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Remember “event television”, those shows for which you had to be at home, on your couch, at 7:30pm on a certain night? The X-Files was like that for some, and Friends was too, for a few, but for many people of excellent taste, Top Gear used to be event TV in Australia.
Today, of course, we have Game of Thrones, which was being watched on Fox by more than a million Australians, and by another five million via illegal downloads.
Top Gear was actually very similar to Thrones, of course, with its mad-tyrant king, Ser Jeremy of Clarkson, invading other countries and flying about, noisily, in fire-breathing monsters, while the other two protagonists, the Imp-like Richard Hammond and the Varys-esque James May often looked like they’d like to kill Clarkson, given the chance.
Top Gear has long been a beloved British show, and has been airing there since 1977, but it gradually became a global phenomenon after the three amigos were established as its presenters back in 2003 (May initially declined an invitation to be on the show, but its popularity in 2002 changed his mind, and he took the spot of Jason Dawe).
In a strange twist of events, the already popular show became even more massively so after Richard Hammond was very nearly killed while filming. Hammond was driving a jet-powered car, the Vampire, which was capable of speeds of 505km/h, when he lost control and had a huge crash, which put him in a coma.
Clarkson later compared Hammond to the show’s Princess Diana, referring to the level of interest from the public and when he returned to the screen at the start of 2007, it was one of the most-watched episodes ever, with more than eight million people tuning in in the UK alone.
One of the most striking things about the show’s following in England was that its huge viewing numbers were regularly split 50-50 between men and women - something no other show about cars has achieved, before or since. Tickets to the live-recorded sections of the show were famously sold out, years in advance.
One of the geniuses behind the show, producer Andy Wilman, once explained that this was because, if you take away the cars, Top Gear is basically like the sitcom Friends, without the annoying girls in it.
That ability of Top Gear to be about more than just cars - its wit and irreverent humour - also helped to make it hugely popular in Australia, at least while it was being shown on SBS.
From 2005, when SBS made the brave decision to buy the show from the BBC, to 2009, when the show was bought by Channel Nine, it was a ratings winner for the multicultural broadcaster, and its most-watched show, building what was initially a cult following into a genuinely mainstream one.
SBS was also brave enough to launch the first international version of the show, with Top Gear Australia initially going to air on that network in 2008, before moving to Nine. (In that same year, TopGear Australia magazine was launched, becoming the biggest men’s magazine in the country by circulation overnight. It was a success initially, before closing in 2015.)
Despite running for several years, with several different mixes of presenters - including Steve Pizzati, Charlie Cox, James Morrison, Warren Brown, Shane Jacobsen and Ewen Page - the show was never really a commercial or critical success. Indeed, some people found watching it physically painful.
The final three episodes of the show were never even put to air, because not enough people wanted to see them, and it was given the bullet in 2011.
Globally, the show marched on, however, despite various explosive episodes of Clarkson trying to scupper it with high-profile racist comments and other madness. Finally, however, the huge and hugely egotistical host managed to strangle the golden goose he’d helped to create by attacking one of the show’s producers, Oisin Tymon, allegedly over the lack of a hot meal, in 2015.
Clarkson was suspended by the BBC while the incident was investigated and then fired, eventually scuppering the end of the show’s 22nd season.
It had been, however, one hell of a run. The banter between the three blokes, the brilliantly filmic way in which the show was presented and the hilarious madness of some of the stunts - particularly driving to the North Pole - that it pulled off made it one of the most joyful and beloved things on television for almost a decade.
It deservedly holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most watched factual television program in history.
The famous “tame racing driver”, born with a hatred of Boy Scouts and a fear of escalators, and ducks, The Stig was a creation of Jeremy Clarkson and the lesser-known genius behind the show, Andy Wilman (the show’s producer and a long-time collaborator of Clarkson’s).
Because neither of them could find a proper racing driver with experience of speaking on camera, they opted to make him silent. And enigmatic. This meant that he could be, and was, played by different people over the years, but his identity was always a tightly held secret, and one of the running jokes on the show.
