Poor Michael Jackson. I know he was (probably) a kiddie fiddler and his music was crap, but that didn’t stop me empathising when watching Michael Jackson’s Last Days: What Really Happened (Channel 4, Sunday).

Poor Michael Jackson. I know he was (probably) a kiddie fiddler and his music was crap, but that didn’t stop me empathising when watching Michael Jackson’s Last Days: What Really Happened (Channel 4, Sunday). Give or take the odd nose, skin-whitening operation, lurid court case, moon walk and dwindling multimillion-dollar fortune, there but for the grace of God went most of us.

I’m talking about that hideous moment in your life when you realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and you’ve only two options left: either achieve the impossible or take the easy way out. This is the choice Jacko faced when he ‘agreed’ to do those 50 comeback concerts at the O2 arena. At 50, having not danced for a decade, raddled with vast quantities of prescription uppers and downers, he must have known his body wasn’t up to the job of giving his fans and promoters the extravaganzas they wanted. So he tried — and even attempted to lay off the drugs till the pain grew too much — and his body said, ‘Sorry, mate. No can do.’ Anyone trying to earn a living out of writing these days will know just what he went through.

But enough morbid self-pity. Top Gear (BBC 2, Sunday). We all love Top Gear, of course. How could any Spectator reader not? It has, over the years, grown into the closest thing this country has yet been able to produce to a credible opposition to New Labour’s nanny-state tyranny.

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Besides being the only programme on BBC television that doesn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, it stands up for any number of other old-fashioned, state-proscribed, almost-lost causes: the idea that driving is a healthy and desirable thing, never better than when conducted at high speed; that military hardware is cool, sexy and worth buying lots of; that foreigners are there mainly to be laughed at for their silly foreign ways; that elf’n’safety is unnatural and wrong; that being British, well English really, is a privilege granted only to the luckiest and best.

Watching it on Sunday, though, I did find myself wondering whether, ever so slightly, it hadn’t jumped the shark. For a moment, I thought it was just me. But then I consulted the Rat, who has not missed an episode since he was about 13 and is now 23, and he agreed. ‘It used to be a bit creaky and now it’s gone just a bit slick.’

What bothered us was a segment we should both theoretically have loved. Jeremy Clarkson drove a souped-up, ex-drug-dealer’s motor over six miles of Dorset tank-training country while various squaddies in armoured vehicles tried to destroy him.

At one point, Clarkson negotiated a ravine by driving over the bridge-laying vehicle; at another, he sat quaking in the car as its roof was scrunched by a giant grabby-claw thing and then riddled with bullets from a .50-calibre machine gun. Except, of course, all the really dangerous stuff was staged. Clarkson was nowhere near the car when it was destroyed.

Would I have preferred to see Clarkson reduced to a pink mist by a .50-calibre bullet on television? Not necessarily. But at least in the old days there was a sense of rugged honesty about the enterprise. If Clarkson, Hammond and May raced from Land’s End to John o’Groats in a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and motorised dildo, you could be fairly sure the result wouldn’t be rigged just because the director had decided it would be funnier if the motorised dildo won. You thought — maybe you were wrong, but you did at least imagine — that this was a proper race, under proper race conditions and may the best vehicle win.

Watching Top Gear these days is like sitting down to watch The Italian Job and discovering they’ve scheduled Mission Impossible III instead. Not a disaster, by any stretch. Just not the homespun, charming, quintessentially English classic you used rather to enjoy.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated