My latest column for the International New York Times is on the furore over Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension from Top Gear, published in the INYT under the headline ‘Top Gear hits rock bottom’. Here are the opening paragraphs. You can read the full article in the INYT.
The middle-aged presenter of a British TV show about cars has been suspended by the BBC for allegedly hitting his producer during a ‘fracas’. Big deal, you might think; hardly global news. Except that, for many people, the suspension last week of Jeremy Clarkson, the controversial presenter of the BBC’s Top Gear program, is a big deal. Nearly a million people have signed an online petition demanding that the BBC reinstate Mr Clarkson. The story dominated news in Britain, and made headlines across the world — and here I am writing about it for the New York Times.
But then Top Gear is a very peculiar cultural phenomenon. What began in 1977 as a regional show about cars and road safety is today the BBC’s greatest global export. Boasting a worldwide audience of 350 million, ranged across 214 territories, it is the most watched factual program on Earth. It generates £20 million (about $30 million) in profits for the corporation every year.
It is a show about cars in which the cars are almost incidental. The essence of Top Gear lies in childish pranks, ‘politically incorrect’ jokes, smutty comments and laddish banter. The reputation of the show has been enhanced — or diminished, depending upon your point of view — by a series of controversies over the years, ranging from schoolboy stunts to racial slurs.
Mr Clarkson has, variously: crashed a pickup into a tree to test the truck’s strength, damaging both; been accused of despoiling Botswana’s pristine Makgadikgadi salt pans by driving across them; been chased out of Argentina by an angry crowd after touring in a car with the registration plate H982 FKL, supposedly a provocative reference to the 1982 Falklands War; driven around an Indian slum in a Jaguar fitted with a toilet ‘because everyone who comes here gets the trots’ (a British colloquialism for diarrhea); caused outrage by giving the Nazi salute in a segment about German cars; and sung the nursery rhyme ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’, appearing to include the line ‘Catch a nigger by the toe’ (the segment was cut from the broadcast).
Mr. Clarkson, who joined the program in 1988 to give it, as a BBC report put it, ‘a more abrasive edge’, has come to define the show’s ethos. For some, Clarkson is an irreverent, controversial rebel. For others, he is a chauvinist bigot.
In reality, he is neither. He is more like the schoolboy who has never grown up — the one who stands behind the teacher in the playground pulling faces or ties a firecracker to a cat’s tail.