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03.03.09

lads

I DON'T WANT TO SHIFT THE BLAME, but I'd have had this up earlier if not for a strep throat scare that turned me into primary daytime caregiver the last two days. Who am I kidding - this wasn't easy to write; it's been so long since I've been allowed to mount a full-throated defense of male prerogatives, even silly ones, that producing the words below required a kind of emotional Roto-rooting. Plus I had to watch a whole bunch of YouTube videos - for research purposes, of course.

IF I CAN THANK MY FORMER JOB for anything, it's the introduction to Top Gear, which has become one of my absolute favorite shows. It's ubiquitous on BBC Canada up on the higher ranges of premium cable here, although only two new shows get aired and repeated many times a week, and since that's nowhere near enough, I've taken to the the legal swamps of bittorent sites to feed my addiction.

I was converted to the show when I was sent to England on a Disney junket, and put up in a massive former country house-turned-five-star-resort. My room was easily as big as any apartment I lived in previous to our current home, and featured a flat panel TV that I was channel surfing when I came across a Top Gear segment that remains justifiably famous.

It was from a few seasons back, and featured host Jeremy Clarkson in a Lotus Exige trying to keep an Apache attack helicopter from getting a missile lock on him. It sums up the show's Y chromosome appeal - ridiculously fast, Hot Wheels-like supercar, nasty awesome military technology, and ridiculous challenges that probably begin with "I bet you can't ..."



Like so many great things, Top Gear is one thing pretending to be another, like James Bond films (spy films where no one cares about beating the Soviets/Eurotrash megalomaniac as much as celebrating male brazenness) or barbequing (cooking that's less about the food and more about escaping the kitchen/matriarchal space.) Like so many other explicitly male cultural pursuits these days, its real intentions have to hide behind bluster and cliche, to cloak themselves in a protective coating of ironic distance.

So yes - the average episode of Top Gear will feature a shiny new auto being taken through its paces on a test track or road test, and the trio of presenters discussing auto news, setting out on some auto-centred challenge, or hosting a celebrity who gets to tear around the show's own track in a dull little four-door car. The presenters will rhapsodize over the precise number of Vs or litres in its engine, and make a point of talking about how quickly it goes from "naught to 60," and pointedly omit talking about fuel economy. But if you think Top Gear is about cars, you're sadly mistaken.

I'm proof - I adore the show, fill my PVR with episodes, scour the internet for downloads. I even own a couple of spin-off DVDs, but I don't have a driver's license. I don't know how to drive, and can only guess what they mean when they talk about "floppy panel gear boxes" and "understeer," and I don't think I'm necessarily alone among the show's fans, though I'll accept that I'm a minority.

But as Clarkson would probably say, excusing the many small but annoying flaws in a new Aston Martin, it really doesn't matter. The three men at centre stage are, ultimately, more the subject than any turbocharged, polycarbonate-bodied supercar or thrumming product of a German production line, and function as a microcosm of the male psyche at play - an everymale in three persons, so to speak.

I'm not the only enthusiastic follower of the show - Slate recently published an appreciation of Top Gear that rather typically couched its admiration for the show in a hairshirt dismissal of American machismo. I don't have much time for this sort of thing, which sounds too much like some henpecked husband trying to squirm free of the hook after his wife has made a joke at his expense while he's on his way out in an attempt to escape a girl's night in, but it has to be said that an American version of Top Gear, starring Adam Carolla, has apparently been permanently shelved by NBC. According to Clarkson during a recent trip to Australia, the network cancelled the show after test audiences "just didn't get it."



Let's start with Clarkson, the man whose appeal was almost singlehandedly responsible for the relaunch of the show at the turn of the decade, and who is the undisputed public face of Top Gear. He's a career hack - journalist to North Americans - though the English use the term with pride. He's also a proudly old school hack, nursing grudges and battling with other public figures, such as the newspaper editor/reality TV judge Piers Morgan, who he threw a glass of water at during the final Concorde flight, then punched in the face at an awards dinner.

He's been called a racist, sexist and homophobe, and an "übermale" by Dame Helen Mirren, an honour that most men would covet. Two years ago he got into a scuffle with a bunch of "hoodies" - the English equivalent of a wigga - outside his daughter's birthday party, hauling one of them into the air by his eponymous sweatshirt, and his comments about various cars and their manufacturers have made him the target of protest from Hyundai, Vauxhall and the Malaysian government.

He's a very public opponent of speed cameras and the nanny state trends in British culture and politics, has openly supported the Tory party, and recently called British prime minister Gordon Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot," a remark that was considered scandalous even though at least two-thirds of it are demonstrably true. He's been the subject of campaigns urging the BBC to fire him, and petitions demanding that he run for a seat in Parliament, or even 10 Downing Street.

