I travelled to Belfast on Friday full of hope that I might rediscover a long-lost fondness for Top Gear and its leading man. In adulthood, I have progressively become the sort of politically correct lefty metropolitan who appears to give at least half the population nightmares. I blame my job. I struggle to look at a photo of Jeremy Clarkson without curling a lip, but I used to bloody love the guy and his crazy car show.
Outside the Odyssey Arena I found hundreds of people like old me. Lads with their dads, groups of friends, lining up for almost a mile before the doors opened. There were even a few women. They came for the cars – the louder and more exotic the better – and stayed for Clarkson, a 55-year-old from Gloucestershire who turned a dreary magazine show into a global juggernaut.
It made perfect sense that a steak-based fracas in March had launched Clarkson’s name onto all the posters. Top Gear Live, the hit stage version of the axed BBC2 show, is now Clarkson, Hammond and May Live. And there is no doubt who carries the brand. Scandals and brickbats only seem to strengthen Clarkson’s resolve and standing, and every fan I met had come to see him. He is Top Gear’s Nigel Farage.
Perhaps I should have watched the show, which leaves Belfast today for a world tour (hello Australia, Norway, South Africa), alongside Jack, who’s 14. When the BBC let Clarkson go after he punched a producer in a row about dinner, Jack, who waited with his father, Gary, said he would rather tear up his ticket than watch the live show without his hero. His enthusiasm might have been infectious, but my own ticket directed me to a VIP suite reserved for media.
Local reviewers were bemused to share a complimentary platter of suitably underheated chicken wings with representatives of the national press.
We unfolded laptops and sat poised, as if covering a cup final or a state occasion.
Things you never knew about Top Gear
Things you never knew about Top Gear
1/14 Top Gear isn't really for adults
It's 'aimed at people with a mental age of nine', according to executive producer Andy Wilman.
2/14 Planet Earth loves it...
Top Gear is screened in more than 100 countries worldwide and has millions of fans.
3/14 ...but not all motoring hacks do
You might think Jezza was a hero of the motoring hack world but that's not strictly accurate. Telegraph journalist Neil Lyndon summed Top Gear's 21st birthday last year up well: 'Does that mean Billy Bunter and his gang finally get forced out of the Fourth Remove and into long trousers?'
4/14 The Top Gear theme tune is a classic rock song
Seven-minute instrumental 'Jessica' by The Allman Brothers was a hit in 1973. Top Gear has recorded its own version now but used part of the original recording at first. One for the road trip playlist.
5/14 Jeremy Clarkson couldn't get much more controversial if he tried
The presenter is currently suspended from the BBC following a 'fracas' with a producer over a steak dinner. Past scandals include a string of racism allegations.
6/14 This Porsche caused all sorts of trouble in Argentina
The Top Gear team were forced to flee Argentina after locals took offence at the car's number plate - believing it was a deliberately provocative reference to the Falklands War of 1982.
7/14 If it's car-buying advice you want, look elsewhere
It's an in-joke in Top Gear that they don't do car tests. You would be mad to make a purchases based on Jezza's verdict.
8/14 Richard Hammond had a near-death experience filming Top Gear
The 'Hamster' was filming a Top Gear segment in a dragster called Vampire when its front-right tyre burst at 288mph. Hammond spent two weeks in a coma but luckily went on to make a full recovery. He requested that no mention of the crash was made in future Top Gear episodes.
9/14 Jeremy Clarkson is more than a little bit taller than Richard Hammond
Nine inches, to be precise.
10/14 Top Gear used to offer real advice
Before these lads took over, it was a real car-reviewing show with presenters such as Angela Rippon, who gave practical reviews of down-to-earth workhorses such as Cavaliers or Mini Metros.
11/14 Those 'reasonably priced' cars take quite a battering
Denis Chick, of Vauxhall, is brave to have lent the show a fleet of his Astras. He said: "Vauxhall Astra sales would not improve if everyone drove like Jimmy Carr around the Dunsfold track." The comedian hilariously took his test car's front off-side tyre clean off its rim.
12/14 Jeremy Clarkson is a YouTube star
Stray down the motoring internet hole and you'll find lovingly posted videos of 'Clarkson the early years' with incredibly loud hair reviewing 1990s cars in an oddly sensible manner. Very disturbing viewing.
13/14 There have been multiple Stigs
Racing driver Perry McCarthy was stuntsman The Stig on the first two series of Top Gear - here's the man under that famous helmet.
14/14 Ben Collins was The Stig for eight years
Ben Collins was The Stig on Top Gear for eight years. He left amid a clash with the BBC when he unmasked his identity and published an autobiography. Collins thinks Top Gear has 'lost some of its sparkle'.
As 5,500 people cheered Clarkson’s banter, we tapped away furiously in case he said something newsworthy.
One reporter asked the press officers what was going to happen, such was the demand from editors in London for early copy. Another writer struggled with shorthand in the dark.
As for the show? Totally dreadful. I had walked in with an open mind but walked out wondering what I had liked the least.
The platinum blonde with flame-throwers who set fire to twin Porsches as they drifted perilously close to her leather jumpsuit? The bit where Clarkson made jokes about the size of Hammond’s manhood (or Stephen Hawking’s disability)? Or the “automotive pornography” bit, in which supercars were greeted with wolf whistles? I couldn’t decide.
But my response was beside the point. The show, a revival of a now unmentionable brand that refused to die, was a triumph. Fans loved it.
And whether we had come to laugh and gawp, or type stuff, we were all there for the same reason: Clarkson. Even if he had attempted to quit in the middle of the meltdown, I suspect Top Gear Britain would have rejected his resignation.
I can admire his staying power, even if a close-up view failed to rekindle a lost passion.Reuse content