Along the road to ratings, did the shows casual racism create a roadmap and show the route to Brexit Britain?
Cars on TV, filmed beautifully and intelligently described. That was the Top Gear I loved. I enjoyed seeing beautiful cars being driven around test tracks and motorways and being told about acceleration, ride quality, build quality, price point. It was good telly. The hosts were all white men, but it was the 90’s in the UK, most TV was white men.
I watched Quentin Wilson wax lyrical, Tiff Nedell drive quickly and Jeremy Clarkson be the ‘funny’ one
The show was simple and inoffensive.
Then something changed.
It became complicated.
It was 2002 and it turns out the BBC didn't want the old format anymore. So they were given something new. This new thing was created by Clarkson (the ‘funny’ one previously mentioned) and someone called Andy Willman who I have never heard of but Wikipedia tells me was ‘responsible for much of the show style and humour alongside Jeremy Clarkson’. They had a talkshow style set. In a hangar, or something. And an audience. And celebrity guests.
And it became offensive.
It started off pretty small.
There was the odd one liner about the Germans, or the French, or the Italians. The kind of classic little England xenophobia we’d all been used to for decades thanks to a diet of shows like Allo, Allo and Dad’s Army.
I mean, didn't the Germans always get up early to lay out their beach towels by the pool?
Hahaha — yeah, they do do that don’t they!?
And aren’t they organised?
They really are!
In what way?
I don’t remember them being called the Bosh but it may have been in there. I would not have been surprised.
Then the French. oh, the French. Always a let down. Not to be relied upon. Can’t be trusted and somehow always tied to surrender. Somehow.
Things were getting strange
Then the Italians, lazy and stupid, the Spanish, always on siesta, I could go on but you get the picture. The hosts traded in this kind of mild xenophobia for season after season and the British public lapped it up. The show was huge.
And while it grew and grew, it alienated me even further. As a black person who grew up in 90’s Britain in predominantly white communities, I was especially attuned to this kind of causal racism as I had encountered it my entire life. I’d learned from my mother, this was how Britain used to be, in the 70’s and 80’s when she had to fight people at school for calling her w**, n***** , c*** , epithets I’d thankfully rarely encountered. The worst I got was ‘Paki’ which always amused me with its obvious illiteracy but, I digress, the point was, The UK had moved past this kind of lazy racism and cultural stereotyping so, when there wasn’t outrage, when the show wasn’t pulled, when people I knew continued to watch it and enjoy it, I was shocked. What was going on? Was I missing something? I consoled myself with the thought : No, they are not all becoming accepting of racism. It’s the cars, the cars were superseding the xenophobia.
And while there is little logic in that rationale, it was the only answer I could find. What I didn’t realise, was that this was the beginning of the journey. The engine was running, soon it would start to rev.
Top Gear went from strength to strength. Cars and white men being racist and offensive was apparently a ratings winner. There were so many ‘moments’ and this Guardian article helpfully lists most of them up to 2015
Top Gear: Jeremy Clarkson's biggest controversies - in quotes
While driving a lorry: "What matters to lorry drivers? Murdering prostitutes? Fuel economy?" He added: "This is a hard…
There was the time with the Mexicans. They were called feckless, flatulent and other derogatory things which ended in the BBC writing to the Mexican Ambassador to apologise. Apparently, the ‘jokes’ if that’s what you can call them, were rude and mischievous but not vindictive. A piece written at the time lays out exactly why the show was becoming so problematic
‘ The BBC said stereotype-based comedy was allowed within its guidelines in programmes during which the audience knew it could be expected.’
Knew it could be expected? The audience of Britain’s most popular show was becoming inured. In my opinion, so was much of the country.
There was this:
They were in Myanmar and in for a segment that can only have been thought up for the racist punchline, they pretended to build a bridge. Clarkson and Ricahrd Hammond then admire their pretend handiwork and drop the zinger, while a local man walks across the bridge ‘Yeah its not bad but there is a slope on it’. An old fashioned racist epithet being used in a prime time show on the BBC. Ofcom, the organisation which pays attention to broadcast media in the UK, found Clarkson had ‘deliberately used racist language’.
But ‘hilariously’ the show went on
There was this:
Which apparently the BBC took very seriously. His use of the N word in an outtake resulted in a reprimand and more controversy for the show but on it went. And as it went on, it helped chip away what it did at the foundations of decency and racial tolerance the UK had attempted to build up for decades, since I guess, that ‘rivers of blood’ speech by Enoch Powell in 1968.
Here was the most popular television show in the country trading in racist language, making its use acceptable. This all coincided with a common refrain from parts of the right wing press that politcial corrrectness had gone too far. Sensitivities to a persons race, gender, sexual orientation were unnecessary and were somehow impinging on peoples freedom of speech. The argument went, it was time for people to be able to ‘say it how it is’. But, Clarkson and his lot weren't telling it like it is, they were being deliberately offensive to make space behind them for the rhetoric of real racists. They had raised a ceiling, opened a door, whatever your analogy, and made it acceptable to say things people in the UK never would have said (at least not out loud) just a few years before
The BBC eventually sacked Clarkson for punching his producer. He is now being exceptionally well paid by Amazon for a show called the Grand Tour. I have no idea if he is still trading in his bile. There was some accuations of homophobia a few years back but the show has been recommissioned. I doubt the Amazon bosses will be as tolerant and enabling as the BBC were. But, that remains to be seen. And it doesn't actually matter anymore. His damage has been done
Which brings us to Brexit.
The referendum result was a shock to many but, should we have really been surprised? A campaign led by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and masterminded by the likes of Dominic Cummings traded in EXACTLY the kind of casual racism which had been seen for at least a decade in Top Gear.
All the old tropes which Clarkson and gang had re-surfaced found new traction in the Brexit debate when the chance to actually get rid of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ was, as some misleadingly assumed, an actual possibility.
An adage which has been used to describe those who voted for Brexit comes to mind. Not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist, but all racists voted for Brexit.
I imagine the same can be said for viewers of Top Gear in its pomp. Not everyone who watched Top Gear was racist but people who held racist beliefs would have loved every single minute of it.
Jeremy Clarkson now is defensive about his role in all this. He told a journalist for the Daily Beast he describes himself as a European and doesn’t know how he ‘contributed to a few coffin dodgers from Barnsley deciding they didn't want to live next to a Syrian’
And yet, here we are. Britain has just overwhelmingly voted for a Prime Minister who described women who wear the burka as looking like bank robbers and letter boxes and once wrote about the black peoiple as ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’. Language I thought the British public would have found unacceptable in someone who they wanted to lead them.
I was wrong.
And it was signposted by a very popular programme about cars.