The changing face of Top Gear
“Yes! We’re older, we’re fatter, we’re greyer. But we’re back!”
“A few years ago we staged a race across London. We used a car, public transport, bicycle, and a speed boat down the river Thames. And it was one of our more genuinely interesting tests.”
“We decided we would re-run the race.”
It’s true, they did. In Episode 5 of Series 10, in fact. More than a few years, as it turns out. Way back in 2007, and over half of the run of the series ago.
Thanks to the wonders of digital recordings, this gives us something of a unique opportunity to compare the setup for the two races, and really highlight how this show has changed in the last eight years.
To do that, we need to rewind time…
Now you’re not going to get any Daily Mail crap here. I still think that Top Gear is a great show. I just think that it used to be a greater show, and this particular challenge really reveals to me how it has changed.
The setup of the original race is simple enough:
- They are racing across the city of London.
- James May is in a car.
- Richard Hammond is on a bicycle.
- The Stig is taking public transport.
- Jeremy Clarkson is taking a boat along the river.
London is a reasonable choice for this kind of test. It’s a very busy city with a large number of commuters who drive in with their cars. It’s hugely popular for cyclists, who live within the city, and use a bicycle as their mode of transportation—many London offices even have showers for precisely this reason. And it has a well-integrated public transport system that’s also used by as many as 4 million people a day to get to and from work.
Each of the options even has its own pros and cons, and there is genuine argument about which is faster and best.
It’s actually about as close to a real world, genuinely interesting, test as I think Top Gear has ever done.
And well, yes, there’s a boat. Because Jeremy.
James is given something of a “Chelsea Tractor” to drive, the Mercedes GL 500. He bitches that it’s not a Smart Car, or his Fiat Panda, but it’s still a car. One car isn’t hugely unlike another, and I don’t think this really makes much of a difference for the race.
Driving across London at rush hour, the biggest problem is the traffic, and he does spend most of his time in the jams. They don’t setup anything silly like James getting lost, he’s using a sat nav system, they just joke about the possibility at the start.
The other set back for James, spoiler alert, is a totally unscripted, and brief, stop by the Police to check the filming permits for the camera car. Unlike the Marathon Runner race four years before, they deal with the Congestion Charge over the phone, so James has no need to stop for that.
Richard is riding a Specialized carbon-fiber bike, which is probably the top of the line version of that most of my friends actually ride to work in London, and here in San Francisco as well.
Being a cyclist, he can use the Bike Lanes and Bus Lanes, following basically the same route as James in the car. The biggest problem for him, aside from sweat and chafing, is the risk of ending up under a bus—which he, of course, doesn't—and that he has to stop at red lights.
“I’ve gotta wait at the lights, I’m on tele. Obviously I always wait at the lights.”
(As he nods solemnly while every other cyclist on the road passes him while he waits.)
The Stig takes the most direct and reasonable public transport route. A bus to the nearest Tube station, the District line all the way across West London to the City, and then the DLR across East London to the Airport.
No setbacks and difficulties here, the joke is entirely that a man dressed in a racing suit and helmet is using public transport. Pretty much all of the humor is in his actions while on the bus and train, and in the narration.
Jeremy’s boat is a little ridiculous, a Cougar sport racing boat. The show has always been goofy and fun, and this puts that part of the show into the race, which would otherwise be kinda dull. But even this they actually play straight.
The boat may have a top speed of 75mph, but he cannot use that speed until Wandsworth Bridge, and is limited to just 9mph until then. Also by following the river, he has much further to go than the other three.
Jeremy’s race is a gentle cruise along the river, followed by flooring it for the last section. There’s even some epic music as he passes through the Thames Barrier at full speed.
The race is very entertaining, and genuinely exciting to watch. Top Gear’s usual excellent cinematography is on great form here, only lacking to the modern eyes by being in standard definition. As ever their music selection is spot-on and adds to the drama, and even the editing is fun, with cuts between the four of them used to good effect. ie. it plays to all of Top Gear’s strengths over the years.
