Joan Smith: Call me serious. Call me gay if you must. But Top Gear stinks

The show has become a paean to speed, risk and destruction
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The Independent Online

Surrounded by puffs for the programme, the sympathy message for Richard Hammond and his family sounded a jarring note on the Top Gear website last week. It was a small injection of reality among the links to film clips in which Hammond uses cars to play five-a-side football and his co-presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, forces his way to the top of a mountain in a Land Rover. Near the summit, Clarkson throws his arm wide and asks whether viewers have ever seen a view to match the rolling Scottish countryside.

Well, yes, actually, but I got there on foot. And I wonder how many viewers really felt that the wild scenery was enhanced by the intrusive presence of Clarkson's four-wheel-drive. On Thursday, Clarkson and James May, the programme's other presenter, visited Hammond in Leeds General Infirmary, where he was in intensive care. Doctors announced Hammond had suffered a "significant" brain injury in his accident, which came at the end of a shoot in which he had been driving a 300mph jet-powered dragster.

Questions have been asked about whether Hammond had sufficient training to handle the vehicle, although it's hard to see how even the most experienced driver would have had time to react at the speed he seems to have been doing. People are also asking whether presenters are under pressure to carry out ever more dangerous stunts to keep ratings, a charge the BBC denies.

What is clear is that in its most recent incarnation - a far cry from the days when it was presented by Angela Rippon - Top Gear has become a paean to speed, risk and wanton destruction. (Caravans, representing slow, unexciting family vehicles, are a favourite target.) Much of this is down to Clarkson, who left the programme and was lured back, thrilling viewers with his relentless technophilia and derision for anything that might be considered political correctness.

The show is not everyone's cup of tea: on Channel 4 News on Thursday evening, Jon Snow was unable to conceal his scorn for its petrolhead ethos. For anyone who watches it uncritically, this was doubtless further evidence of metropolitan snobbery; when Clarkson visited Hammond in hospital, he made a point of mentioning all the car and lorry drivers who rolled down their windows and shouted that they were "rooting" for the injured presenter. It was a reminder, if one were needed, that the fantasyland inhabited by Clarkson and his fans remains fairly impervious to reality.

According to this view of the world, those of us who regard cars as a necessary evil are boring, humourless and probably "gay", a word that got Clarkson into trouble when he used it pejoratively on the programme. It hasn't stopped Top Gear being sold around the globe, but that's because the programme emerges from a make-believe universe where the greatest sin is being serious. In that sense, Top Gear presenters are like characters in a PG Wodehouse novel, where the worst that can happen is a bit of a prang. Brain damage has no place in this cartoonish atmosphere.

Worldwide, there is a problem with a kind of masculine identity which has to validate itself through danger and thrill-seeking. For some young men, most of them in their late teens or early 20s, it is only the risks they take that make them feel like real men.

Centuries ago, primitive cultures invented initiation rituals and ordeals to contain and manage destructive impulses. Modern cultures seem to have forgotten that young men with such impulses exist, although the Armed Forces undoubtedly provide a home for some. Others are drawn into gangs or even extremist organisations, becoming suicide-bombers and leave videos in which they fantastise about being soldiers. Others get in cars and drive too fast, winding up dead or seriously injured.