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Sunday, 26 April 2015

What a TopGear Presenter Should Be

Yes that's right, it's another TopGear speculation blog post!! YAAAAAAAY!!! I know you're excited about it. Don't lie.
It is unlikely to have escaped your notice that TopGear (the greatest car show...... In The World) has been in some serious jeopardy of late. With lofty controversy enthusiast Jeremy Clarkson harassing and ultimately punching a producer in the face - despite being on a "final warning" - the show's main presenter has had to be let go from the BBC. In the last couple of days it has been confirmed that series producer Andy Wilman, along with co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May, are also leaving TopGear in a show of solidarity, because when your long-time friend has verbally and physically assaulted the nearest person upon discovering that there's no hot food left, you should stand by his side, dammit.

This has obviously tipped car fans, entertainment fans and society in general into a frenzy. People are literally setting fire in disgust, there is mass panic in the streets, some are losing their minds to the point where they actually think they care about politics, children are throwing their own feces at things (more often than usual, that is) because they mistakenly think that it's actually called "fracas," and probably thousands of people are curled up in the foetal position outside any prestige car dealer they could run to with only one shoe on before hallucinating about all cars in sight melting into the Earth and their own skin morphing into a Greenpeace hybrid public transport bicycle. Oh wait, no they aren't, they're just bombarding any social media post or news article TopGear.com posts up with "Bring Back Clarkson[, Hammond and May]" comments, as if that's going to have even 1% of persuasive power over a huge global organisation that's already made up its mind, and which, if you think about it, didn't really have any other choice.

Oh, you want us to bring them back?
Oh okay then. You should've said.
I actually don't understand what's going on in these people's minds. Do they actually think it's going to have any effect at all? Do they think that bitching about it is all it would take? Do they think that TopGear's online team are somehow unaware of what's going on with their TV counterpart, and that letting them know on Twitface or the website itself will prompt an easily-initiated reactive course of action that will magically reinstate the four of them and making everything hunky-doory again? Have they got it in their minds that the people at Fortress TopGear had no idea that this ordeal would be controversial and they need telling?
Guess what, gormless keyboard chimps: they know. They're very much aware that the show as we know and love habitually follow it is doomed. They realised before you did that it was going to spark outrage, shock and other such words you'll find in all-caps atop any newspaper article about Clarkson's fracas. You're not informing them, you're not educating or enlightening them. You're frankly achieving nothing but to constantly remind all followers of their pages of the very public situation the show is in. You might as well just walk up to The Tall One himself and shout "YOU'VE BEEN SACKED AND THE TV SHOW IS DEAD, IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW." Maybe he'll call you a mealy-mouthed imbecile (or a one-eyed Scottish idiot) and shoot you in front of your families when you do. Maybe not.

Regardless of cyber whining or anything else, TopGear "Mk.2" (2002-2015) is dead. Its metabolic processes are now history. It's off the twig. It's kicked the bucket, shuffled off the mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-programme. The features that were prepared for the final three episodes will be shown, somehow, somewhere - probably iPlayer - and with that, back to the studio in the sky.

But don't worry, because they're going to reboot it next year! Just because the four key people in creating it and making it great are no longer involved, doesn't mean the BBC can stop making a show that basically prints money. However, before they can find out how much of that money-printing ability was down to The Tall One, The Short One, The Slow One and The Lucky Underpants One, there's the rather thorny issue of figuring out who their replacements are. I don't know who to replace Andy Wilman with, but the presenters? Well, now......

One thing's for sure, it can't be the wrong people. Not only have some people received death threats from angry cave trolls just for being mentioned as a potential choice, but I've seen the list of supposedly-likely successors chosen by the bookies at PaddyPower, and at least half of them would just be total bullshit choices. Piers friggin' Morgan?! That one has to be a joke, and Dermot O' Leary's favourable odds of stepping straight in from X-Factor chill me to my core as someone who grew up with TopGear all the way from the tail end of its first incarnation in the late '90s.

No, if they're going to do it properly then instead of just picking anyone who appears in gossip mags, they need to consider certain qualities which presenters of an exciting and entertaining car show about cars must have. THEY NEED TO BE:

A Petrolhead
Yes, they still do. Even if they keep doing dumb challenges and stuff to entertain simpletons, at the show's core it has always been and should always be a love letter to the car. You cannot write a love letter without love, because the ones who do have it will see right through your empty lies, and the usage of cars in the show will consequently be rendered all but meaningless. All three presenters need to be car enthusiasts, no matter what their exact jam is - racing cars, muscle cars, Porsche 911s, Japanese drifters, mud-plugging Defenders, V8 Utes, hypercars, classics, hot rods, whatever - and they must be able to express that without it feeling forced, or without it sounding like a politician being all "No really, I'm a pleb just like you, don't you know! I own an iPad and everything." Clarkson, Hammond an May all reviewed cars as a job before TG as well, so a background in motoring and/or car culture is definitely required. Don't just get any generic bobble-head to read from a script. The stunts might be fake, but if the passion isn't real either, forget it. You'll only piss off the entire core audience.