To the modern viewer, the most interesting thing is how straight the race is actually played. All of the humor comes from the editing, the narration, and from the guys talking to the camera during the race; especially Richard’s heartfelt thoughts about buses.
The only contrived shenanigans are in the setup for the race itself, with James being given a larger than average car, and Jeremy getting to use a speedboat.
So now we fast-forward time again. The loss of the presenters hair, increase in their waist line, and sudden onset of wrinkles, is only exasperated by the switch to HD. We’ll take a look at the modern rerun of this race.
The city of choice this time is St. Petersburg. Maybe it’s a good choice for this kind of test, but it felt kinda arbitrary. Almost like it was a setup for gags about Russia, or at least some unusual scenery. One obvious difference with Top Gear over the years in between is how they’ve gone from only filming in the UK, to pretty much only filming outside of it.
No rationale was given for the choice of the start and end points of the race. They seemed selected precisely to make the race likely to be a close one between the four options. At least in London, “cross the North Circular” is a reasonably legitimate route for comparing commute times.
I’m not sure about the timing of when they ran the race, either. The London race was stated to be Monday morning, during rush hour, and the light and traffic looked about right for that. The St Petersburg one looked like it was taking place during a sunny holiday weekend, around lunchtime.
James is driving a Renault Twizy, which seems to have been chosen just because it’s the exact inverse of the GL he was driving before. Stupidly tiny instead of large.
Unsurprisingly the size of the car makes no difference to driving it. A car is a car, and the roads are all the same size for the most part. You can’t filter through lanes like a Motorcycle, and you can’t go down pedestrian only alleys or lanes.
This time May does briefly go the wrong way, I suspect this was to be able to show off the Twizy’s short turning radius.
Richard is riding the same kind of bicycle used in the Tour de France, worth a whopping £9,000. I assume this was chosen because they needed to feel like they were doing something over and above what they did before. The bicycle he rode last time would have done just fine again.
Buses weren’t his problem this time, it was trams—well, tram lines. The appearance of a reasonable replacement mountain bike, which was duly fitted out with cameras before he set off, seemed a bit suspect. I’m not saying that this particular bit was a setup, but I can’t help but shake the suspicion that they actually paused and resumed the race later with a new bike.
The Stig has a bit of a long walk to start off with before he can take a tram, followed by the metro. The episode spent even more time playing with the idea that the Stig isn’t human, with several ridiculous scenes of the Stig stopping the tram by standing in front of it; walking across a crossing on only the white stripes; reading books in a shop; and getting distracted by a dead bird.
The episode didn’t even show how Stig was intending to arrive at the actual destination. I’m actually kinda confused about the public transport option here. When you put the London race into Google Maps, you get the exact bus, tube and DLR route the Stig took. This time you don’t get anything like the route they were taking, and Google doesn’t think there’s a tram route from their start point to the metro at all.
(Aside: after watching this, I am even more convinced that the new Stig is a woman, despite still being referred to as “he”. Maybe the Sabine Schmitz rumors are true.)
Jeremy is using a Hovercraft. The boat seemed the ridiculous option before, but was played straight after the initial laugh. This wasn’t played straight at all.
Much humor is made over the idea that Jeremy has no idea how to operate the vehicle. He’s shown being unable to get it started in the race, and being delayed by not getting going. He’s doing powerslides, traveling backwards, going around in circles, and then nearly hitting boats, a beach, and a wall.
This all gets even sillier when Jeremy apparently decides to spend the rest of the afternoon going down some canals, and dealing with low bridges at a very low speed, instead of sticking to the river.
It’s almost as if he was deliberately wasting time to let the others, or maybe at least Hammond, catch up.
When compared to the London race, the St Petersburg race comes across as contrived, scripted, and just deliberately set up. It’s still great fun, I laughed along at much of what happened, particularly the hovercraft and Hammond coming off not one, but two, bicycles.
But it’s not great fun in the way that the original race was.
It’s as though Top Gear is struggling to figure out how to write an entertaining show, and stacking their challenges up to contrive the desired moments.
The show used to be much simpler, the entertainment didn’t need to be written in, it just was entertaining.
And on that bombshell…