Over the last few years the BBC show Top Gear has been one of the most popular shows on television, both because and in spite of increasing levels of controversy. First they insulted the germans and nobody cared. Then they insulted the Spanish and the Spanish cared. Then they insulted Asians and everyone cared. Then the Argentineans decided that Top Gear must have insulted them and the crew cared because they were being mobbed by hundreds of people throwing rocks. But now, for you Clarkson the show is over.
A little over a week ago Jeremy Clarkson punched a fellow employee in the mouth because there was no hot food after a day of shooting. This put the BBC in an impossible position. On the one hand they cannot tolerate physical altercations in the workplace, especially over what is effectively a nothing issue. On the other, the dynamic between Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond is what makes TG beloved around the world. In fact, a man dressed as The Stig drove a rented tank to the BBC in London just to deliver a million signature “Save Clarkson” petition. I signed this petition, but I did so knowing that I was playing the role of a huge Top Gear fan. If I had been on the BBC’s disciplinary committee I would have done the same thing they did: fired Clarkson.
The fascinating thing about all this is that it is one of very few situations in filmed media where a single person is truly irreplaceable. We can always get a new James Bond, American Idol will still be plenty popular without Simon Cowell and you wouldn’t notice if they swapped out a Simpsons voice actor. On Top Gear, anybody replacing Clarkson is going to represent “the person who replaced Clarkson”, not themselves. It’s the same thing with Columbo: anybody trying to play him now would just be seen as “not Peter Falk”. I think this is partly because the TG trio built that show together (this is to say nothing of the people behind the scenes) and even if you found somebody who filled the same role as Clarkson, the dynamic can never be equal in the audiences eyes. Time and history build relationships in ways that nothing else can, and we are talking about 3 people who have travelled around the world and had incredible experiences together which we have shared in. By the time we get that with a new presenter, May and Hammond will be retiring.
Since the event, I’ve been wondering over the past week about the moment when it happened. Not the whole thing, but just the third of a second when Clarkson’s fist contacted Tymon’s face. Was he thinking about food at that moment, or was he thinking “oh god, what have I just done”? Was he thinking about his fellow employees who might lose the best job IN THE WORLD? What about the massive dynasty that is Top Gear, which is suffering injuries that will take much longer to heal than Tymon’s? Did he, in that moment, genuinely believe that he was powerful enough to get away with this? I’ve always believed that underneath his persona there was a fairly decent person (he is far too intelligent to completely believe most of the things he says), but even if that’s true was it the human being Clarkson or the TV Star that occupied his body in that moment?
This highlights something that we don’t often think about: individual actions in very small periods of time are often just as important as grand strategy and policy, particularly in a social environment where one deviant act can leave us permanently shamed. In this case a cantankerous old man after a long day did something inexcusable in a fraction of a second, forever altering the lives of millions of people.
At the very least he could have waited until they put those three hyper cars around the track. Inconsiderate.