And yes, the core audience is still car lovers. The increasing silliness may have made it more-than-tolerable for their wives/girlfriends/children as well, but the large general viewership that's amassed would never have been there in the first place without petrolheads - who still tune in religiously, even if they might follow it up by moaning about inaccuracies or disappointing feature videos or patriotic bias in reviews of British cars. An under-par episode of TopGear is still better than having no big car show at all, and the way the outgoing presenters articulated their passion and naturally brought the format to life is what's magnetised us to the show for over ten years. Even if they did eventually become caricatures of themselves towards the end of its run......

Opinionated
TopGear without controversy? That just wouldn't be TopGear!! However, I'm not talking about xenophobia or other assorted stereotyping. I am again thinking about the cars. One thing you have to respect about TG is that despite being on a network that must be seen as impartial, it's never been afraid to criticise. If a car's badly made or floppy to drive or has an idiotically designed interior, you'll know about it, even if it pisses off the manufacturers (who loan them brand new cars to test) that their shiny new product has been roundly dismissed in front of everyone. While this can lead to trouble - some blamed Jeremy's constant bashing of Rover to be partially responsible for their bad image, thus falling sales, thus their demise in 2005 - maybe it could also be one reason why General Motors have pulled out all the stops for the new 'C7' generation Chevrolet Corvette, in a bid for their icon to finally be taken seriously outside of America. Yes, Tesla sued the show for misrepresenting the Roadster's battery life, but conversely the only reason anybody's heard of Koenigsegg or Pagani is because of this show, and theirs are some of the most wonderful automotive creations of all time, as professed by Clarkson and Hammond respectively.

Of course, while a big angry rant makes great TV, this must go both ways. They can't just hate everything, a presenter must be able to praise a good/great/charming car properly as well. Otherwise the once-enthusiastic program becomes as toothless as BBC political debate coverage - nobody's allowed to win, because nobody's allowed to lose. No car gets to be the greatest... In The World unless its status as such is professed with passionate opinion and reasoning, because some, perhaps most aspects of defining a great car over others are almost completely subjective, like looks and handling and cultural impact. It comes back to passion - a review or road test must go beyond dryly ticking all the What Car? boxes like pointing out boot space and fuel economy and tax brackets. What's the car like as an experience? Does it engage you and why? Is it a total shitbox? Would you be better off in the class benchmark? Why wouldn't you? Prove it to us. Don't hold back.

Entertaining For All...
Like, duh. It's TV. Any TV show that isn't entertaining had better be pretty damned insightful (or otherwise compelling), lest it be indifferently chucked off the air like a talent show winner from a record label. What's more, as much as they should be passionate car enthusiasts, if they can't translate the wonders, horrors and downright quirkiness of the automotive world into something regular folk can understand and relate to, then the show will never have the same-sized audience again and will thus be judged a failure. As much as it has to be rooted in all things automotive, TG has to keep its more general appeal too. For everyone who wants to see supercars screaming up a mountain road and a portrayal of the visceral thrills of speed, there's someone who wants to watch you obliterate a caravan (it's been a while...) and drive a bulldozer into a pile of dynamite. Possibly at the same time.

Mind you, if all three new presenters can tick the above two boxes and add some genuine character to the show, then it ought to be sufficiently watchable for all. There may well still be farcical cheapo challenges and mad stunts and the talk show element to keep the wider audience happy, and any of those must be brought to life just as well as the car reviews, to stop it from ever feeling generic. If the presenters can't keep us engaged, then there are dozens of other shows with crazy stunts and celeb interviews and such like for us to tune into instead. Simple as that.

...Especially Car Enthusiasts
But again, let us not forget the show's original and core audience, here. As I alluded to earlier, this is the best-known and most-viewed window into the weird, wonderful, infuriating, exhilarating and surprising world of the automobile. For some people this is the only point of reference for car stuff they have, the only means by which to get news and opinions on the latest and greatest stuff... a responsibility which the show never really seemed to quite realise it had, in my opinion. The reason this matters is not just because I don't want every car forum and TopGear Live show to be full of people without a clue what they're on about, it's mainly because TopGear has long had a real impact on car culture at large. Let me put it this way: Dacia, the Renault-owned Romanian-based purveyor of "very acceptable" basic budget cars, would probably not have entered the UK market in 2012 without the popular running joke about the Sandero (and latterly the Duster) being "Great News!" What's more, I believe that appearing on TG multiple times is one of the major reasons why the Bugatti Veyron transcended its status as a mere world record holder to become a household name, despite being an unattainable hypercar. Cars are a unique thing to make interesting to normal people because it's a subject matter you can interact with directly, one which can serve up a unique blend of action and emotion both on screen and inside you, through movements and sound. Motorised vehicles are the only true 'animate objects.' Used properly, they can make brilliant television, not to mention movie characters.

