Janice Turner writing in The Times this week …
Such a crude, foul, atrocious, indefensible joke. And what a joy to hear it. Jeremy Clarkson's quip on Top Gear that a lorry driver's job amounts to "change gear, change gear, check your mirrors, murder a prostitute..." made me guffaw with relief that the BBC has not, despite the torches and pitchfork lunacy of last week, appointed some blue-pencilled Humour Tsar to deny Britain its filthy smirks.
Despite it being pre-recorded, the BBC still let it run, knowing that the smarting, exiled Ross-Brand fanbase could jack it up into a test of Ofcom: do the rules that silenced the Left-leaning, youthful, eye-linered edge apply equally to the pressed-jeaned, middle-aged mainstream? And presumably the BBC foresaw a crack about murdered women might provoke cries of misogyny, but could guess most of us were laughing at Clarkson giving Top Gear's legion of trucker fans a blithe kick in the nads.
Perhaps jokes like this will turn out to be the BBC's salvation. Last week, while abroad and thus slightly detached from the media mentalism, I heard Charles Moore on the Today programme coolly suggest that very soon people would simply refuse to pay their licence fees.
It was a Voldemort moment. Dark forces were mustering. What was to stop ordinary citizens who were finally expressing their long-bottled moral distaste joining the BBC's ideological and commercial enemies in civil disobedience? Why hadn't some internet campaign popped up already - www.stuffauntie.com - getting people to pledge non-payment? What could the BBC or the Government do if 100,000, 500,000, a million households refused to fork out £139.50, a merciless flat tax and no small sum to a recession-hit family?
There is a distinct type of defiant, individualistic Briton who would leap to this cause. The fuel-protesters, Eurosceptics, Countryside Alliance loyalists, the nation's hardy last-ditch smokers, the insouciant, hearty, bar-propping trans-fat munchers, and those bored half-crazy by always having to be good. The only programme guaranteeing their loyalty to the BBC, the only place they are heard at throaty full volume, is Top Gear.
While Hammond or May burble on about the spec of some supercar, check out the faces in the studio audience. Beaming and blissed-out. Women as well as men. Regular men, not just ugly, anoracked, classic-car nerds. Top Gear is a guilty pleasure for those, like me, who hate driving, who earnestly cycle and recycle, who own a clunky, uncool Renault Modus because it could cross the Andes on a teacup of lighter fuel.
For most of Top Gear's six million viewers the show is not really about cars at all (we make tea during the technical blah). Top Gear is about laughing, hard and long at three boy-men performing dangerous (in a carefully calibrated way), stupid, childish stunts like turning an MG midget into a yacht. Those who witter on that Clarkson driving a Lagonda too fast over the Alps encourages speeding or joyriding, or claim this petrol-headed insanity defies serious attempts to halt global warming, haven't watched Top Gear this century. It is not about the coolness of driving, but the manifest uncoolness of men who enjoy it too much.
Indeed Top Gear has become a societal safety valve: they drive lorries through brick walls, send a Robin Reliant into space, sip gin and tonic at the wheel or just go full throttle on an empty road, because we shouldn't or can't. It celebrates recklessness, a nose-thumbing at public bossiness or health & safety dictats, the schoolboyish impulse to shove fingers in sockets. Every time it snows and my son's school keeps children indoors in case anyone slips, whenever the binmen shove a card through my door chiding me for leaving a tin can in with the bottles or a passport controller tells me to carry my kids' birth certificates to prove I'm not a child trafficker, I too come over all Top Gear.
When the Conservatives were casting around for direction after the disaster of Michael Howard, I wondered why they did not look towards Top Gear. It is, after all, a well-spring of a natural, unforced British conservatism, since even the most collective-minded Leftie among us turns into a solitary get-out-my-way lone wolf behind a wheel.
At its remotest fringes, the Top Gear tendency is the pale, weedy equivalent of the membership of America's National Rifle Association. But for the most part, it is largely tolerant and broadminded, even about such matters as gay marriage or immigration, as long as it is still guaranteed the right to make unsound jokes about them. Indeed, if Top Gear was a politican it would be Ken Clarke: plump, bibulous, cigar-smoking, jocular, pragmatic, forever putting sense before ideology.
But when the Tories chose David Cameron, an inoffensive, solar-panelled goody-goody, the Top Gear tendency found itself still stranded in political long-term parking. It is unimaginable for Dave to burn up Gambon corner in a "reasonably priced car" (except maybe a Prius, which Top Gear would probably say is neither reasonably priced nor much of a car). Indeed no party has the kind of rumbustious everyman with the chutzpah to carry it off, which is a shame since watching a star streak around the race track is more revealing than any interview, exposing degrees of nervousness, timidity, courage, competitiveness and how often a person curses under pressure. Perhaps a race-off between Gordon, Dave and Nick before the next election could replace the usual yawnsome debates.
Top Gear celebrates our national gift for everyday badinage and the magnificent British trait of doing anything for a laugh. Visiting the Somme, I was told of Tommies going over the top of trenches while trying to kick footballs into German lines. The enemy thought them insane. Most of them died. It was very Top Gear.
British politics is currently so bleak and serious that we crave humorous distraction more than ever. Indeed the Brand-Ross affair seemed a self-created sideshow to take our minds off the economy. Meanwhile car sales tumbled last month, making Top Gear not less relevant but more necessary than ever. If recession turns to Depression it will make the political climate cruel, blaming, even violent. Impotent and frustrated, we're going to need to blow that safety valve. And better the release of a crude quip than something uglier and far more brutal.
The GOS says: Is it just me, or is there something vaguely patronising about this article? Despite her attempts to explain it, I'm not convinced that Janice Turner really understands the enormous appeal of Top Gear. Despite the popularity of the show with many women, it is essentially a man thing. I won't go into details, because women might read this page. Some things just have to stay private.
Oh, by the way, Janice, I've corrected the punctuation. If you need any more help with your English, you know where to find me.
And … "a Voldemort moment"? How half-baked and tacky is that? Why not "a Mordor moment"? Sauron would have eaten Voldemort for breakfast. But perhaps you're too young and flighty to have read "Lord of the Rings" (it does have some pretty long words in it). You probably think "Lord of the Rings" is a film made in New Zealand, full of dismal Irish music (though the orcs were quite good).
See? That's how brackets should go. God, I'm so educational sometimes ...
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