After years of tabloid outrage and scandal, could a “dust-up” between Jeremy Clarkson and a BBC producer over a dinner spell the end for Top Gear? Clarkson has been suspended by the BBC pending an investigation after a “fracas” during the filming of the latest series, which has caused Sunday’s broadcast to be cancelled and the rest of the series to be put on hold.
The exact details of the event have not been officially disclosed, but Top Gear presenter James May confirmed to reporters today that the BBC’s term “fracas” was indeed management-talk for a punch, as many had suspected. If true, it does place Clarkson and the future of the show at risk. It is after all less than a year since he was given a ‘final warning’ by the BBC, following unaired footage of him mumbling the original racist version of ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ creating yet another media storm. After this incident, the BBC conducted an investigation into the practices of the production team, but, to the disappointment of several executives who dislike Clarkson and Top Gear, they found few areas that could be criticised. So this latest development, of an apparent physical assault, does have the potential to bring about the end of the show.
One of the main reasons cancellation may not happen is that Top Gear is one of the most profitable shows made by the BBC. The format and the episodes are sold to broadcasters across the world, whilst fans lap up the DVDs, book and expensive arena tour tickets; to end the show, or even to just remove Clarkson, would be killing the golden goose, especially when the BBC is under increasing financial pressure. Perhaps equally important as the revenue brought in, is the wide audience of the programme, especially amongst license fee payers. As BBC Director General Tony Hall noted in a recent interview, Jeremy Clarkson provides a completely different voice than what is normally offered by the broadcaster; political correctness hasn’t really affected his on-air persona and many members of the audience appreciate Top Gear for that level of difference. It is a voice that although controversial, is greatly enjoyed by many millions of people, all of whom pay the license fee and so have, arguably, just as much right for their programme to be continued as fans of other programmes.
For fans of Top Gear, and members of its production team, yesterday’s revelations have proved frustrating because the current series was passing without major incident or controversy. The Daily Mail had tried to make a few stories out of it, but none gained real traction. The series seemed to have emerged refreshed and energised from its ‘annus horribilis’ (as Andy Wilman, TG’s Executive Producer, had described 2014). The series has had glowing reviews across the media, with its high production values and its mix of serious items alongside comedy sketches being widely praised. Ratings and iPlayer hits have been consistently high and the launch of their UK arena tour had gone without a hitch. But this could all now have been in vain.
Fans have started a petition for Clarkson to be reinstated (which had reached over 300,000 signatories at the time of writing), whilst the three presenters have taken to Twitter to make light of the situation; James May has suggested BBC2 air the 1964 war film 633 Squadron instead, to which Richard Hammond replied that a repeat of Last of the Summer Wine would be more appropriate, given the similarities between it and Top Gear (three greying men falling over a lot).
The BBC has remained tight-lipped over what the future of the series will be, so fans must wait patiently for the outcome of its investigation. It is possible that the BBC could try to keep the Top Gear brand without Jeremy Clarkson, but his dominance of the show, both in front of and behind the camera, makes this implausible. Only one thing is very clear, Top Gear will not be allowed to continue or be axed quietly; supporters and critics have given the show unprecedented attention and made it thrive, which is a situation unlikely to change, regardless of any investigation.