Monday 24 October 2016

Top Gear bows out with a phoney tear and a huge smirk

James May and Richard Hammond presented the last episode of Top Gear
James May and Richard Hammond presented the last episode of Top Gear

THE BBC didn’t release any previews of Sunday’s final episode of Top Gear in its Clarkson-Hammond-May incarnation to television critics, despite the show being taped several weeks ago. This was an unusual move, although perhaps not wholly unexpected in the circumstances.

There’d been a noticeable dearth of Beeb-generated publicity about the show. The decision to screen it on the final night of Glastonbury, which the BBC relayed across all its channels, was also strange. Jeremy Clarkson even tweeted that the BBC was “playing down” the show, adding: “Do they not want big ratings for some reason?”

It did look a bit like the broadcaster, having been obliged to cobble together a farewell show of some description from unused bits of the cancelled episodes, was hoping it would just quietly disappear up a slip road, preventing any further embarrassments, wiping the slate clean, and leaving the way clear for Chris Evans and whoever will be joining him to take the wheel in 2016.

That was never going to happen, of course. Despite the lack of a push, the bookies were offering short odds that the series would pull in its largest ever audience.

An air of mournfulness — which felt deliberately engineered by the departing Top Gear team for maximum effect — hung over the 75-minute special.

Richard Hammond and James May presented it from an eerily quiet and stripped-down studio. There was no audience and the elephant in the room was, for a change, an actual elephant: a life-sized plastic pachyderm that stood in the background but was never referred to.

They made no mention, either, of Clarkson’s absence — although at this point you could argue that there was no need to. It was as if the two of them and their producer Andy Wilman (who walked after Clarkson was dropped) were determined to give one last, big, two-fingered “Look what you’re losing” gesture to the BBC.

If that really was the strategy then it backfired slightly. Not having Clarkson in the studio segments simply reminded us of just how much Hammond and May depend on sparking off him. Without him around, they looked lost and lacking in the presence to carry it on their own. It really says as much about their shortcomings as his strengths. The show, which was about 15 minutes too long, only sparked into life for the filmed inserts, which were shot months ago and favoured the familiar combination of silliness and destructiveness.

The first and weakest of the two items featured the three of them first driving, then souping up, vintage cars. Hammond ended up strapped to a stunt plane doing loop the loops. The second one involved SUVs roaring up ski slopes and much wrecking of caravans.

If you take away (which you can’t, really) all the stuff that frequently made recent series of Top Gear obnoxious — the gags about lazy Mexicans, the infamous “slope on the bridge”, the controversial Argentina registration plate — it could be polished, expertly crafted and sometimes highly amusing television. But having the end credits of the final show roll without any music was laying the sarcastic “mourning” guff on a bit thick.

A quick look at the random idiocy generator that Twitter can sometimes be, revealed millions of petrolhead viewers spent the evening crying into their sofa cushions.

Nobody has died; all that’s happened is that a trio of over-indulged multimillionaires have taken their shtick to another broadcaster, probably Netflix. Get over it. They sure will.

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