Live side of Top Gear

Viv Hardwick looks at the legacy of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May as they hit the road to Newcastle

ALL roads may lead to Jeremy Clarkson, the pilot of the politically incorrect statement, but the fact remains that the multi-million-pound driving force behind BBC2’s Top Gear franchise is at the steering wheel of one of the planet’s most popular TV programmes.

Last Sunday, the 22nd series was broadcast simultaneously in more than 50 countries across Australia, Africa and the Middle East at the same time as the UK. Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and Mongolia also tuned in for a programme featuring Clarkson, Ripon-raised Richard “Hampster” Hammond and James “Captain Slow” May doing crazy things with cars.

Next month, three days of Top Gear Live are almost certain to be a sell-out at the MetroRadio Arena, Newcastle, with a format of three ageing petrolheads trying to avoid comparisons with Compo, Cleggy and Blamire (etc) as the programme enters the same longevity as Last Of The Summer Wine.

“We often call this show Last Of The Summer Gear. It’s three middle-aged men falling over every week. It’s a similar format, ‘Tonight James May falls over, Richard Hammond catches fire and I say something stupid’,” says Clarkson.

Hopefully, the stunts seen at the arena will be similar to those involving more expert drivers like the always white-helmeted Stig of the secret identity, who test drives the world’s most expensive cars around Top Gear’s headquarters track at Dunsfold Aerodrome, an airport and business park in Waverley, Surrey.

While the car nerds rave about the flappy-paddled gear changes of supercars, which only super-rich TV presenters can afford, the rest of us love Top Gear for the sillier moments like Clarkson inventing a disability trike totally unsuitable for indoor use and those Christmas challenges culminating in last year’s Patagonia perils.

The tongue-in-cheek approach to all moments motoring extends to the TV series which Hammond admits are always a bit late “like doing your homework”. Clarkson adds just prior to last weekend’s launch: “Programme one, the film is not yet edited. We’re in the middle of filming programme eight and we’ve had a year. We’ve all been there. We’ve homework to do and a week to do it, four days, two days, one day… two in the morning. That’s exactly where we are. It either goes out or it doesn’t. The world still turns.”

This weekend’s TV episode takes the trio to Australia and May says: “I enjoyed it apart from the time difference thing where they imagine it’s eight in the morning when we know, because we invented the time, it’s 8 o’clock in the evening,”

Clarkson adds: “When you go abroad and it’s eight in the evening and they’re five hours behind or six hours ahead, they have to do that all the time when they live there: ‘It’s 8 o’clock, but what time is it actually?’”

May chips in: “At least they do speak English of a sort. The problem with abroad is if you go to Germany say not only do you have to work out what the time really is, you have to work it out in German and then translate it back to English.”

In Oz, the trio ended up using a Bentley, a BMW and a Nissan to drive cattle and used modern versions rather than the wheezing warhorses of the road which usually feature in their many races. “We took the cars well out of their comfort zone and the cattle needed rounding up over something like 3.2 million acres,” says Hammond, which meant a journey across the outback from Southampton to Banbury.

The Northern territory of Australia can lack hotels and May confesses that the presenters didn’t stay anywhere luxurious.

“It’s not too bad camping because the temperature is pleasant in the evening. It drops down to about 130 degrees,” jokes Clarkson. “We’ve camped in the Himalayas and that’s the only time that James has every called me Jeremy – because he calls me Clarkson or other words. I walked past James’ tent at one in the morning and heard him say, ‘Jeremy. I’m very unhappy’. Then I got into my tent and discovered why. My pillow was full of damp gravel.”

May adds: “The camp was bitterly cold and the chap who organised it gave us a box of matches as the fire. We had one warm tin of beer between us. The lavatory was a hole in ground in a tent that fell on your head when you tried to go in. The tents were like something you got for collecting five box-tops from Weetabix. I got out of the tent, went about five paces and fell over a guy-rope, obviously, and didn’t know where the tent was or the car was and thought, ‘This is death’.”

“Can you imagine travelling the world with these two,” breaks in Hammond. “I slept like a baby.”

Kubu Island, Botswana, is picked out as the highlight place the three have visited since the line-up got together from 2002-2003. “It was the first special we filmed that was meant to be a special. America was the first special, but that was because the programme went on too long and we made it a special. Botswana we knew was working because Hammond got his Vauxhall (nicknamed Oliver) and James had the Lancia and it was perfect and we arrived at the perfect spot,” says Clarkson.

May falling over in Syria and Argentina, both times suffering fairly painful injuries, were also identified as favourites for Hammond and Clarkson.

“Botswana was seven or eight years ago now and we can probably safely admit now that it was a holiday,” says May.

  • Top Gear Live, February 20, 21 and 22. Box Office: 0844-493-6666 or Eventim.co.uk
  • Top Gear is the world’s most widely-watched factual television programme according to the Guinness Book of World Records; broadcasts to 214 territories worldwide; has an estimated global audience of 350 million; and has more than 24 million fans on Facebook. The show’s successful format has already spawned local versions in the US, China, Russia, Australia and South Korea.
  • The ten-part series of the world’s favourite car programme continues on Sunday with the Australian road trip. Tasked with picking a fast, luxurious GT for the trip, Clarkson chooses a BMW M6 Gran Coupe, Hammond a Bentley Continental GT V8, and May a Nissan GT-R as the trio takes on crocodile infested rivers, a race around a vast open cast mine, an encounter with the world’s longest lorries, and the majestic scenery of one of the world’s least inhabited landscapes. Their dusty endeavour concludes with an unusual challenge involving a farm, their cars, and 4000 cows. Hollywood legend Kiefer Sutherland is the star in the Reasonably Priced Car.

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