May 7, 2010

Top Gear

Around a couple of months ago, somebody told me about a TV show called Top Gear, and at that moment I could not possibly think how much I was about to enjoy this show. This name probably sounds really familiar to you if you live in the United Kingdom, if you are actually able to watch the BBC from abroad, or at least if there is a TV station in your country that broadcasts it. This was precisely my case, as I am Spanish and reside in this country. I have been to the United Kingdom before, but my longest stay there was for a month and neither was I at home very much, nor did I watch much TV in spite of the huge amount of channels that Sky offered by that time. There was so much to see and learn about and British TV was not in my list of priorities.

Anyway, for those of you who still want to learn about Top Gear... What are we talking about? Well, Top Gear is nothing less that a car TV show. I am not much of a car enthusiast myself and I must confess that when I first learnt about it I did not feel very inclined to give it a try. I am not a big fan of watching a series of car tests where the testers talk about technicisms or issues that I am not very familiar with. I have always been bored with that kind of show. Luckily, this is not what Top Gear is all about.

And of course, you may be thinking: what is it about? Well, it is a car program, yes. But its main function is not to be informative about the new releases or news that the general public might be interested in. They do review cars, but most of the vehicles that appear in the show are expensive supercars, something for which they have been repeatedly criticised. They are also well known for their irreverent and politically incorrect attitude and opinions. But... is the show fun? Yes sir, it is.

The supercar testing is not what we could consider "usual". The ideas that they come up with to test a special feature of a car, for example, are really out of the ordinary. Take for instance the episode where they test the manoeubravility of a Lotus Exige on a track while a military Apache helicopter tries to lock its air-to-land missiles on it. Or that one where they test the off-road abilities of a new Range Rover Sport against a Challenger tank which is also trying to lock its cannon on the car.

Some of the episodes that they have made can almost be qualified as 'epic', like for instance those where they test the endurance of a worn-out fourth-generation Toyota Hilux. This model was reputed to be exceptionally sturdy and reliable even during sustained heavy use or abuse, and Top Gear wanted to put these alleged characteristics to the test. Among the things that they came up with to try to break it were driving it down a flight of steps, scraping buildings, head-on crashing into a tree, making it be dragged by the sea tide and completely submerged, driving it through a garden shed, dropping a caravan onto it, hitting it with a wrecking ball, setting the cabin and bed area on fire, and, finally, placing it on top of a 16-story block of flats that was destroyed afterwards by a controlled demolition. Although it was now suffering from severe structural damage, the truck was still running after being repaired without spare parts and only with typical tools and equipment that would be found in a car's toolbox, such as screwdrivers, motor oil, and a wrench. Top Gear currently has the Hilux resides as one of the background decorations in their studio. For a taste of what Top Gear is like you can take the Hilux part as an example. It is not the whole video but you will surely get the essence:

And it gets better.
One of the most exciting parts of each season are the so-called Top Gear Challenges, where the presenters try to prove a fact which is usually of the most bizarre nature. These segments are usually preceded by the sentence which has already become a classic of the show: "How hard can it be?."
Of every Top Gear episode that I have watched, the craziest and most amazing thing that I have seen these guys doing is trying to convert some old cars into amphibious vehicles using different kinds of propulsion and hand-made techniques in each one to make them float. This feat has been done twice. In the first attempt they tried to prove that their vehicles could travel on land as well as on water, but two of the modified cars sunk and the third one could not make it back to land on its own power.
However, this did not make them give up. In a later season they came up with a much more ambitious challenge: after the earlier failure in building the amphibious vehicles, they claimed to have been asked by the producers of the program to learn from their previous mistakes and improve their initial designs to make cars which were able to prove that they could travel on land and then make it to open sea by crossing the English Channel on them. Does that sound crazy enough? I was astonished, but I was even more as long as I kept watching the progress towards the outcome of the episode. I could not wait to see what happened. And... well, images are always much better than words:

If you are interested in learning about more of these challenges you should give it a try and watch some (or all of them if you feel like me after watching a couple), but you can also get some more information here.

Despite having been aired in a whole bunch of countries (timidly in Spain too, and I say timidly because it has been given so little relevance here by TV stations that most of the people who know about it only have the Internet to thank about it), it is of course in the UK that it has won itself the right to become a really big deal. And, other than the madness that we have just tasted, who have been the architects of that kind of success? Let's start with them.

