Top Gear - Review
There was a time when Top Gear was appointment television. It was like watching your two funniest, politically incorrect, uncles and your favourite cousin do all the things you could only dream about: Race as fast as possible around their purpose built track, let celebrities do the same, and destroy as many cars as they could in 60 minutes. Prior to this incarnation, of course, Top Gear was a serious car programme, covering events such as the Lombard RAC Rally, the London Motor Show and the London Motofair, and presented by such luminaries as William Wollard, Tiff Needell and even Angela Rippon.
But Top Gear gave up any pretence of being a serious programme once the three present incumbents had settled into their roles. Now what we have, to all intents and purposes, is a comedy show centred around cars. Nothing wrong with that of course, and they have done it well for some years, but after this week’s first instalment of their two week trip to Africa the cracks are starting to show. Rather than a studio based episode this showed the boys going to Africa to drive three second hand estate cars across the continent to find the source of the Nile.
In previous episodes they have been given various challenges to test their cars whilst on a journey, but here the simple instruction to find the source of the Nile feels somewhat lazy, as though the producers have given up trying to be inventive and feel that watching three middle aged men negotiate roads in a foreign country is enough. Also, the feeling that a lot of it is set up now seems more and more obvious. Of course a lot of it always was, but documentaries have moved on and Top Gear is now in danger of looking dated even on its first transmission. We are supposed to believe that they arrive in Africa unaware of which car the other will be driving, which seems a little far-fetched, and when customising their vehicles it’s hard to believe they make all the decisions on the spur of the moment.
What makes this look all the more dated is the recent series of The World’s Most Dangerous Roads. This was a series that put two comedians/actors in a car and sent them to some far flung corner of the globe to drive on some of the world’s most dangerous roads. Not that far away from what Clarkson and co do, but the difference was you actually felt as though you learned something along the way, and in some of the episodes the presenters lives could actually be in danger (witness Sue Perkins and Charley Boorman trying to navigate the notorious Dalton Highway in Alaska)
That’s not to say there wasn’t stuff to like in this episode. The traffic jam in Kampala, Jeremy marvelling at the weight of bananas carried by local women on their heads and the impromptu road builders helping them out of the mud were all highlights that felt fresh and unrehearsed, but more are needed if the show isn’t to start feeling stale and dated. In the end it’s down to the presenters to keep the standards up, and to know when to call it a day.
Top Gear airs Sundays at 8PM on BBC Two, more on the BBC Top Gear site, or catch this episode on iPlayer.