If you live in Britain you can’t have failed to notice that the main topic, the front page headline grabber – both tabloid and broadsheet – and the top TV news story that has dominated our lives over the past few days is that of the spat between the BBC and one of its top presenters. We’ve been swamped with it.
I’m referring of course to Top Gear’s frontman, Jeremy Clarkson, who the BBC has suspended after he allegedly punched his producer at the end of a day’s filming in the north of England. As a result of this boorish behaviour the Beeb will fail to transmit this weekend’s show and it has pulled the rest of the series. The future of Top Gear hangs in the balance.
Apparently Clarkson, after arriving late at his expensive country house hotel stop over, threw a tantrum when he was offered a cheese platter as sustenance instead of something cooked because the chef had left for the evening. It sounds like an episode of Fawlty Towers, except, as it turns out for Clarkson, not very funny. According to co-host James May, (who wasn’t actually there) it was “just a bit of a dust up” – the kind of laddish behaviour we have come to expect from the Top Gear team.
And that’s just it. The whole ethos of BBC2’s most successful factual entertainment programme ever is based on three middle aged men behaving badly. Like yobbish school boys with Clarkson leading the charge in the playground. The programme has developed a winning prescriptive formula with the undoubtable chemistry between the presenters at its core. For its faithful followers, to contemplate Top Gear without Clarkson is akin to Morecambe without Wise. Love them or hate them, Clarkson, May and Hammond have become an institution.
The show has a reported global following of 350 million so we can begin to see the predicament in which the BBC now find themselves. The corporation, rather like Dr Frankenstein, has become a victim of its own creation. How will the powers that be handle this situation: will they back track and reinstate Boy Wonder or will it be deemed time for change and risk shelving their winning and very lucrative formula to save face? Not only that, can the Beeb be seen to be condoning violent conduct by an employee? What sort of message does that send out?
And is one person ever bigger than the brand? The BBC have actually been down this route before. Angus Deayton, the hugely popular host of ‘Have I Got News For You’ was sacked after alleged drug taking. The show went on without him. It took a while to accept a new face in the chair and it was years before Deayton appeared on our screens again – but the show went on.
So what about Clarkson? Is he likely to disappear into the ether without trace? No chance. He writes weekly columns for The Sun and The Sunday Times. He presents factual documentaries. He has his fingers in plenty of pies. According to press reports, his BBC contract is up for renewal within the next couple of months. If I wasn’t so cynical I might think that this whole scenario has been orchestrated by Jeremy himself to drum up more than a little publicity and gauge public opinion. Perhaps he and his co-hosts are planning a defection to a rival channel. With an online petition to reinstate Clarkson and an endorsement from the Prime Minister no less, I can’t imagine he’s losing much sleep.