A television reverse: have the wheels finally come off Top Gear?

The BBC's homage to boys and their very fast toys is to return to our screens months after one of its presenters was almost killed in a stunt. Sean O'Grady and Johann Hari await the new series with very different emotions
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Sean O'Grady: NO

For most of us, most of the time, driving is a pretty miserable business. Obviously not as soul-destroying as using our filthy, graffiti-ridden and insecure "integrated public transport system" (thanks, John Prescott), but not as joyous as it should be either.

The list of impediments is long: speed cameras, some set absurdly low and primarily designed to make money; private wheel clampers who will - legally- hold you to ransom for £125; congestion charge schemes with excessive fines inhumanely applied; disproportionate penalties for minor transgressions, such as using a mobile phone on the move; uninsured drivers; caravans; cyclists getting in the way.

For us law-abiding motorists, parched and hungry for automotive entertainment, Top Gear on a Sunday night is like an oasis of luscious fruits. We live in a harsh climate where such a show is almost an illicit pleasure. We're just not supposed to enjoy our cars. It won't be long until they try to make Top Gear illegal; there are plenty of fascists masquerading as liberals who would do just that. They're the modern miserabalists, moral and intellectual puritans, throwbacks to the 17th century. They'd take us back there if they could, and probably outlaw music as well. It would be a grey world indeed.

Top Gear annoys its critics because it's so successful. It reminds them that there is a large constituency of people who love their motors. It also happens to be a superbly made programme. There's the extremely well-judged chemistry between the presenters: young, cheeky Richard Hammond, loved by the nation who gave him the soubriquet "Hamster"; James May, older, more sceptical, blokeish; and Jeremy Clarkson, the King-Emperor of political incorrectness. The film of the trio taking a caravan holiday was quite touching, really, as well as a vehicle (no pun intended) for them to explore their loathing for the UK's caravanning community.

They used a Kia Cerato as the tow car, and found it being overtaken by an Austin Maestro, also towing a caravan. Car culture is a subtle thing and these well chosen vehicles communicated, deftly, and in just a few shots, plenty about our snobbishness about certain makes and models.

This holy trinity manages to hold millions of viewers' attention for an hour each week because they produce superb journalism. Part of it is having brilliant ideas; there's the more conventional stuff like racing a McLaren Mercedes sports car across Europe against planes and power boats, all wonderfully shot and edited. Then there are the more ingenious stunts.

My favourite from the last couple of seasons was the film they made of using cars to play darts in a disused quarry. I don't know why seeing James May try to hit double top with a Ford Granada was amusing, but there we are.

Top Gear tells its tales well; it is fine journalism, and Clarkson, May and Hammond are far more fluent - in print as well as on the airwaves - than most of their foes. But what about glorifying speed and aggressive driving? Everyone loves speed and aggressive driving; it's called motorsport. If we wanted an end to that we could ban Formula 1, the British touring car championship, all the rallies and every other bit of motor sport.

Like them, all the dangerous stuff on Top Gear is carried out on private tracks and by a professional driver, the Stig. Even when Richard Hammond had his near fatal crash he wasn't putting anyone else in danger; no child was going to get knocked over at a bus stop. I happen to think they should have left that particular item to a professional driver too, but the show neglected its own high standards there.

Does it encourage bad driving? I doubt it. There are some terribly reckless drivers out there, especially young men, but it was ever thus. There are probably more of them about now because used cars are cheaper and faster. Old VW Golf GTIs or go-faster Citroens and Renaults can be picked up for a few hundred pounds, with an MOT. Even with insurance premiums rocketing, the prosperity that we now enjoy means that they can even afford to run them.

Do cars destroy the planet? Yes and no. They're greener than ever, and new technologies such as the hydrogen fuel cell will make them still more so. Your share of the CO2 emissions on a flight to Thailand is worth a couple of years in a Range Rover. Should we ban holiday shows on TV?

