There are still three shows to transmit, but they’re all shot and cut now – we’re just tidying up the South America special – so it feels like a good time to reflect on the run.
Personally I’ll be glad to see the back of it. We’ve done some good stuff this series, but we were too rushed and too knackered to get everything right. I’ve never ever ever seen a production team, from presenters to film crew to editors to production team, work so hard over three months, and I think only this lot could pull off what they do.
However what the viewer sees is what they see, and I notice on the interweb that there is a grumble and a rumble in the air from some of our regulars: we’ve lost the plot, we’ve disappeared up our arses, we’re scripting everything, we’re predictable etc etc, so let’s deal with that.
From what I can work out, the main complaints are that there’s too much cocking about for the car lovers, and that we’re trying too hard on camera. I think, if you consider the tastes of the Final Gear folk and the TG diehards, they’d probably say we’ve only done a couple of memorable films in the last year or so – Bonneville Flats, Commie Cars, Japan Race probably. Well, we do know where you’re coming from, and personally I have massive sympathy and empathy for a guy like that Monk chap, who clearly cares, and judging by the way he fills up the worldwide web, is clearly frustrated by what we do on a show he used to love.
However, although we understand the complaints, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to do anything about them. Believe me that’s not arrogance on our part, but the fact is we’re not wedding DJs taking requests, and for good reason, because no good telly in the history of man was ever created that way. You have to make the programme you want to make, and people then vote with the on or off button. So although not many on Final Gear liked the electric car, we actually loved it, and we’ll make more of those any time we get the right idea.
However when we do agree with where the viewers are coming from, then we could be in business. Personally, for example, I do believe we’ve now got the presenters playing to their TV cartoon characters a bit too much – Jezza the walking nuclear bomb, Richard the daft Norman Wisdom, and James the bumbling professor. I like those characters, but I too would like to see more of them as they were in Bonneville, or in Botswana or in the US Special. I miss the three mates who mooch along – there were flashes of it in the Lancia film, and it’s there in the South American Special, and yes, it’s nice to have it back. I know James definitely feels that way, and Jeremy and I were saying the other morning how the Lancia film was a bit of a wake up reminder that we can actually make good films just enthusing about cars.
I’d like to offer my thoughts on a few other points. Firstly, this notion that everything’s scripted. It isn’t. We went to South America with one sheet of A4, Romania with 2 or 3 sheets about the car particulars, Ice Racing the same. Yes we do set a few things up – You won’t find Careless Air in the phone book, and obviously we rang Norwich Airport before James’s caravan airship pitched up, but no, for the millionth time, we don’t pre-arrange races or challenges or petrol stations in Alabama.
I think what you’re seeing with the scripted issue is partly down to the point above about playing to our cartoon characters, partly just old fashioned familiarity, but there’s also a more important issue, and that’s that you’re watching a show that’s lost its innocence. To explain, let’s go back a bit. When we started in 2002, our goal was to make a decent Top Gear, but then, and most important, organically, things took us by surprise. Nobody knew the onscreen chemistry of the trio would be so good, also, none of us saw coming where we could actually go with the films.
Rewatch the Cheap Porsches or the Shit Italian Supercars film, and you’ll see what I mean. That was the first time a car show was making tv out of the cars going wrong, and you can see the surprise and delight on the presenters’ faces as it’s dawning on them, right there in the shoot, how much fun there is to be had out of crap car calamity. You, we, shared the innocence. And so it went on. The America Special wasn’t even meant to be an hour long Special – we went there to make 25 minutes, and shit happened around us – the petrol station etc etc – and again, the surprise in our own faces is visible.
That innocence has gone now, as always happens, because that’s the nature of TV. You all know the main pillars of our editorial, and we do our best to entertain, but none of us are going back to that first flush of discovery.
But although that’s sad, this is not time for glumness because there’s still so much to do. Firstly, please relax if we try this or that and it doesn’t work, because it just means we’re not getting complacent. I can pretty much write that Monk chap’s review of tonight’s show, and boy will he hate Art Gallery, but it is just us pushing in a different direction, because we’re still very much obsessed, as a team, about attempting new things with cars on TV.
The flip side of this is that we’re actually the most disciplined of any formatted TV show when it comes to not relying on our old bankers. It would, for example, be the easiest thing in the world to do a big race every other week – I love a race, I can hardly sleep the night before we shoot one – but we’ve done only a couple in the last two years, and that’s because we won’t attempt one until we can find a good one.
Jeremy has now shot two of those preposterous tests – Fiesta and Twingo, but likewise he’d be happy to call a halt at two if there wasn’t another one to be done. It’s fair to say this incarnation of Top Gear is nearer the end than the beginning, and our job is to land this plane with its dignity still intact. But ironically, that does mean trying new things to the last, even if they screw up, because, well, it means you never stopped trying.
That’s the way it is with content, but as I say, the messages that resonate for me on these web posts are the ones that say: “Can we have our three old mates back?” Well, we will still continue to build electric cars and airships, because we like doing it, but trust me, there’ll be a race the second we find one, and most important we still know how to do a Bonneville, the whole three blokes with cars mooching along, and if you don’t believe me just watch the South America special. And thank you for caring so much.