His job was to set Power Laps (see full list below) on the Top Gear test track, and to be a comic foil on other occasions. He also helped to instruct the celebrities that came on the show for another famed segment, The Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, in which people famous for things other than driving would thrash a very standard car around the TG test track at Dunsfold and set a comparative time. Rowan Atkinson was a particular star at this.
The original Stig, who wore black rather than the now more infamous white suit, was Perry McCarthy. The white Stig was jokingly revealed to be Michael Schumacher at one stage, but it was eventually revealed that he was, for many years, Ben Collins, who angered the whole Top Gear organisation by outing himself in a book, The Man in the White Suit.
He was then replaced by a new Stig, the identity of whom remains a secret to this day.
There was a TopGear before Clarkson, and there is still Top Gear now, after he was sacked, it’s just not as good, nor as popular.
The BBC has trialed an enormous number of hosts, from 2015, when radio announcer and UK celebrity Chris Evans was announced as the lead of a new format. He was joined by Friends actor Matt LeBlanc, former F1 team owner Eddie Jordan, German racing driver Sabine Schmitz and two motoring journalists; Chris Harris and Rory Reid.
Evans was roundly hated, and left after one season, leaving LeBlanc, Harris and Reid to solider on in 2017, and 2018, before Joey from Friends resigned.
The latest version of the show is hosted by Chris Harris, “comedian” Paddy McGuinness and some oafish cricketer called Andrew Flintoff.
To be fair, there was speculation when the Australian series was being created that Shane Warne would be one of the hosts.
TopGear today is seen as having largely lost its magic, and much of its global viewership.
It took less time than a Stig’s eye blink before Hammond, May, Clarkson and Wilman were back doing what they do best - silly stuff in insane cars - in 2016 as part of a new televisual juggernaut called The Grand Tour.
Hugely similar to Top Gear, the show features car reviews, old men laughing at each other and occasionally falling over, timed laps with celebrities in cars, races and challenges. There is no Stig, however.
Amazon Prime believed the show to be so beneficial to its chances of signing up new subscribers that it signed a deal to pay huge amounts of money (reportedly more than $290m) for 36 episodes of The Grand Tour over three years.
Episodes are issued exclusively to Amazon Prime customers and the show is currently in its third series. It is yet to achieve the kind of peak popularity that earlier series of Top Gear enjoyed.
The discussion around this could be almost endless, because people’s favourite episodes differ, but generally the challenges and the races were the ones that are best remembered and most loved.
The episode where Clarkson tried, and failed, to destroy a Toyota HiLux was both hilarious, and the best advertisement ever for Toyota reliability.
When the boys seriously attempted to send a Reliant Robin into space, that was almost as memorable as the time they made Clarkson drive one.
The challenges, which were often repeated with just slight tweaks, included the Cheap Car challenges, in which the hosts had to buy a car for very little money and then put it through various tests to see who’d made the best choice.
And Car Creation, in which they would try and build, say, a floating car - to ToyBota in Clarkson’s case, or a police car, or a hover craft. Or making their own convertible and testing it by taking it through a car wash.
Then there were also the Car Sports, in which Top Gear created new versions of famous sports, only with cars, including the excellent car football and the Top Gear Winter Olympics, which included firing a Mini off a ski jump.
Then there were the hugely entertaining races, in which the three presenters would race across Europe, or just across London, using various kinds of transport, usually with the stated goal of proving that cars are always the best way to get around. These included economy races, cross-city races against public transport and a 1949 race, featuring a car, a motor bike and a steam train, all from that year.
The show really stretched itself into something filmic, and occasionally quite staggering, when it made its Specials, all of which involved travelling to somewhere exotic, and doing a series of insane challenges.
One of the most famous was the United States challenge, in which they each had to buy a car for $US1000, and somewhat drive it from Miami to New Orleans, while insulting as many American as possible along the way. They were very nearly lynched.
Perhaps the greatest Special, ever, however, was the Polar adventure, which saw Clarkson and May attempting to drive to the Magnetic North Pole in a specially modified Toyota HiLux, while Hammond raced them there using a more traditional dog sled.
