Friday, 13 January 2012

Top Gear India Special-: Clarkson Does it Again

As I have written in the past on this blog, I am not a car enthusiast and I am not in the habit of watching, regularly at any rate, car-related programmes; certainly not when they are fronted by not very good looking middle aged men. (Come to think of it, I wouldn’t watch them even when they are presented by good looking blokes.) 

Therefore I did not watch the Top Gear—India Special that was aired on the BBC, twice, during the Christmas period.

Top Gear, of course, is a hugely popular (in the UK) programme on cars, presented by three middle-aged men: one—tall with a huge belly, big teeth, and hair that look from a distance like  islands of grey broccoli (Jeremy Clarkson); another—of average height, also parading a beer belly and hair that look as if he blow dries them with the propeller of a Jet-plane, which conspire to have the net effect of making him look as though he woke up in a ditch (James May); and a third one, who is tiny but is not fat—in fact he is nothing; he is like a sack half-filled with sticks—and has limp hair that look as if they resist any attempts at styling (Hammond; I can’t remember his first name).

       Jeremy Clarkson (This is what happens when you live on a diet of potato fat and lager)

                                             James May (Where is my absinthe?)

                                                     Hammond (Am I a t**t?)

However, I should hazard a guess that the viewership of this vastly popular programme on the BBC (mostly comprising men, I should guess) is not attracted to it because of the stunning good looks of these three men. They watch it because—difficult as it is for me to believe it—they are utterly fascinated by cars. I don’t get it. I am constitutionally unable to appreciate comments—however witty they are—on the hydraulic functions of the engines or the horsepower (or whatever it is called); they don’t interest me..

The quasi-technical jibber-jabber on these programmes is, as far as I am concerned, a language spoken on Jupiter, a planet I have no intention of visiting. Thus when Clarkson or May or Hammond circles round a car in the studio (with a simpering crowd of mostly men and a few women (with heads like racing mullets) in the background—the Room Intelligent Quotient, you would imagine, being slightly above that of farmyard animals), mouthing things like ‘2.0-litre, 16 valves turbocharged engine’ with the air that they are revealing the secret of the elixir of life, I do not share their awe. Or, when Clarkson goes all dewy eyed about some car, say, Lancia, that went out of production in the  last century (probably because it was crap and there was no demand for it), or describes some long-since extinct Half-Estate-Half-Sport-Coupe as drop dead gorgeous, I cannot  share his sentimental nostalgia. Or, when he describes wrathfully some car as the most unreliable pile of over-rated rubbish on wheels, the only emotion I experience is amazement that anyone can froth at mouth about a car he is getting to test-drive for free; it is not as if he has spent his undeservedly earned money on it. And with the best will in the world I can’t get myself to feel ecstatic about pointless information such as 0 to 60 miles in 5 seconds or whatever. What is the use of this information? It is not as if you would be able to put this function to use in your day-to-day life. Why would you want to go from 0 to 60 in less than five (or three) seconds anyway? It’s a bit like Prince Andrew’s sex appeal: what is the point?

Most of the cars reviewed on the programme are unaffordable, anyway; I bet more than 90% of people who are glued to the box when the programme is aired, can’t afford to buy them.  

Watching Top Gear type programmes is, for me, about as exciting as watching your nails grow. Tiresome does not even begin to describe it.

Mind you, I have nothing against blokes who harbour unhealthy interests in cars; you never know what will move one’s rocks. Over the years I have known people with peculiar habits. At one of my workplaces was a guy who was borderline obsessed with squid. Another was into German board games. A girl I used to go out with was interested in French literature.

Indeed I can empathize with the strong affection people come to invest in things—because I have unhealthy interests of my own—books—which may seem peculiar to others—, even though I can’t understand why the objects of their affection come to yield the influence they do on the besotted: rhinestone jewellery or absinthe; or cars.

But I digress. Back to Top Gear—India Special. I did not watch this special edition aired over Christmas—I am interested in India (it is a fascinating country) but not interested in cars—which have raised the hackles of Indians. Or, Indian High commission in England, to be specific.

The Indian High Commission in London has sent a formal letter of complaint to the BBC. On the face of it, that is one more country Clarkson and his co-presenters have managed to offend (Mexico and Albania being other).

It is interesting, however, that after the programme was aired the BBC received only 23 complaints. This suggests that the Indian Diaspora in Britain was (a) not offended; or (b) was offended but did not complain to the BBC; or (c) (I hope to God this is true—) did not watch the programme.

So one cannot say that the complaint about Clarkson’s antics on Top Gear has arisen from the ‘over-sensitive’ minorities in this country, which, as any Daily Mail reader will tell you, are pampered.

The complaint has come from the official representative of a country, which allowed the BBC to film this programme in that country.

As per the letter published in the Daily Telegraph, when the producer of Top Gear wrote to the Indian High-Commission, requesting for permission to enter and film in India, the High Commission was given assurance that the programme would be a ‘light-hearted road trip’ that would focus on the ‘idiosyncrasies of the cars’ the three presenters would drive, as well as on ‘the country and scenery’ along the way. The programme was going to involve ‘spontaneous interaction between the presenters and their environment and people, in an incidental manner’. The key-ingredients were going to be ‘local charm and colour within these locations’ and illustration of the local car culture’.

