I watched Top Gear (BBC2, Sunday) for the first time in my life last week (the rock under which I’ve been living is pretty large, practically a boulder). I thought I’d better plug this knowledge gap before it got too embarrassing, seeing that Top Gear is the greatest show on earth, the travelling Big Top de nos jours, a daredevil combo of acrobatic stunts, mechanical wizardry and freakery.
Fakery too, apparently, as it’s emerged that in a recent episode scenes that looked spontaneous were actually staged. These involved flashes of watery chaos, upturned tables and angry diners shaking their fists as an amphibious vehicle hastily built and even more hastily driven by Jeremy Clarkson & co. blasted past a bucolic restaurant by the River Avon, spraying all and sundry. It seems that the diners were actors, and their anger at Clarkson’s ‘Hovervan’ was faux fury.
Well, you could knock me down with a feather. Top Gear is the world’s favourite three-ring circus — what did we expect? Its job is to wow us with whizz-bang antics and tomfoolery, possibly also sleights-of-hand, all ring-mastered by Clarkson and aided by his two clowns James May and Richard Hammond. It’s clear to even an ignorant ingenue like me that large parts of it — the banter, the races, the speed laps, the celebrity interviews — are rehearsed, or at least planned, beforehand. Nobody watches Top Gear for its verisimilitude or because it brings us closer to real life. For that we have Newsnight.
I was relieved to hear those scenes of soaked bystanders were play-acted, and that no sentient beings were wilfully harmed in the making of the film. In the last episode, in which our three musketeers did an in-depth study of caravanning and compared cars for their towing capabilities, we saw Clarkson and May chucking all kinds of newly bought kit into recycling and rubbish tips, because they’d observed that that was what caravanners seemed to do. I’m now glad to know that these scenes were probably faked, and that a TV crew came to retrieve the thrown-away equipment after filming. We shouldn’t waste caravan parts in this time of austerity.
I suppose some people are unnerved because we can no longer tell what is true from what is false, even on Top Gear. Where exactly does the trickery start? One assumes the machines that Clarkson, May and Hammond build are engineered to fail, as that generates more laughs than automobiles that work. The Top Gear presenters may be incredibly bright boffins masquerading as buffoons. The show is so clever that every season it stirs up some controversy or other — complaints from us, from the Mexican ambassador, from the Indian High Commission. Which outrage is more inflated, that of the riverside diners or ours? It all only contributes to the show’s allure.
You also get people grumbling that the series is about middle-aged men having mid-life crises. Surely that’s not the main drawback but the main draw. I’m guessing a large proportion of Top Gear’s audience consists of men between the ages of 40 and 60, all anticipating a car crash. Anyway, I think the show is very funny, but then I’ve just come out from under my rock.
On another front, how do you re-manufacture reality? Channel 4’s The Mill, a four-part drama (Sunday), attempts to re-enact, based on archives, goings-on in 1833 at the Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. At a time when anti-black-slavery protests were gathering momentum even as workers’ conditions at English cotton mills remained dire, mill owners the Greg family were holding on to the outmoded apprenticeship system, where workers are ‘owned’ by their masters until they turn 21.
This show doesn’t ever want you to forget that it’s real, real, real. At its start a boy’s hand got caught in a factory machine, while a supervisor tried to rape one of the female apprentices. All this was shown in a matter-of-fact way — most of the other mill workers continued toiling, unawares — as though the series was determined not to sensationalise. There was no purposeful story arc, nor did the first episode end on a huge cliff-hanger, which I suppose is a mimicry of real life of sorts.
The Gregs were a contradictory lot, as they also helped found the Manchester Guardian and Britain’s first stock exchange, and a few family members were part of the abolitionist movement. The series is portraying them as capitalist villains so far, but if one were to shine a light on our own age’s confusions and hypocrisies — well, let’s hope history doesn’t judge us too harshly.
The Mill is the kind of highly worthy series that will make you feel highly worthy watching it, especially if you’ve just been caught in the headlights of Top Gear.