Whenever humankind has invented a new means of transport it has wanted it to go faster. You too can do so, safely, from the comfort of your armchair on a Sunday night on BBC2.

Johann Hari: YES

One afternoon in 2001, my 80-year-old grandmother crossed the road to post a letter - and was smacked by a car "breezing along" at 45mph. She was thrown into the air, tossed over the car, and left haemorrhaging on the asphalt. Her legs were smashed. Her hip was wrecked. Her brain was damaged. Because she is incredibly tough, she did not become one of the 1,000 people killed by speeding drivers in Britain every year - but it took her a year to relearn to walk, and she has never been able to live in her own home, in dignity, again.

So when I hear about the return of a TV show presented by a man - Jeremy Clarkson - who says "speeding is no big deal", a trivial act that shouldn't even be punished with points on your licence, I cannot let out the indulgent chuckle that so many people offer at Top Gear's mop-headed incitements to break the law.

Instead, I think of the dozens more people who will suffer like my grandmother because of his babbling in defence of illegal speeding. Speeding is not an abstract problem or a glib gag. It is a crime. It claims victims every day. And advertising works. If you see a 30-second advert for Coke, you become more likely to buy Coke. If you see a half-hour advert for speeding, paid for with your licence fee and mine, then you are more likely to speed.

And yes, that's what Top Gear is. Clarkson and his co-presenters use this public platform to brag about their ability to find "high octane red-line thrills" on the roads you and I have to cross. He talks about his "sympathy" for the thugs who vandalise speed cameras that - according to independent studies - save over 300 children a year. (The AA begged him to stop). He doesn't even offer the factually wrong argument that speed cameras are merely a way to rake in cash for the Government. No - he boasts: "I don't curse speed cameras because of civil liberty issues. I curse them because they slow me down."

Yes, Jeremy. They slow you down to stop you crippling people like my grandmother. If you hit somebody at 40mph, there is an 80 per cent chance they will die. If you hit somebody at 30mph, there is an 80 per cent chance they will live. But you put your "right" to have a semi-sexual experience in an inanimate lump of metal (a pretty sad comment on your menopausal libido) above the rights of ordinary people to not be killed by you and your anencephalic followers.

Occasionally Clarkson claims he only speeds on private tracks, and it's true Top Gear stunts are staged there. But the speed cameras he hates are not placed on private property and Clarkson has admitted to private speeding by boasting, "I tend to drive fast and recklessly in Lincolnshire. I'm a lout in places that have the topography of blotting paper." Is all of Lincolnshire a private track? Perhaps in his mind.

But on Top Gear, driving at skull-smashing speed is always a big joke. On tomorrow night's show, they are screening the accident in which presenter Richard Hammond nearly died with Boy's Own breathlessness - "the most extreme stunt ever!" The grief and agony of accident victims (including Hammond's family) are washed away in the name of an adrenalin-rush. If you think people don't take Top Gear's ravings seriously, check out the message boards on the web, packed with people who take the presenters' injunctions that it's okay to speed, speed, speed literally.

While the bulk of my sympathy lies with the victims of Top Gear's speedophilia, I also feel sorry for these fans, who are being taken for fools. On the show and in his slurry-columns, Clarkson tells his followers that global warming - already killing tens of thousands of people every year - is a myth and they can carry on buying SUVs without compunction. Yet one newspaper last year reported Clarkson saying in an aside: "I would be absolutely mad to say I don't believe in global warming when we are right bang in the middle of the hottest summer for 400 years. Of course there is global warming, and you would be extremely surprised about my views on other such matters...I lead a surprisingly green life." Yet he has such contempt for his viewers that, to their faces, he brags about leaving on his patio heater to wind up Greenpeace.

Last time I criticised Top Gear, the show's camp-followers called me "a killjoy". No - what kills joy is seeing somebody you love broken to pieces because of "no big deal" speeding. Thanks to Top Gear - and the BBC who have recommissioned it - there will be more people enduring that soon. Forgive me if I can't see the joke.

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