It was at these moments, when the presenters were in genuine danger of dying and clearly suffering quite horrible, that the show was at its very best, and most schadenfreude. The filming was also of the highest quality, particularly on that one.
Other highlights included the hugely amusing Bolivia Special, where they almost died on the most dangerous road in the world, and suffered lack of oxygen and had to turn back while trying to drive at high altitude.
Then there were two African adventures, across Botswana, and an attempt to find the true source of the Nile River. Plus Specials in Burma (building a bridge over the River Kwai), Patagonia, the middle East, India and Vietnam (I would watch Clarkson falling off the motorbike in this one all day).
There was also an Australia Special, featuring the cast of the Australian Top Gear show.
In a brutal but fair test of the best cars in the world, The Stig would set performance times around the show’s Dunsfold track, and the leaders would be listed on The Power Wall.
Wining this contest was something taken very seriously indeed by car companies around the world, as it carried huge kudos.
TopGear test track Power Lap times:
|Porsche 991 GT2 RS||01:13.4||Series 26, Episode 03|
|McLaren 675LT||01:13.7||Series 23, Episode 02|
|Pagani Huayra||01:13.8||Series 19, Episode 01|
|BAC Mono||01:14.3||Series 20, Episode 02|
|Ariel Atom V8 500 (moist)||01:15.1||Series 16, Episode 01|
|Dodge Viper ACR||01:15.1||Series 23, Episode 01|
|Audi R8 V10 Plus||01:15.7||Series 23, Episode 03|
|Lamborghini Huracán||01:15.8||Series 22, Episode 01|
|Mercedes-AMG GT R (partly damp)||01:16.0||Series 24, Episode 06|
|Porsche 991 GT3 RS||01:16.1||Series 24, Episode 06|
|McLaren MP4-12C||01:16.2||Series 17, Episode 03|
|Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4||01:16.5||Series 17, Episode 06|
|Bugatti Veyron Super Sport||01:16.8||Series 15, Episode 05|
|Gumpert Apollo S||01:17.1||Series 11, Episode 06|
|Ascari A10||01:17.3||Series 10, Episode 09|
|Ferrari F12||01:17.4||Series 20, Episode 02|
|Mercedes-AMG GT S||01:17.5||Series 22, Episode 04|
|Koenigsegg CCX (with Top Gear Wing)||01:17.6||Series 08, Episode 04|
|Honda NSX (second generation)||01:17.6||Series 23, Episode 06|
|Noble M600 (cold)||01:17.7||Series 14, Episode 05|
|Nissan GT-R (2012)||01:17.8||Series 17, Episode 04|
Best “non road-car” times:
BAE Sea Harrier (Took off then flew around track, ended in the air)
|Renault R24 Formula One car||0:59.0|
|Pagani Zonda R||1:08.5|
|Aston Martin DBR9||1:08.6|
|Ferrari FXX (Driven by Michael Schumacher on slick tyres)||1:10.7|
|Lamborghini Sesto Elemento||1:14:0|
|Aston Martin Vulcan (Damp)||1:15.2|
|CAP 232 Aerobatic Plane (no time was shown)||n/a|
The Star in a Reasonably Priced Car was a typical celebrity-interview segment, with one huge difference. The celebrity would spend a day being trained by The Stig before setting a lap time in a “reasonably priced”, and thus quite slow and safe, car.
This, too, became both hugely popular and outrageously competitive.
There were different cars, of course, which means different leaderboards:
Suzuki Liana leaderboard:
|Rory Bremner (written as Roree)||1:47.9|
|Roger Daltrey (mildly moist)||1:49.7|
|Jeremy Clarkson (with passengers) (written as Jezza)||1:50.0|
|Lionel Richie (written as Rich Tea)||1:50.0|
|Eric Bana (wet)||1:47.5|
|James Hewitt (written as "Well Spoken Man")||1:47.6|
|Jamie Oliver (melted snow and standing water)||1:47.7|
|Ewan McGregor (Extremely Wet)||1:48.0|
|Chris Evans (wet)||1:48.1|
Kia Cee'd leaderboard:
|Michael Fassbender (ice on penultimate corner)||1:42.8|
|Boris Becker (wet)||1:45.9|