He's usually at the front of the jokey public pissing matches between the show's presenters and other British alpha males such as Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay; on a segment of Ramsay's food and chat show The F Word, the chef called him a "multimillionaire gobshite." His success is underlined by his residence on the Isle of Man, where he's sheltered from paying capital gains taxes, though a part of me still wonders that anyone in my profession makes enough for such a lifestyle.

Clarkson and his co-hosts have been described as sniggering schoolboys, not unfairly - much of the banter on the show consists of put-downs, and they rarely miss an opportunity to pull a prank on each other. Reinforcing this dynamic seems to be the role held up by Richard Hammond, who's been with the show since its Clarkson-led reboot in 2002.



He's the best-looking of the three, and the youngest, but Clarkson and James May, who joined the show in the second season, treat him like a younger brother or, more accurately, an underclassman, mostly because he's so conspicuously short. Even his nickname - "the Hamster" - smacks of public school though he makes up for the constant ragging with an irrepressibility, and a willingness to get under May's skin, in particular.

Hammond has been described as resembling a member of a vintage British mod rock band - the Small Faces comes to mind - and Clarkson in particular constantly taunts him for having his teeth whitened, a charge he denies, not that it matters. He's the fittest of the three, and the one who came closest to dying when a jet car he was testing for the show crashed in 2006. He suffered a serious brain injury and was away from the show for a year and a half. Upon his return, he begged May and Clarkson never to mention the accident again, which meant they'd never cease finding opportunities to bring it up.

The constant ragging is the most telling symptom of Top Gear's male essence. Even the best of male friends constantly love to test each other, mostly for pure amusement, but also as a way of keeping each other honest, and as a running check on taking yourself too seriously. If Jackass, say, is the Ultimate Fighting version of this male social sport, then Top Gear is its Wimbledon.



James May is my own particular favorite of Top Gear's Three Musketeers. He's younger than Clarkson, though his demeanor makes him appear like the wonkish older brother, forever embarassed by his colleagues, and consequently the reliable subject of their taunting. Pedantic and given to fits of obsessive compulsive neatness, he has an obsession with the details of engineering that may even exceed that of Clarkson (who has made promoting the legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel a personal crusade.) Thanks to his principled unwillingness to drive like he's auditioning for The Transporter, Clarkson and Hammond have dubbed him Captain Slow.

As Gordon Ramsay's guest on The F Word - where the chef called him a "shaggy tramp" - May was challenged to choke down a trio of gruesome delicacies, like bull's penis and fermented shark, all washed down with strong liquor. He did it without blinking, though Ramsay gagged on the shark. Later on, facing off against Ramsay over their fish pie recipes, he swigged white wine while knocking together a primitive dish, then won the challenge, much to Ramsay's angry disbelief.

If Hammond is Steve Marriott, then May is a sound engineer on Pink Floyd's mid-period classics. He has a degree in music, and once attempted to score the Top Gear theme ("Jessica" by the Allman Brothers) with the sounds of revving engines, a farcical task that was presented as a manifestation of May's OCD. In one episode of a recent Top Gear season, Hammond and Clarkson put May's grand piano behind the trailer of a lorry he was supposed to start on an uphill incline; after knocking a leg off (and replacing it with a stack of pornography,) they watched in glee as he rolled backward and totalled the instrument.

All three men have hosted shows on topics like military history and engineering, which emphasizes their eagerly-asserted images of themselves as little boys at heart, bodging together Meccano monstrosities in rooms hung with Airfix model planes and shelves groaning with books on making invisible ink and bottle rockets.

While women do make appearances on the show, they're usually treated with wary respect. Clarkson has frequently proclaimed a crush on the actress Kristin Scott Thomas, but when she appeared as a guest on season nine in the "Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car" segment, May and Hammond heckled Clarkson from the audience while he tried to suppress his horror of her devotion to the G-Wiz, a pint-sized electric runabout that Clarkson had called a "stupid little car," and contrived to lose in a drag race against a table.

For many men, it was like a staged re-enactment of those blind dates that go so horribly wrong, as no amount of comeliness and charm can overcome the horror as your date talks about her stringent vegetarianism, her devotion to Greenpeace, and her hatred of videogames, record collecting and Chuck Norris films.

At the risk of hyperbole, Top Gear is a vision of a male utopia, a last, best place where men can still set the agenda and indulge their obsessions without worrying about their dignity, pocketbook, carbon footprint or the reactions of their in-laws. It is, alas, a place where few of us will ever live, as James May admitted in a defense of the show he wrote for the Daily Telegraph.

"I was a bit of a waster at your age," May wrote, addressing the show's young fans, "and I've only survived by having a job where I'm required to remain at the age of 10. But only three people at a time are ever going to be that lucky." Too true, and too sad.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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