They were probably the most controversial episodes of Top Gear before it had even been aired. News that the filming team had been attacked by angry Argentinians was front-page news when the specials were being filmed in Patagonia. But the new Christmas special was, at times, painfully dull.
The drama we’d been built up to expect happened at the end of the two programmes. The first one and a half episodes only demonstrated how bland the programme can be. Of course, it may be due to the lack of any real incident until they reached Ushuaia. But it is more likely that most of the fooling around, for which Top Gear is famous around the world, was edited out prior to broadcast. Given the ‘bridge with a gradient’ controversy in the last special, and the unbroadcast ‘N-word’ debate, it seems the team are now determined to make their programme as uncontentious as possible.
The challenge was to travel 1,600 miles from Bariloche in Argentina to the port where the ARA Belgrano set off on its final voyage during the Falklands War. Once there, they were supposed to play a game of car football and “do diplomacy”. On the way, the presenters stayed at Butch Cassidy’s house, got stuck several hundred times, failed at riding horses, bought each other stupid presents and crashed into each other. It was all laboriously stretched out, with, unfortunately, very little originality.
They crossed countless rivers, which each took up about ten minutes of screen time; one was even a dead end. There were innumerable (very nicely filmed, but time-filling) shots of the countryside. It all just seemed rather weak. Even when confronted with a road sign declaring that the Malvinas would be forever Argentina’s, Jeremy Clarkson uncharacteristically responded, “See this. It’s a straight face. I will not spark fury on this trip”. If this is the new Top Gear, I’d prefer it if they had just stayed with the original format, even if it annoys some people on Twitter.
Despite this, some moments hinted at the old Top Gear; the ridiculously immature playing of ‘Let’s Get it On’ every time Richard Hammond filled up his car was funny, as was their joy at eating beaver on a lakeside. In a sly reference to the bridge controversy , Clarkson asked Hammond if the bridge they were travelling on was straight. It was obviously pre-planned, but it didn’t matter. Although I now see that The Daily Mail is trying to reignite the controversy by claiming this part shows that the programme is unrepentant for its mistakes. Quelle surprise.
We will never know for certain, but it does seem there was some dishonesty about the number plate situation. Before the episodes had screened it was possible to consider that the BBC’s line that Jeremy Clarkson’s number plate (H982 FKL) was a coincidence could, perhaps, be the truth. But given that the purpose of the programme was head for the sailing point of the Belgrano, in the southern tip of South America and to play a game of England vs. Argentina car football, it stretches all credibility to believe that the number plate was in no way a provocation.
This is the programme that brought the Australian Top Gear team from the airport in the back of a police van because “it was how their ancestors left”; that flew spitfires over Germany; that bought the ‘Baby Jesus’ a Nintendo DS, some shower gel and a golden pendant of his own face. Top Gear doesn’t really do subtle comedy.
But, even if the number plate was a joke that went badly wrong, I don’t think anyone can justifiably say the reaction against the production team by the gangs in Tierra del Fuego was in any way proportionate. We were shown parts of the meeting between the team and the protestors, and then the camera crews being chased out of the city by people hurling rocks and stones. It was very exciting television, but it’s just a daft car show.
I suppose Top Gear will always be a marmite programme; some will enjoy it, others won’t. This Christmas special wasn’t really a good example of the show; three quarters of it was rehashing other episodes, and the rest was the team being hounded out of the country. But those who think the programme has now gone too far and should be axed are wrong.
Clarkson recently wrote, “The BBC takes a licence fee from a wide range of people and is therefore duty-bound to provide a wide range of programmes: hymns, strange sea creatures, Gary Lineker, Alan Yentob, wannabe singers, Wimbledon, Cash in the Attic, and three clowns falling over and catching fire” and he is right. There is space across four channels for all that. But the production team do need to step up their game, and have a bit more confidence, if the show is to continue its worldwide success.