Patrick Freyne: ‘Top Gear was already dead but didn’t know it’

The previous version had over-privileged, white, straight men freewheeling through their natural environment - but the reboot is running on empty

Six go driving: Tinie Tempah, Sharleen Spiteri, Eddie Jordan, Chris Evans, Seasick Steve and Matt LeBlanc in  South Africa. Photograph: BBC Pictures

Six go driving: Tinie Tempah, Sharleen Spiteri, Eddie Jordan, Chris Evans, Seasick Steve and Matt LeBlanc in South Africa. Photograph: BBC Pictures

 

At its best, Top Gear (Sunday, RTÉ2 and BBC2) operated as an entertaining parody of masculinity in crisis. I like to think that’s how it was pitched. Their set pieces (my favourite – hunters chasing a fox-scented hatchback across the English countryside) were Viz! cartoons with the budgets of motion pictures and helmed by a trio of baboonish wits.

Jeremy Clarkson was on top of the hierarchy, his red-buttocked face indicating his superiority to denim-pelted beta-baboon James May and the little oxpecker bird that sat on their shoulders grooming them (Richard Hammond).

Each week, we tuned in to watch them roar increasingly offensively and decreasingly self-effacingly from cars worth more than the national debt of the countries they drove them through. It was a revealing, funny, partially self-aware snapshot of over-privileged, white, straight men in their natural environment (wherever the hell they want to go).

Over the decades, the zeitgeist shifted around them (votes for women, Irish independence, etc) revealing them to be the exotic chauvinistic oddities they truly were. It was only a matter of time before an Irish producer fell into the cage to be assaulted by the wayward Clarkson, forcing the BBC to have him destroyed (Clarkson that is, not the producer. This isn’t the 1970s. Clarkson was soon hired for a fortune by Amazon).

I’d argue that Top Gear was already dead but didn’t know it yet. The BBC thinks differently. It has relaunched Top Gear as a cargo cult hosted by high priests Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc, who repeat half-remembered rituals in the hope of conjuring up some of the old trio’s dark power.

Don’t drink and drive
But Evans, the man who in the 1990s invented the self-aware “banter” Top Gear aped, just seems terrified of driving cars, while LeBlanc adds exclamation marks to all of his quips and jokes about America being different from Britain (this is true actually, I checked with our foreign desk). Worse still, while Clarkson, May and Hammond gave the impression that they drank together (possibly while maligning minorities and shouting at producers), Evans gives the impression that his people have a cordial working relationship with LeBlanc’s people. Their interactions make me sad.

This week’s centrepiece is a three-SUV road trip in which the duo, plus Eddie Jordan, chauffeur three likeable musicians – Sharleen Spiteri from Texas (who isn’t Texan), Seasick Steve (who isn’t seasick) and Tinie Tempah (who doesn’t have even one pint-sized tantrum) – through South Africa. They drive around trying not to spill comically large cocktails and trying to see exotic beasts, while thinking sadly of the denim-clad dinosaurs of an earlier age. We will never see their like again, though largely because we can’t get Amazon Prime in Ireland.

Up in big smoke
Farmer in Charge is an oddly-titled new programme (Monday, RTÉ 1) in which an affable, horny-handed son of the soil – Maurice Walsh – tries to save a non-farming business run by some perfume-scented city-slicker in a powdered wig.

It’s a weird show. They don’t bother explaining why a farmer is a better person for leadership than, say, an orthodontist or a drug dealer. Many viewers will be totally divorced from a farming lifestyle (I download my food from iTunes) and therefore will have no preconceptions about how a farmer might run a non-farming business. Narrator Marty Morrissey (you can hear his eyebrows arching and his dimples twinkling) does his best to create drama: “Putting a farmer in charge, could it be a catastrophic mistake?”

Jesus, I hope so. Could this all end with Maurice euthanising an injured staff member or shooting at neighbours over a disputed right of way?

Beauty and the beasts
Maurice sees the world through cow-goggles and likes to shoe-horn all of life’s problems into animal metaphors. In this episode, he’s let loose on a Tallaght-based beauty salon owned by two bipedal city cows (humans), Nick and Claire Reddin.

He quickly diagnoses their problem – their hairdressing business is insufficiently like a farm. Maurice is a modern, high-tech sort of farmer, who can control machinery with his phone and whose livestock are on Twitter (probably). Nick favours a more old-fashioned approach to business based on ambitiously overreaching then sleeping out in the morning. Claire’s role, God love her, is to bridge the culture gap between exasperated Maurice and her stubborn, tea-break-obsessed husband (she is, in her own way, also an expert on “husbandry”).

Maurice breaks their issues down with his charmingly daffy zoomorphism. “You need to have [financial] targets,” he tells Nick. “Like a cow that milks x amount of litres.”

“You can’t sell a pig in a bag,” he says, noticing the business’s lack of signage (I bet he can sell a pig in a bag. I’d watch him try. Pig in a Bag is a better title than Farmer in Charge).

It’s not always clear that Maurice completely understands the beauty business. When an employee explains how she’s “chalking” a woman’s hair, he explains that he does the same to cows, “so when the male bull does what he has to do, the chalk runs off”. (This is an alarming sentence to hear from a mad farmer while having your hair chalked.)

Maurice’s solutions ultimately amount to a refurbishment, a marketing campaign and some business restructuring. None of these ideas seems out of line with anything that might be suggested by an astronaut, digital-media manager or rodeo clown in charge. I’m still in the dark as to why you need a farmer in charge.

Phallically evocative
Dick Wolf is the farmer in charge (executive producer) of the Law and Order programmes and, more recently, Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med. I love that he’s named Dick Wolf. Phallically evocative, animal-themed nomenclature can so easily go wrong. On one extreme you get Todger Manatee, on the other, Cockmaster Sharkfist.

Dick Wolf gets it right with his name, as he does with his franchises. Nobody adores Law and Order, but nearly everyone has been sporadically absorbed by their ripped-from-the-headlines plots and their morally ambiguous heroes who aren’t really morally ambiguous (they’re usually pretty biguous).

It will be the same with Chicago PD (Wednesday, RTÉ 2) which centres on a unit of cops with secret sorrows, dark pasts, well-tailored street-gear, adorably big-eyed children, a crusty old police chief who regularly tries to take them “off the case” and a blatant disregard for civil liberties. None of them is scared of driving. They probably all watch Top Gear. If they were farmers, they would totally be in charge.

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