Show that changed gear and became an extreme sport

With Richard Hammond recovering after his 300mph crash, Sean O'Grady questions how 'Top Gear' entertains its viewers
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The Independent Online

Following a remarkable show of national concern, the television presenter Richard Hammond is out of intensive care and making "satisfactory progress", according to his doctors.

The 36-year-old co-presenter of the BBC's Top Gear motoring show suffered a significant brain injury when he crashed a jet-powered dragster at speeds of up to 300mph during filming for the show.

He has been at Leeds General Infirmary since Wednesday evening. Yesterday, Mr Hammond was moved from intensive care to a high dependency unit.

"His condition has been downgraded from serious to stable," said a hospital spokesman. The team treating Mr Hammond had said that it was " reasonably optimistic" he would make a good recovery. It was reported last night that he had managed to walk, just 30 hours ofter the accident.

His co-presenters, James May and Jeremy Clarkson, visited the hospital yesterday. In a statement, May said: "I've had a conversation with Hammond. Not a long one, but it was a conversation. Doctors are cautiously optimistic about his recovery. I'm not a doctor but I am his mate and I believe that deep inside the Hammond I know is perfectly intact."

Clarkson told The Sun: "I said: 'The reason you're here is because you're a crap driver.' He then smiled at me. It was an amazing moment, very moving."

As his situation appears to improve, attention is turning to the accident investigations being undertaken by the BBC, the police and the Health and Safety Executive. Their inquiries will focus on the preparations for the event and whether all possible precautions were taken. Allegations that some BBC staff had planned to raise concerns over health and safety will also be examined.

But even if all possible precautions were taken, a television presenter piloting what one former professional driver described as "an aircraft without wings" was bound to be an extremely hazardous affair.

A Rolls-Royce jet engine capable of taking the machine from a standstill to nearly 300mph in about six seconds was never going to be easy to control and there was always going to be a risk of serious injury or worse. The real question is why the BBC chose to entertain its viewers in this way.

Increasingly, Top Gear has become like Formula 1 in its obsessions. And why do people watch Formula 1? One reason, it could be argued, is because they are expecting a crash. That is why you will always find a crowd on the more dangerous bits of courses, just as you do in rallies and hill climbs.

In a similar fashion, the expectation of some fairly harmless thrills and spills has helped to turn Top Gear into a television hit. It is not just Clarkson's wit, May's charm and Hammond's appetite for risk that attracts viewers. They also want to see Volvos propelled like darts across an open quarry and any number of Ferraris, Porsches and Bugattis pressed to their limits on the test track.

The presenters have driven cars into brick walls, while Hammond has been deep frozen and almost drowned. Or as the show's website joked before this latest crash: "No series would be complete without an earnest attempt to kill Richard Hammond."

Road safety campaigners called for the show to be scrapped last year, claiming that it "glamorises speed" and encourages a "yobbish" attitude among drivers. In reply, Clarkson wrote: "Health and safety is the cancer of a civilised society; a huge, ungainly, malignant, pulsating wart."

For Top Gear is no longer a "motoring show" but a branch of light entertainment, and as such it needs to satisfy its ever more demanding viewers with action which is more and more spectacular. Once upon a time, when William Woolard, Chris Goffy and Noel Edmonds were fronting a modest little programme, Top Gear presenters talked earnestly about a new model's fuel economy, its boot capacity and whether it might fit into your garage.

Not any more.Top Gear is now the top-rated show on BBC2, drawing in people who are not even that interested in cars. Now it is about ratings ­ and ratings depend on offering viewers ever more excitement. Usually, the really dodgy stunts are handed over to professional drivers such as Tiff Needell or lately the anonymous "Stig", while the presenters hang around on the sidelines watching.

This time, the producers seem to have forgotten to let their experts do the truly dangerous driving. That was the real error of judgement.