In the case of Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear, the talent clearly overshadowed the concept.
I suspect that to most Canadians, indeed virtually everyone on this side of the North Atlantic, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s firing of Jeremy Clarkson must seem like much hullabaloo about nothing. After all, Top Gear, the program he hosts, is but a car show, something normally relegated to the deepest, darkest recesses of cable television here in North America and then only at the most ungodly of hours. The concept that someone, let alone 350 million someones, should care enough to protest his dismissal for taking a swing at Oisin Tymon, the show’s producer, is unfathomable to those who couldn’t give a fig about a lowly car show.
Of course, that’s mostly because those who haven’t seen the show don’t realize that, just like Survivor isn’t about camping skills and the popularity of Hell’s Kitchen has nothing to do with cooking, Top Gear isn’t really about cars. It is a character play, plain and simple, the cars, no matter how super they might be, mere props in the Beeb’s automotive commedia dell’arte. There are hundreds of car shows produced around the world and even more car-crazed YouTube snippets, and many have access to the same phantasmagoric sleds as Messrs. Clarkson, Hammond and May. Yet Top Gear remains a world wide cultural phenomenon in a genre normally known for its obscurity.
Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson of the British television series Top Gear. Kristof Van Accom, AFP/Getty Images
One could cite Top Gear’s incredible production values — rumours run rampant that the Beeb spends as much as $1-million per episode for its weekly reviews — for its success. But then many TV shows have fallen by the wayside despite huge budgets. And, yes, its skit-like montages are hilarious, but the show has no monopoly on humour. The BBC, looking to salvage the show with a new host, will tell you that Top Gear was always an ensemble piece, Richard Hammond and James May equally responsible for the show’s success.
But that would be forgetting the lessons of Honey Boo Boo, Richard Hatch and the even more controversial Charlie Sheen. Television likes its characters writ large and Clarkson is, even to his detractors, the largest of them all.
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