Top Gear Patagonia Special, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews
Top Gear Patagonia Special, BBC Two
Top Gear Patagonia Special, BBC Two
Men in sheds provoke diplomatic incident
Despite appearances, Jeremy Clarkson aspires to be taken seriously, as readers of The Sun and The Sunday Times will know. With this Top Gear Special he managed it, being chased from Argentina into Chile by a stone-wielding mob that appeared to have designs on his personal safety, in an incident widely trailed in the news media at the beginning of the month.
The cause of this outrage was the choice of Clarkson’s car for their drive from the top to the bottom of Patagonia, a Porsche with a number plate ending in FKL, letters widely interpreted as a taunt about the Falkland Islands. The final destination of Clarkson, May and Hammond was the port of Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, which was, as we were reminded several times, the base of the Argentinian ship Belgrano, sunk during the Falklands War. Clarkson maintains that his number plate was a coincidence, though the choice of destination, and the hints of trouble dropped from early in the first programme, suggest a carefully planned provocation.
The humorous incidents en route fitted a pattern of lame contrivance that even viewers new to the programme would easily anticipate. One of the cars breaks down, triggering abuse towards the driver, while the other two speed off; then there’s a prank or visual joke, the most dismal of which featured a likening of Richard Hammond re-fuelling his Ford Mustang, with its rear-facing petrol cap, to an act of love. Then there’s the encounter, in the middle of nowhere, with three saddled horses, ostensibly to get them over a locked gate, but in fact to facilitate James May’s falling off a horse and sustaining three cracked ribs. Perhaps they’re saving the banana skin for next time? Or would the audience find that rather subtle?
The reason they’re popular is that all three of the presenters are skilful and effective at their bloke-focused personas. They can all be genuinely witty, and the characters they have devised (basically, Clarkson is daddy, May mummy and Hammond junior) act extremely well as foils for one another. Clarkson and May are looking paunchy and leathery these days, but Hammond seems younger than his age (45), and so altogether, with jokes pitched at the under-13s, and their increasing resemblance to the protagonists from the now defunct Last of the Summer Wine, they have every significant male viewing demographic covered.
The scenery was spectacular, though we didn't learn anything new about the places they drive through. There were informative flashes about car design and the story of Butch Cassidy, but never sustained for long enough. If they could be bothered, these series could have much more substantial travel or engineering content. Clarkson crossed with Michael Palin or Dan Cruickshank would be a fine thing indeed. But with the exception of a reflective moment from Clarkson about the death of his father, the serious stuff is generally just there to set up the next gag.
According to more sober voices, the mob was roused by a right-wing Argentinian tabloid that likes to stir up nationalist feeling, choosing the Sun journalist and his entourage as its focus on this occasion. It’s hard not to let an ironic smile flicker over the lips. Unlike the provocations of more serious comic talent such as Sacha Baron Cohen or Monty Python, to which Clarkson and his team bear superficial resemblance, the Top Gear trio doesn’t challenge prejudice but confirms it, provoking xenophobia in a few unthinking Argentines, while humorously justifying it in themselves. Watch both episdes back-to-back as I did (for purely professional purposes), and you feel slightly queasy, as if you’ve eaten far too much junk food at once.
They get away with it by pretending not to take themselves at all seriously. No sooner do some viewers begin to take offence than they pre-empt their criticism by poking fun at themselves. It’s a very effective rhetorical strategy, used by many a right-wing populist. So it is that by the final scene, the humour’s back, with a mock-up of Butch Cassidy’s escape. But we all know it’s not for real, and unlike Butch, the threesome will soon be back, hamming their noisy way through another unfortunate country.
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