The car wasn't even moving either, because Clarkson was reporting from Japan, a nation in which the wheel had once been banned because the ruling shogun thought it would give his subjects too much mobility ("He was wrong . . . He was very wrong"). Now c
a rs are a national obsession, though the traffic is so bad that they function as little more than slow-moving leisure centres. Clarkson looked into the car accessory business (worth £10bn a year because cars, rather than property, are the principal arena for competitive display), examined the fad for road racing ("Accidents do happen . . . rather . . . a lot"), drove the Nissan Skyline ("The chassis could take more . . . The chassis could take a lot more") and talked motors with the Yakuza ("They're like the Mafia . . . And then some").
I don't quite know how he does it but the pauses are far more than just silence, a brief respite from his rib-nudging stresses. They have an unusually grating quality, as if he's teasing us by withholding the exquisite tit-bit of his punchline, confiden
t that we will wait devotedly. It's all the more irritating because the idea is essentially a good one - cars are a highly convertible currency these days, more so than television programmes or even fast food, so they reveal cultural differences with unus ual clarity. We may drive the same cars as the Japanese, but while they continue to write things like "Just a roller skate grand touring - All over the physical ironic power" on their alloy wheels we're unlikely to drive them in the same way.
Metropolis (BBC 2) offers some similar frustrations: a great subject (the shaping of the modern city) delivered by means which make you shift a little uneasily in your seat. The programme essentially treats us as children - delivering a storyline narrative in which the problems of building the Tour Sans Fin, an implausibly slender Paris skyscraper, allow for a brief history of architectural ascent. In case we become distracted, this is illustrated by elegant pantomimes, visual puns and shadow plays.
Some of these are wonderfully graceful, both insinuating and economical. Discussing the development of steel frame architecture in Chicago the camera tracked overhead as a toy train rushed over a map of the city, the lines then turning upwards to transform themselves into a sort of diagram - you got the point before the narration caught up. At other times, though, even as you marvel at the ingenuity of the images, you're conscious that they're holding you up. You got the point long ago but they have to go through the motions. Watching a little tableau of Victorian types, costumed actors monochromed and electronically inserted into a contemporary drawing, you know you're looking at an exercise in style rather than an argument of any kind.
Situation Vacant (BBC 2) is a real television chestnut - the selection process, with its soap opera promise of triumph and failure. Last night four young men tried to get into the Royal Marines. You've seen this stuff a hundred times before - the callow interviews, the gruelling endurance tests, the barking colour sergeants. By the time they'd finished the assault course they were exhausted and so is this subject matter.Reuse content