Top Gear is a British television series about motor vehicles, primarily cars, and is a relaunched version of the original 1977 show of the same name, airing since 2002, and becoming the most widely watched factual television programme in the world. Since the relaunch, the conventional motoring magazine programme has developed a quirky, humorous and sometimes controversial style over time, and has become a significant show in British popular culture. During its first 22 series, the programme received acclaim for its visual style and presentation as well as criticism for its content and often politically incorrect commentary made by its former presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May. Columnist A. A. Gill, close friend of Clarkson and fellow Sunday Times columnist, described the programme as “a triumph of the craft of programme making, of the minute, obsessive, musical masonry of editing, the French polishing of colourwashing and grading”.
The show’s relaunched format was originally hosted by Clarkson, Hammond and Jason Dawe with Andy Wilman as executive producer. Following the first series, Dawe was replaced by May, and the hosting line-up remained unchanged from 2003 until 25 March 2015, when Clarkson was informed by the BBC that his contract would not be renewed following an incident between him and a producer. Following Clarkson’s departure, his co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May, announced, along with Andy Wilman, that they would not return to the show without him, instead working alongside Clarkson to produce a new motoring series that would later be known as The Grand Tour. Hosts for the 23rd series were Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid, Sabine Schmitz, Chris Harris and Eddie Jordan. Chris Evans resigned after the series 23 finale. The format also features an anonymous test driver known as “The Stig”; although part of the line-up, “The Stig” has been played by numerous racing drivers over the course of the series.
First-run episodes are broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC Two and (from series 20) BBC Two HD. From series 14–19, before the launch of the dedicated BBC Two HD channel, new episodes were also simulcast on BBC HD. The series is also carried on cable television systems in the United States via BBC America, in Latin America via BBC Entertainment and in Europe and South-East Asia via BBC Knowledge.
Jeremy Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman successfully pitched a new format for Top Gear to the BBC, reversing a previous decision to cancel the programme in 2001. The new series was first broadcast in 2002. Instead of using a conventional TV studio, Top Gear is located at Dunsfold Aerodrome, an airport and business park in Waverley, Surrey. The programme uses a temporary racing circuit which was designed for the programme by Lotus and is laid out on parts of Dunsfold’s runways and taxiways. A large aircraft hangar is used for studio recording with a standing audience.
The new series format incorporates a number of major changes from the old series. The running time was extended to one hour and two new presenters were introduced: Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe, although Clarkson and Hammond typically appeared in most segments. Dawe was replaced by James May from the second series onwards. From the start of the new series The Stig, an anonymous, helmeted racing driver, was introduced as the test driver. New segments were also added, including “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car”, “The Cool Wall”, “The News”, “Power Laps”, and one-off features such as races, competitions, the regular destruction of caravans, and occasionally Morris Marinas, which cannot appear on the programme without being destroyed (most commonly by a piano landing on the roof).
In early 2006, the BBC had a plan to move the film site from Dunsfold to Enstone, Oxfordshire, for filming of the eighth series of Top Gear, but the move was rejected by West Oxfordshire council due to noise and pollution concerns. Filming of the series went ahead at Dunsfold in May that year despite not having a permit to do so, with a revamped studio set, a new car for the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment, and the inclusion of one of Hammond’s dogs, named “Top Gear Dog” (now known as TeeGee), in some of the studio and film segments of that series.
On 20 September 2006, Richard Hammond was seriously injured while driving a Vampire turbojet drag racing car at up to 314 miles per hour (505 km/h) for a feature in the series. The BBC indefinitely postponed the broadcast of Best of Top Gear and announced that production of the series would be delayed until Hammond had recovered. Both the BBC and the Health and Safety Executive carried out inquiries into the accident. Filming resumed on 5 October 2006. The ninth series began on 28 January 2007 and included footage of Hammond’s crash. The first episode of the ninth series attracted higher ratings than the finale of Celebrity Big Brother and the final episode of the series had 8 million viewers – BBC Two’s two highest ratings for a decade.
A special programme, Top Gear: Polar Special, was broadcast in the UK on 25 July 2007 and was the first episode to be shown in high-definition. It involved a race to the North Magnetic Pole from Resolute, Nunavut, Canada, with Jeremy Clarkson and James May travelling in a “polar modified” Toyota Hilux, and Richard Hammond on a dog sled accompanied by driver Matty McNair. Clarkson and May became the first to reach the 1996 North Magnetic Pole by car, using the vehicle’s satellite navigation. Since 1996, the North Magnetic Pole had moved approximately 100 miles (160 km). The recorded 1996 location is the target used by Polar Challenge and was used by the Top Gear team as their destination; the Geographic North Pole is approximately 800 miles (1,300 km) further north.
On 9 September 2007, Top Gear participated in the 2007 Britcar 24-hour race at Silverstone, where the hosts (including The Stig) drove a race-prepared, second-hand diesel BMW 330d and finished third in class and 39th overall. The car was fuelled using biodiesel refined from crops shown during a tractor review in the previous series.
By 2008, Top Gear had become so popular that the waiting list to get tickets for a recording included more than 300,000 names, or 21 years’ worth of episodes.
In 2008, the series was adapted into a live format called Top Gear Live. The tour started on 30 October 2008 in Earls Court, London, moving on to Birmingham in November then at least 15 other countries worldwide. Produced by former Top Gear producer Rowland French the events were described as an attempt to “bring the TV show format to life… featuring breath-taking stunts, amazing special effects and blockbusting driving sequences featuring some of the world’s best precision drivers”.
On 17 June 2008, in an interview on BBC Radio 1’s The Chris Moyles Show, Hammond and May confirmed that in Series 11 there would be a new “occasional regular host”. This was revealed to be Top Gear Stunt Man. The series’ executive producer, Andy Wilman, also revealed that future programmes would have less time devoted to big challenges:
We’ve looked back at the last two or three runs and noticed that a programme can get swallowed up by one monster film – a bit like one of those Yes albums from the 1970s where side one is just one track – so we’re trying to calm down the prog-rock side. We’ll inevitably still have big films, because it’s the only way you can enjoy the three of them cocking about together, but they’ll be shorter overall, and alongside we’ll be inserting two- or three-minute punk songs.
Series 14, broadcast in late 2009, attracted criticism from some viewers, who perceived that the programme was becoming predictable with an over-reliance on stunts and forced humour at the expense of serious content. On the BBC’s Points of View broadcast 13 December 2009, Janice Hadlow, the controller of BBC Two, rejected such comments, observing that she was still pleased with Top Gear’s ratings and audience appreciation figures. However, on 20 December, Andy Wilman admitted that the three presenters were now “playing to their TV cartoon characters a bit too much”. He added, “It’s fair to say this incarnation of Top Gear is nearer the end than the beginning, and our job is to land this plane with its dignity still intact. But ironically, that does mean trying new things to the last, even if they screw up, because, well, it means you never stopped trying.”
Nevertheless, a one-off special of the long-running US news programme 60 Minutes featuring Clarkson, Hammond, and May attracted 16 million viewers in October 2010 (which was the highest audience for the series in 2010), highlighting Top Gear’s continuing popularity.
by simon schofield