There is one thing about Jeremy Clarkson upon which everyone agrees: he splits opinion. For some he is a broadcasting God, for others he is everything that is wrong with society today. Of course, what he actually is is a bloke off the telly. An entertainer. The presenter of a motoring-themed TV programme. He’s not the Messiah.
But he is, according to a lot of screaming headlines, a very naughty boy. I don’t know whether Jeremy Clarkson hit anyone, I don’t know if he was involved in a fracas, mainly because I have no firm idea what a fracas actually is. I do know that it may well not matter. Because I have a sneaking feeling that there is more to all this than meets the eye.
In case you have missed it, Clarkson has been suspended by the BBC for an alleged ‘fracas’ involving one of the Top Gear producers and the rest of the series has been stopped. This is as much as the BBC will say officially, although ‘sources’ close to, well, mostly the Daily Mail, claim he punched Oisin Tymon because he didn’t get his dinner. This, if it happened, is obviously serious and obviously worthy of suspension.
The first indication that all may not be what it seems lies in the collective responses of Clarkson himself plus Hammond and May. All three revel in pushing the boundaries of what the BBC will accept, it’s part of Top Gear’s schtick, but none of them appear to be taking the issue very seriously. They have been joking about what to replace the absent episodes with. Clarkson hardly looked like a broken man in photos taken yesterday. While droopy faces and abject apologies were always going to be unlikely, their joie de vivre in the face potential disaster seems surprising.
And disaster is, on the face of it, what the three of them are apparently facing as a result of this latest fracas. Clarkson has been edging ever closer to a major showdown with the BBC since the ‘eeny meeny miney mo’ fracas, followed as it was by the ‘slope’ fracas and the ‘Porschegate’ fracas. The BBC widely publicised the fact that he was on a Final Warning. Suspension and cancellation of the rest of the series hardly bodes well for the combined futures of the three amigos. Although all three have branched out into other presenting roles, they each arguably depend on Top Gear as the bedrock of their careers.
So why the big smiles? Well, you could argue that this is just another example of the programme’s well-rehearsed policy of floating as close to the boundaries of acceptable as possible. It’s what gives Top Gear its edge and, arguably, it’s brilliance. The righteous indignation it instills in many, many people is critical to its success. And it’s fair to say that the boundary has been getting pushed, possibly shoved, with increasing enthusiasm over the last couple of years. Compare current Top Gear to an episode from say 2010 and the evolution in controversy and edginess is clear.
To some extent the programme is caught in a vicious cycle. The controversy generates column inches and viewers. Viewers want a new series to push harder than the last. Eventually the cycle has to be break. It appears to have just broken.
But Top Gear is a bandwagon. It is, in modern TV parlance, A Franchise. The brand has been spun off into lucrative DVDs, magazines and tours. At the centre of all of them lie the dynamic trio.
Until 2012 the income from this bandwagon was split between the BBC and Clarkson, with producer Andy Wilman, via Bedder 6, a company jointly owned by all three. In 2012 Clarkson and Wilman sold their 50% share to the BBC. So since 2012 Wilman, Clarkson, Hammond and May have all been equal: employees, albeit well-paid ones, of the BBC.
This seems quite pertinent to the current fracas. When ownership of the company transferred to the BBC the presenters signed a three year contract, which expires in September this year. Meaning that the current series is the last under the current arrangement. Meaning that we may, quite possibly, have already seen the last ever Top Gear with the familiar presenters. Nobody seems to be talking about that.
Set against this backdrop you have to wonder what is really going on. I’m a natural sceptic and for a long time the various Top Gear/BBC fracii have felt like theatre: not that the stuff that happened didn’t happen but that the way the fall out has been managed says more than either side have actually said. Top Gear is BBC2’s most popular factual documentary programme. The brand roller coaster cannot be anything other than lucrative. But for the BBC there is an Achilles Heel and it’s called Clarkson. Top Gear is Clarkson. It’s also May and Hammond: arguably without any of them it ceases to exist. It is no longer what it was. Clarkson obviously realises this, he may even have been acutely aware of it when he sold the business. It may even explain the Cult of Personality that follows him everywhere and which he so assiduously cultivates.
Whether the BBC cottoned on is less clear. Certainly the sense of spending millions to buy a business and then only signing the key assets up to a three year deal seems short sighted. Doing no visible work in the intervening three years on a succession plan also looks odd.
So, when you’re the BBC and looking contract renewal straight in the eyes, what do you do? Well, you might just try to make your prize asset toe the line. You might make a big fuss about doing so. Then everyone can kiss and make up and start again, probably with the Grand Fromage being paid less than might otherwise have been the case.
Alternatively, you might push your man to hang himself, enabling you to sweep the board clean and start again, riding the public backlash against the old guard. This feels like a considerably riskier strategy. If Clarkson, Hammond and May don’t present Top Gear on the BBC then they’ll go and present Not Called Top Gear somewhere else, probably for Sky.
Yet it is this which feels like the endgame. The Top Gear cycle of excess always had an end. Viewers have been suggesting it was already in sight. The only long term solution is a wholesale change, and possibly this is what the BBC is pushing for. Viewers would not accept a fizzling out: far better for it to end in a distinctly Top Gear-esque manner with an explosion and a car crash. Just like the one we’re seeing now.
This arrangement might suit the BBC, but it also suits Clarkson, May and Hammond. They cashed in their chips in 2012. Since then they’ve been on an earn out as paid lackies. They are motoring hot property. A move to another broadcaster, such as Sky, is an opportunity to renegotiate and, perhaps, perform the Top Gear franchise trip all over again. If the BBC anticipates this then knifing Clarkson, the prize asset, ahead of any move, can only be a good thing as it potentially diminishes the competition.
The speculation, and that is all it can ever be, could run and run. Whatever is actually happening I’m pretty sure you can bet it isn’t just about a fracas in Newcastle last week. I enjoy Top Gear. I don’t like or dislike Clarkson, he’s just a bloke on the telly, but I deeply admire his journalism. Whatever happens I hope we’ll all see him on our screens again.