The current ‘suspension’ of Jeremy Clarkson and ‘Top Gear’ as a whole is a dilemma for the BBC. They know it’s a popular series that brings in some of BBC2’s largest viewing figures as well as earning the Beeb substantial worldwide revenue, and that has always been Clarkson’s get-out-of-jail card; he’s been able to behave with increasingly unchecked recklessness over the past four or five years because he knows his position at the Beeb is that of a favourite son who can indulge in endless mischief safe in the knowledge that his father will forgive him, however stern each successive lecture of admonishment he receives for his behaviour. He has long had the Beeb over a barrel and seemed likely to keep them there until he finally did something they deemed beyond the pale by allegedly punching a producer.
Now, I’m not in any way proposing some sympathy should be shown towards Clarkson for his actions; I’ve never been a fan of him or his programme. At the same time, however, to punch a BBC producer is something many of us viewers have fantasised about whenever we’ve been exposed to some of the drivel the Corporation has churned out, especially in the prime time slots. I recently watched an episode of ‘Casualty’ for the first time in about twenty years, solely because one of my first childhood crushes, former Jon Pertwee Who sidekick Katy Manning, was guest-starring. I was genuinely taken aback by the poor standard of acting and writing, not to mention the instantly forgettable characters; it made ‘Neighbours’ resemble ‘The Wire’ – terrible clichéd lines delivered in a balsa-like manner unworthy of an am-dram society staging ‘Private Lives’.
It’s only when one regularly watches vintage mainstream BBC drama from 40-odd years ago via DVD, such as ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’ or ‘The Onedin Line’, that the realisation dawns as to just how low standards have slipped. TV drama of the 1970s is often accused of being ‘stagey’ by comparison to the slick, filmic equivalent of today, more informed by theatre than cinema; but that only really applies to the big-budget post-watershed productions of the 2010s; when it comes to the bread-and-butter prime time stuff, it’s far less convincing today. Drama of the 70s may have been made on a shoestring budget, but what it lacked in production values it more than made up for in the writing and in the superb performances of memorable and totally believable characters such as Stratford Johns as DCS Charlie Barlow or Peter Gilmore as James Onedin.
One has to remember, however, that the BBC in the 1970s was akin to a Hollywood movie studio of the 1930s, a busy hive of creativity that could attract the best in the business because there was only the solitary competitor; good ideas got the green light due to the fact that, even if they didn’t work out, there’d be another half-dozen good ideas in production that most likely would, ensuring there were the funds to finance the odd heroic failure. The situation is radically different today. TV Centre, Lime Grove and White City have all gone; everything is now crammed under one cramped roof at New Broadcasting House or exiled to Salford’s Mediocre City UK; the pressure to produce the goods is more intense than ever in a multi-channel TV landscape and pre-watershed drama is fairly low on the list of priorities, which is probably why it’s so bad. What count now are the big guns of light entertainment, stars of cheap and cheerful formulaic game and chat shows that draw in the largest viewing figures because, like a ready-made microwave meal, they’re utterly undemanding.
The BBC has had to deal with the ‘Clarkson Factor’ before, lest we forget – Chris Evans, Chris Moyles and Jonathan Ross all spring to mind, men who became monsters when the Beeb pampered and indulged them beyond their limited talents, paid them vast amounts and led them to believe the Corporation couldn’t survive without them. It’s no great surprise they eventually began to make demands in the style of a Middle East potentate; they were the adult incarnation of the child to whom the parent never says no. Apparently, Ronnie Barker’s favoured nickname at the peak of his powers was ‘The Guv’nor’; I have no doubt the prima donnas who command the highest fees and highest viewing (or listening) figures today regard themselves in the same light, despite lacking the undeniable gifts Barker had in abundance. Moyles’s infamous on-air rant when the wage that dwarfed the collective income of his listeners was stopped as his mouth began to match the size of the feet that he was struggling to squeeze into his boots serves as a good example of just how out of control such figures can become when they’re allowed to.
Tony Blair’s response to John Prescott’s gut reaction when egged by a mullet man on the 2001 campaign trail was to shrug his shoulders and declare ‘That’s just John’; the BBC’s response to Jeremy Clarkson’s numerous embarrassing faux-pas of late has been along similar lines. Whether offending Mexicans or Argentines or even lorry drivers, Clarkson has got away with it time and time again because he’s come to the conclusion that the BBC would collapse without his on-screen presence. Jeremy Paxman often exhibited regular bouts of puffed-up pompous ego on ‘Newsnight’, but to me Paxman was the inheritor of Robin Day’s mantle, his vanity a theatrical sideshow to his admirable ability to make our elected representatives squirm in a way nobody else in the scripted banality of political broadcasting could come near.
In comparison to the other Jeremy, Clarkson’s talents have always seemed less evident to me. Back in the days when ‘Top Gear’ was a ‘serious’ show dedicated to the internal combustion engine, Clarkson was the amusing interlude, playing the overgrown adolescent behind the wheel of a sports car, with his curly mop, tight jeans and litany of analogies sandwiched between earnest test-drives of the latest family saloon by the likes of William Woollard. When the series was revamped into a post-modern ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on wheels, Clarkson’s comedy factor was brought to the fore as he was provided with a couple of stooges in the shape of Hammond the Hamster and the one who looks like he used to play keyboards for The Moody Blues. The three of them devoting more and more time to larking about on location rather than simply driving on an abandoned airfield was something that drew a favourable response from viewers and redefined the show as a light entertainment dish with a small side order of automobile information.
One could say the Beeb’s current problem child is another symptom of the Corporation’s seemingly never-ending ineptitude and inability to get a grip on its excesses. Just as Matthew Bannister was aware of what he was taking on when he pursued Chris Evans to present Radio 1’s breakfast show, the producers of ‘Top Gear’ must have been aware of the deal they were making with the Devil when allowing Clarkson to morph from minor court jester to celebrity gobshite, essentially Katie Hopkins with a five o’clock shadow. And now they find themselves stranded in another hole they’ve spent the past decade digging. Will Clarkson get the boot? Will ‘Top Gear’ continue without him? Do we care? Personally, not at all; but I do care that our public service broadcaster even regarded a mildly entertaining clown such as Jeremy Clarkson on a par with the writers, directors, producers and programme-makers who should be at the forefront of what the BBC is supposed to be there for.
Then again, nobody’s died…have they?