Anyone with even a passing interest in cars has watched TopGear at least once. Go on any car meme Facebook page or car forum and you'll likely find that every third post is a direct or indirect reference to TopGear. The average person's opinion on cars is probably a recycled version of those expressed by the show's presenters. I know I was like that when I was younger, before I could really develop my own opinions on such things. If you're going to present this show, you're going to be one of the people who introduces millions to the world of motoring, and you're going to be expected to keep contributing to car culture like the old guard did. You must appease the petrolheads! There should be jokes and references that make sense and are appreciated by people who live by the mantra of "four wheels good" as well as the typical topical telly jokes about people in the news and all that stuff.

Beyond the in-jokes, though, we need exhilarating. We want to know that a headline-grabbing new car feels alive, and to be reminded of why we'd rather spend our life and money on filling and perfecting our garage, not a bag of golf clubs or a collection of stamps. It'll be down to the presenters to articulate all that to us, as well as the TopGear production team living up to their hard-earned reputation for epic, breathtaking cinematography.



So What About the Show Itself?
I won't pretend I could do the job of actually creating the best possible "Mk.3" iteration of TopGear, but one thing I'm certain it absolutely mustn't be is a desperate reboot. You can't just try to recreate an old success with new faces. It would be like trying to bring back Queen with none of the original musicians... or the Amazing Spiderman movies, and nobody wants more of that pointless shite. However, some carryovers ought to be expected. It'll probably still be based in a huge studio full of people, seeing as the waiting list to have a girl stand in front of you on TV is about 18 years long, and there may well still be a celebrity shoehorned into the middle of each episode, and hopefully the legendary test track at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey will survive (because I live near there!). Even if they do keep all that though, or at least some of it for continuity, they must look forwards, not backwards. This is a huge opportunity to really refresh the show, strip away some of the fat and contrived fakery and restart with a clear mission statement and a vision for how to realise that. Cut off the decay and let something new grow on top, from the original core. Should that approach be taken, we'll just have to wait and see where that leads us all...

Just like the question "How do you fix F1?" pretty much every TopGear fan "knows" how they would improve the show. So if you want my two pence, this new generation would start as a fairly back-to-basics car show, one with the aim of informing, entertaining and enthusing - you know who by now - petrolheads, primarily at least.  With the new presenters and producer in place to give it a different character and feel, it can evolve in a new direction, but with the same key aim: to celebrate the car. To show people how alive these technically lifeless objects can be, how the interaction between man and machine can lead to an experience impossible to find elsewhere. Capture the drama of supercars, the quirkyness of quirky cars, the simple pleasures and complex emotions of a great driving experience. Portray motoring as an art form. Try to do these things and more in as many different ways as possible, while also letting us measure a significant new car against its rivals with a lap times board and proper reviews on road and track. All the while, don't be afraid to call out a car maker for getting it wrong. Angry rants make good telly!

As I've said though, it will need to attract (or at least not repel) non-car folk too, so the show would be portrayed in an accessible way, not too nerdy although not patronising either. As much as it needs to be a car show, it can't just be a more expensive version of Fifth Gear, so reviews and features would be interspersed with some creative stunts, adventures, challenges - ones the outcome of which you couldn't predict too soon - or perhaps all three. These entertainment features would require some actual jeopardy and originality to them, too. What's more, it'd do more of something TG II rarely did: cover the people of cars. Humans are much easier to relate to, and ultimately cars are a human endeavour. Any driver, engineer, designer or company head you should know about before you can call yourself a cultured individual. It could be a regular feature or tributes could be made as and when they're appropriate (for living people too). Honestly one of my favourite TopGear films of all is their tribute to Ayrton Senna in late 2010. There's no reason not to have more of that.



So it'd be a car show with elements to entertain all and elements to please the core audience. From there it can grow, with input from the fans.

It would basically be pretty similar, just fresher and slightly re-jigged with a new style of bringing a similar format to life. Personally I could do without "Star In A Reasonably Priced Car," but they'll probably keep it. The only thing that draws more eyes than celebrity guests is sex, and that's unlikely to be made a feature on TopGear...

Maybe they'll be more creative than me. Maybe they won't. You'll just have to do what TV audiences aren't good at doing and be patient.

Whomever they choose, they have to get it right. If they can't capture our hearts and imaginations, then TopGear will have been better off on the scrap heap.


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