 - Jeremy Clarkson: Clarkson is the lead presenter of Top Gear. As a journalist and car enthusiast, most of his career has focused on motoring, and he started to become a relevant  public figure in Britain when he presented the original Top Gear show in 1988. While watching him you might think that he is some sort of an overgrown child. He is the most hilarious of the lot, always good-humoured and big-mouthed. He lacks any kind of sense of ridiculous and he is the one who comes up with the craziest ideas or tests and is always up to mischief, being the most likely victims the other two co-presenters.

- Richard Hammond:  Hammond, also nicknamed 'Hamster' by his co-hosts due to his short height, has worked in several British radio stations before starting co-hosting Top Gear in the BBC. As Clarkson's right hand, he always participates in this one's mischievous plans and crazy ideas. Although he has done a great number of huge achievements in Top Gear (see for example getting to the North Magnetic Pole on a sled pulled by Inuit dogs while racing a Toyota pick-up truck driven by Clarkson and James May), he got very close to death once while trying to record the maximum speed of a Vampire dragster car. While travelling at 288 mph, one of the front tires of the jet-powered vehicle blew out and Richard, losing control, crashed violently spinning over and over on the grass before finally stopping. It took him four months for a whole recovery, and I find it to be a remarkable deed that at the beggining of the next season he bravely analysed the crash with Clarkson and May step by step although being visibly affected at some points while reviving and explaining the terrible experienced that he went through. It is also remarkable that he has maintained the same sense of humour in the subsequent episodes and he has also embarked himself in other risky situations, something that says a lot about the character of this man.

- James May: May, or 'Captain Slow' as Clarkson baptised him due to his careful driving style, is a really special bloke. His old-fashioned style and manners are a hilarious counterpoint of what Clarkson and Hammond represent. Where Clarkson is somewhat childish and politically incorrect and Hammond also plays the fool quite a bit, May is the serious guy, always over-analysing and double-checking everything, a feature that usually gets to Jeremy's and Richard's nerves. Always trying to look smart and keep his composure, he refused to run while being recorded by the camera in a race where he and Hammond had to race Clarkson (driving an Aston Martin DB9) across Europe from Surrey (England) to Monaco using the Eurostar and the French TGV. We could say that he is reason and elegance against the madness of the other two... or is he?
Maybe not when he was driving almost naked in the middle of the summer in a racing car with no air-conditioning while trying to find the best roads in Europe with Hammond and Clarkson (who, by the way, had chosen road cars fitted with AC and could drive comfortably), or that episode in which we could see him sat on a special toilet with which Clarkson fitted the back of his Toyota Hilux in the Polar Expedition. He can also be, and actually is, a really hilarious guy.

- The Stig: Some say he’s wanted by the CIA, and that he sleeps upside down like a bat... All we know is, he's called The Stig! 
And... who is The Stig? The Stig is Top Gear's 'tame racing driver', a driver clad in white overalls and a white helmet who handles Top Gear's power laps and is reckoned to possess mysterious and possibly supernatural powers. He is never heard talking and Clarkson and the other presenters treat him like a machine, even by carrying him in some sort of trolley when his services are needed out of the studio. His identity has never been revealed and that is one of the most attractive features of this character, so much that he has become Top Gear's main icon and all kinds of merchandising (T-shirts, posters, mugs, keyrings... ) have been released with his image or name on them.
In every episode, just before he is about to perform his power lap in one of the cars tested in the program, The Stig is introduced by Jeremy Clarkson by one of which have got to be known as Stig-isms, like the one which opens this paragraph. Other funny Stig-isms are: 
     - Some say he never blinks, and that he roams around the woods at night foraging for wolves... 
    - Some say he is illegal in 17 US states, and he blinks horizontally...  
    - Some say that on really warm days he sheds his skin like a snake, and that for some reason he’s allergic to the Dutch... 
                                               ...All we know is, he's called The Stig! 

As I said before, this is a very interesting show to watch, even if you are not a big car enthusiast. Also, if you are not an English speaker and feel like having the chance to try something different than listening the omnipresent American accent and listen to some British accent for a change, this is your chance. Personally, I kind of like Clarkson's use of linking 'r' every now and then, or the many other phonetic differences from the English that we (at least here in Spain) are more used to due to the massive spread of Hollywood titles and American TV series in general, which widely surpass the British releases.

Of course, for these reasons, my advice is to try to watch it in English when possible, specially if you are Spanish and have felt like giving the terrible-terrible-terrible Spanish dubbing a try.

For any more info on the show or anything related to it, this is their official web site:
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