The formal letter of complaint from the Indian High Commission accuses that the programme was ‘replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour, and lacked cultural sensitivity.’ The letter goes on to accuse that the BBC was ‘clearly in breach of the agreement’ it ‘had entered into, completely negating’ the High Commission’s ‘proactive facilitation.’

What the Indians (or the Indian High Commission, to be specific) seem to be saying is—there is no kinder way of putting this—the BBC told them lies to get permission to film in their country; accepted all the help that was offered; and then made a programme that was contrary to the spirit of the agreement it had entered into.

I watched the programme on the BBC i-player that has so offended the sentiments of the Indian High Commission and (one Raj Dhutta, of Manchester Indian Association, who described the programme as tasteless).

It is a long programme: 1 hour and 30 minutes. I managed to watch the first 50 minutes, at which point of time the computer stopped broadcasting, giving the message, instead, that the band-width was not enough. Which was just as well, as I was contemplating in my mind what would be more painful: slashing my wrists or watching the programme.

I am a bit disappointed with the tone of complaint of the letter sent by the Indian High Commission. I would have understood if they were offended (I think the letter uses a milder word: 'disappointed') that the Top Gear presenters managed to make a programme about such a colourful and vibrant country as theirs that was so utterly boring.

I also agree with Raj Dhutta (of Indian Association in Manchester) that the programme was remarkably crass and tasteless. It was more than tasteless. It was sad.

The trouble with the Top Gear, as far as I am concerned, in addition to being about a boring topic such as cars, is: it is presented by three boring old farts (with combined age in three figures) who insist on behaving and speaking as if they were hormonal teenagers.

At one stage in the programme the three presenters put up a banner on a train which said ‘Eat British Muffins’. Then when the train carriages are decoupled, the banner tears and the camera focuses on ‘Eat British Muff’. Honestly. I could just about have tolerated this level of humour if the presenters were younger (and fitter). But when it comes from the likes of Clarkson (as handsome as a prize ox), May (who looks like a tramp) and a midget (will be blown out of the room if you sneezed in his face), it is just pathetic. As you watch the three of them howling like a simultaneously sexed up and seriously injured dog,  when the carriages move, the paunches of two of them wobbling unattractively, all that is missing—you feel—is: shaved heads, biceps swollen by anabolic steroids, flags of St George tattooed on one arm and of  naked women  on the other—and lo and behold! You are looking at perfect English gentlemen.

Since my computer gave up showing the programme at the fiftieth minute, I was spared the spectacle of Clarkson taking off his trousers in front of Indian dignitaries (the photograph in one of the tabloids shows that there was a woman present as well) and showing them how to use a trouser press. He apparently joked that he used it to make nan bread. I cannot believe that this was a ‘spontaneous’ interaction the producer had assured the Indian High Commission in London they would be filming. It was clearly a staged event. Which suggests to me two things: (1) the Indians were probably given an indication what Clarkson was going to do. (2) The woman in the crowd was very brave. I mean Clarkson, even when fully clothed, is not a sight for sore eyes (or sensitive stomachs). His teeth are enough to scare toddlers, and when he laughs his face comes to hold an uncanny resemblance to a bullfrog gulping in pain. He has a big face, which, still, is not big enough to handle his nose adequately. Having to look at his ugly mug, I would have thought, is punishment enough. Why would you want to be there when this man, who essentially is a mule combined with an ass combined with a bear, takes off his trousers, parading his flabby, pasty-white thighs? The woman must have been a glutton for punishment.

There was another scene in the programme when the three presenters were seen, with another fat (and ugly) bloke (presumably the producer of the programme), on a train from Mumbai to Jaipur, singing songs to the accompaniment of a drum and cello (which, no doubt, materialised ‘spontaneously’ in the carriage), generally creating a ruckus and disturbing other passengers, who seemed to tolerate the antics with bemused tolerance.

When will these idiots realise that when they behave in this fashion they are not being quaint; they are not being eccentric; they are just pain in the bum.

When the presenters were not juvenile, crass, obnoxious (and generally insufferable), they were behaving like toffee-nosed wankers.

The level of humour in the programme made the Carry On films—which, let me say this clearly, are third rate—appear like acme of intellectual sophistication. (As an aside, I have always struggled to fathom why the Carry On films are considered by some to be some sort of national treasure. They are not funny in the least; they are just smutty; the actors couldn’t act; utterly dreadful).

All of the above are of course my subjective views. It is possible that there are people out there who found the Top  Gear—India Special  fascinating, funny, and watchable, just in the same way there are those who find the WWF fighting genuine and thrilling.

There is an American friend of mine who tells me that he is tired of listening to English colleagues in his company telling him all the time that the Americans do not get English humour. ‘I can’t seem to get across to these morons,’ he tells me, ‘that I don’t find their toilet humour funny, which is different from not getting it.’

There is a thin line between comic use of stereotyping, as the BBC disingenuously tried to put to the Mexicans after the midget Hammond said offensive things about their culture, and plain boorishness. Bullshit—even when said in the  posh BBC accent—won’t always baffle the brain.

I can see why the Indian High Commission was peeved with the BBC and Top Gear. The thing is: when we go to other countries and cultures; enjoy and take advantage of the hospitalities offered by these cultures in good faith; and make programmes full of crude and low level humour, we run the risk of portraying an image of our culture that does not make a pretty viewing. However, I do not expect that the likes of the producers of Top Gear, who are so up their own arses that they can practically drink their own bile, to appreciate this.