(Just so you know, I’m not going to review every Top Gear episode, but I had strong enough opinions of this episode to warrant a My Thoughts blog.)
The first episode of this new, eighteenth series of Top Gear was to be, for many once-loyal fans (myself included), a make-or-break episode. Cock it up, and we’d lose interest and leave it to suffer a plunge in ratings.
The producers (to whom the TG brand is worth millions) and presenters knew this very real threat. Though part of a joke, Jeremy Clarkson made no secret of the controversy that’s followed the disastrous Christmas India special, opening the show in simple terms: “Now, even though this programme has taken a terrible battering in the newspapers in recent weeks, we have made every effort we possibly can to make sure this series is unaffected.”
Indeed, the preview tape looked similar to those of the old series, with beautiful photography, great co-presenter chemistry, and a wide range of upcoming films included. But as the first episode progressed, it became obvious that it was not all ‘same old same old’. In addition to the addition of a plinth in the studio for the Hammerhead-i Eagle Thrust from Series 14, there were far greater changes in programme feel.
In recent series (and most noticeably in that Christmas 2011 episode), the style of the main films has felt hideously patronising, where it seemed we were meant to fall for the blatantly-staged, unfunny ‘accidents’ (many of which, like the crude ‘Eat English Muff‘ and ‘Sh IT For Your Company‘ train stunts, were merely repeats of virtually identical stunts from previous series).
Tonight sees the welcome return of Top Gear, now in its sixteenth series. This run has been delayed – it usually broadcasts in the run up to Christmas – due to HarperCollins (the book publishers) fight with the BBC over Ben Collins’ successful attempt to write a book revealing his identity as the Stig.
After much doubt over whether a new Stig would be introduced (and a hilarious spoof clip of a ‘Stig Farm’ on Top Gear’s site), a photo released on the show’s blog a few days ago appears to show the comedian John Bishop out on the TG test track with a masked, Stig-like figure in the passenger seat.
Between a couple of great Christmas specials (specifically the tremendous Middle-East road-trip), we’ve seen a couple of exciting trailers for the new series – I’m looking forward to seeing a helicopter land on a helipad… on top of a 4×4.
Today, James May drives the Arial Atom V8, Jeremy Clarkson discusses the Skoda Yeti, and Richard Hammond sets out to prove that the Porsche 911 is not just an old VW Beetle with a spoiler on it. It should be good!
Episode one of the sixteenth series of Top Gear premiers in the UK tonight, at 8:00pm on BBC2.
After a few days tracking the story, I’ve only just got around to writing a blog. HarperCollins, the book publishers, want to sell the Stig’s memoirs.
Let’s remember that the Stig is the BBC’s intellectual property. That is a legal term, meaning they created it and hence have all the rights to the character. Clearly, the biggest point about the Stig is the mystique of him (or her?!). Taking away this destroys the biggest element of the BBC’s creation.
Who is the man behind the mask? Is it an ex-Formula 1® driver? Is it a member of the Top Gear crew? Is it a different guy every week? Who knows?
But that’s exactly the point – who does know? Anyone who does is forced to agree that they won’t give away the secret. And that includes the Stig himself.
“The person who wears the suit has signed confidentiality agreements to keep the anonymity. So talk about what you like in your own life, but not the bit you agreed not to. Your word is supposed to mean something.”
Andy Wilman (credited as Top Gear’s editor, but perhaps co-creator is a better title) wrote a great blog about the situation, on TopGear.com’s WordPress. It’s humourous and chatty, but highly insightful all the same.
“If you get your Christmas ruined by one of the best and most harmless TV secrets being outed, you can rest easy in the knowledge that by contrast, HarperCollins’ executives will be enjoying a fantastic Christmas [with their profits].”
What Wilman’s write-up sadly forgets is this: when Michael Schumacher appeared on the programme and pretended to be the Stig, everyone was excited that they were finally going to know who the Stig really is. Watch this video I’ve embedded on the left. It’s a kind of unseen-footage clip, from that Series 13 show, where Schumacher lifts his helmet. Clarkson brilliantly goes along with it, fooling many viewers that the ex-F1 driver is the TG test driver. But for the rest of the show, there’s a kind of bitter disappointment felt by viewers, that they now know the answer to a question that had been troubling them for years, and the hunger to know has gone.
Happily, it becomes clear that Michael Schumacher is not the Stig and it was all just a joke. And so, luckily, the guessing game continues.
I’m pleased that the BBC are fighting to save the secrecy. It’s gone to court now, so the costs to the licence fee-payer of keeping the driver’s name hush-hush are escalating. But, as Wilman points out, the Stig is also owned by the BBC’s commercial arm (BBC Worldwide) which isn’t funded by the licence fee – and they’ll be footing the bill too.
Whether or not the book does get published, I for one know that I won’t be buying it. I won’t be able to avoid hearing who the Stig is if it does get leaked, but let’s hope it doesn’t.