knife to the series’ is so farcical that it’s hard to imagine a surreal special surpassing it. That in itself might make it appropriate.  As May himself said, they all knew it could never last forever and they went out with people wanting more; not a bad eulogy after 13 years. Indeed, 1m people signed the Guido Fawkes petition to have Clarkson be reinstated. The petition was delivered by a tank, featuring The Stig, the BBC HQ.

BBC Worldwide has confirmed that the Top Gear live shows will go ahead with the trio but will be rebranded as ‘Clarkson, Hammond & May Live’ and won’t have the Top Gear or BBC branding.

Clarkson has allegedly agreed with the BBC not to insult his former bosses or mention his sacking – as he did at a charity event before it was announced his contract wouldn’t be renewed.

What remains to be seen if the presenters will make the shows a teary-eyed goodbye or turn it into a showcase spectacle for what the triumvirate can do without the Top Gear umbrella.

In the digital age, why not? May has already said that the three “come as a package” and Clarkson last week alluded that there may be hope yet with Netflix. While they have all remained taciturn on what they’re exploring next, I’ll bet that they know if they can joke, cajole, and return to form with the live shows then it will be a matter of time. More than 200,000 tickets have been sold, worth £10m to the BBC.

What of Top Gear and its return in 2016? While no formal announcement has been made by Hammond or May about their future, both their contracts have expired. The trio has been removed from the show’s homepage masthead and replaced with a Stig lookalike.

I want it to be good. But I know that it can’t be; certainly not for the reasons I enjoyed it. I passed my driving test last year and I’m 27. Cars and the stitching on seats have never meant anything to me and I’ve always preferred to walk everywhere .

The show, at its best, was too accidental. It really was three idiots and a novelty racing driver. It was funny because it appealed to universal elements enjoyed by most: camaraderie, loutishness, stunning filmography, and ridiculous and novel challenges.

The problem is that the BBC has seriously underestimated how much that the unique combination of the show’s presenters (I include The Stig in that) made it what it was. For many across the world, Top Gear was a byword for Clarkson, May, and Hammond and vice versa. The recurring gags, from Clarkson’s love of Will Young to ramming May’s car to every time one of them got into trouble, and to everything with the Stig, the show was about them. Who cares what cars they were driving. Few people can afford supercars, fewer still tune in for reasonable and sensible advice on affordable motoring (which has also been a running gag). As May himself said, “It works for very complicated reasons that a lot of people don’t fully understand.” For many fans, May’s doorstep defence was a near tear-jerking moment of pride. Captain Slow, ironically enough, to the rescue after years of being the butt of jokes and for giving the impression he loathed the other two.

Top Gear was worth £50m to the BBC. Sunday viewing figures were around 5m for each episode, only to drop dramatically by 4m when the show was replaced with a programme about the Red Arrows. Seldom can you get such a good appraisal of your worth by watching how your successor maintains the show’s popularity. It will either sink or flop, and that will be the final proof of what I have argued.

What they need to do, and quickly, is assuage those that feel any new presenters are sauntering into the imperial palace after a particularly bloody coup. New leadership needs to be clean, and the show needs to purge itself and come to terms with what came before to move in a new direction that, for all we know, may take the reviewing of a Prius entirely seriously. The comedian Alexei Sayle has suggested that any future presenters retain the names of the three, instead ‘regenerating’ like Doctor Who, although this does seem a little insensitive (and the kind of thing the trio would have done if one of them had ever been killed).

Yet if we’re all honest, this is how it should have ended. The politically incorrect shock and awe banter of three could never have ended with a wave and a ‘thanks for watching’ or the Aston segment above. The show’s quality was lagging in recent years, there can be no doubt about it. But the BBC have the hard task of finding a replacement that can break even. The three presenters should take this as a good thing, a ridiculous opportunity to return to innovative form. This is the honest conclusion; an inadvertent mess that got entirely out of hand and has ended in a catastrophe that, if they’re brave enough, will be joked about royally in the years ahead as they are reunited in pastures new.

But a steak. For fuck’s sake.