Hells on wheels: Top Gear is back with more prime-time pranks but I'm nostalgic for the days of non-exploding caravans and practicality



Top Gear; the show that never grew up. Indeed, if anything, as Harold Wilson once remarked of Tony Benn, it has immatured with age. In fact, this week, the show's executive producer, Andy Wilman, revealed in an interview about series 21, due to start this Sunday, that "almost everything we'd filmed was, once again, aimed at people with a mental age of nine". It shows.

I may be one of the few "petrol heads" who doesn't particularly enjoy Top Gear. Some of the presenters' antics are beyond cringe-worthy. The stand-out episode for puerility was the notorious "Mexican" discussion. This kicked off with the news that a Mexican firm was producing a sports car, the Mastretta MXT, but the obvious problem for Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond was that it was made in Mexico. Cue a string of predictable, lazy, borderline-racist but above all unfunny quips about Mexicans being lazy and eating sick-looking food. I would like to think I detected a flicker of unease on May's face, but can't be sure. Anyway, it was unworthy of any schoolboy.

Their "special" in India recycled dreadful old stereotypes, a sort of It Ain't Half Hot Mum on wheels. Recently, I caught a bit of a show where the trio reviewed some Chinese cars, with the usual condescension: for example, there was some business with a "Chinese Stig" doing martial arts. God knows what was going on there. It was on Dave, where Top Gear repeats seem to run on some sort of loop.

To be fair to them, the Top Gear guys are also insulting about their homeland. Our car workers are derided as "hairy-arsed Brummies". British cars of the Seventies – Triumph Dolomite, Princess, Rover SD1 – are wrecked in the name of proving that they were rubbish; yet I doubt that a contemporary Datsun, Renault or Audi would have stood up to the same abuse any better. Hopeless stuff.

But despite, or perhaps because, of its casual offensiveness, the programme enjoys great success here and abroad. It must now be the case that, at any given moment, someone, somewhere on earth is watching Clarkson, May and Hammond "cocking about", to use Jeremy's own expression, blowing up caravans and the like.

I am old/sad enough to recall the early days of Top Gear. Back then, it was, if you'll forgive the expression, a pedestrian affair. Presenters such as Angela Rippon, William Woollard and the still-wonderful motoring journalist Sue Baker were thoroughly practical. Thirty-odd years ago, buying a car represented a much more significant investment for (typically) the family man; it was a serious business.

Top Gear would tell you what the new Ford Escort, Vauxhall Cavalier or Austin Mini Metro was like to drive on the motorway; how expensive to run; whether it was likely to be reliable; and, yes, how big the boot was. The presenters never set anything alight. Sadly, that must have included the viewers, though it did well for a BBC2 audience at the time. So, the BBC changed everything and the Age of Clarkson began.

My problem is that I would like an intelligent, consumerist TV show that told me what I need to know. Every attempt to compete with Top Gear has failed because it copied the format – three "personality" presenters, someone burning rubber on a racetrack, and self-consciously "wacky" stunts – but without Top Gear's vast budget (a big BBC secret).

Obviously, I'm envious of watching car nuts having the BBC licence payer fund their fun and holidays abroad, but I've nothing against Top Gear celebrating its golden jubilee in due course, if the viewers still want it (though it may run out of ideas/fuel long before). I just want someone to drop down a gear and make a telly show about cars that I'd want to watch.

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