The current format of Top Gear is an Emmy Award and BAFTA winning BBC television series about motor vehicles, particularly cars. The programme is estimated to have over 350 million viewers worldwide, 5 million of whom watch the programme each week in the UK on BBC Two.
Top Gear is presented by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, and features The Stig, an anonymous test driver. It is provocative, humorous, and light-hearted in tone.
The ninth series of Top Gear premiered on 28 January 2007, after having been delayed since October 2006 due to Hammond's car accident in September 2006.
The original Top Gear was a half-hour show produced by BBC Birmingham that ran from 1977 to 2001. Top Gear magazine is a separate publication produced by BBC Magazines which shares some contributors, editors and features with the TV show including contributions by the presenters themselves.
Top Gear started in 1977 as a 30 minute regional programme in the Midlands which was offered to BBC 2, with William Woollard the main presenter until 1991. Through the years Noel Edmonds, BBC newsreader Angela Rippon, Tony Mason, and Chris Goffey all made contributions.
Originally, Top Gear was a conventional magazine show aimed at a general audience. It reviewed new car models and focussed on car-related issues such as road safety, but it saw a massive boost in its audience in the late 1980s when it became a more humorous, controversial, and unashamedly more critical programme with the involvement of Clarkson. It reached 5 to 6 million viewers in the early 1990s and was number one in the BBC2 viewing figures. Among Clarkson's contemporary presenters were Quentin Willson, a former used car salesman, Vicki Butler-Henderson and Tiff Needell.
Despite enduring criticism that the show was overly macho, encouraged irresponsible driving behaviour, and ignored the environment, it became hugely influential with motor manufacturers, since a critical word from the Top Gear team could have a severe negative effect on sales.
After Top Gear's success in the mid-1990s, a number of similar programmes were produced including Channel 4's Driven, ITV's Pulling Power and BBC World India's Wheels.
Following Clarkson's departure in 1999, the Top Gear audience fell from a peak of six million to under three million. James May was brought in to present following Clarkson's departure, and, despite various changes of the presenting team, the slide in viewers was not reversed, leading the BBC to cancel the programme in 2001.
Later that year, Channel 5 started a similarly-themed programme called Fifth Gear. Some of the original production and presenting team moved to the new programme, and it still runs to this day.
In 2002, the decision to cancel the programme was reversed by BBC2 and the production was moved to London from Birmingham.
After a period of recording other programmes, Clarkson, along with producer Andy Wilman, successfully pitched a new format for Top Gear to the BBC, and a new series began airing in 2002.
The format incorporated a number of major changes. The show was lengthened to one hour and two new presenters were introduced: Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe, with James May replacing Dawe after the first series. The Stig, an anonymous masked racing driver, was introduced as test driver. New segments were also added, including "Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car", the "Cool Wall", "Car News", "Power Laps" as well as numerous one-off features such as races, competitions and the frequent destruction of caravans. The programme is filmed at Dunsfold Park, a former airfield in Surrey, where a custom race circuit was built and a large hangar is used for inside filming. A standing studio audience of about 400 people, who apply to the BBC for free tickets, was also included.
Series 9 was scheduled to air on BBC Two from 8 October 2006 and end "sometime in November". However, on 20 September 2006 Hammond was seriously injured while driving a jet-propelled drag-racing car at 300+ mph (480+ km/h) for a feature for the show. On 24 September the BBC said: "It also confirmed the final part of the Best of Top Gear had been postponed indefinitely and the new series, due to begin on 8 October, will be delayed". Both the BBC and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are carrying out their own inquiries into the accident. On 5 October, filming resumed on features for the new series that Richard was not involved with. The ninth series began airing on 28 January 2007, and footage of Hammond's crash was shown with Hammond's commentary and reaction from the presenters. The first show of the ninth series attracted higher ratings than the finale of Celebrity Big Brother.
Repeats of earlier series are currently shown on BBC Three, UKTV G2, UKTV People, and BBC Two. Top Gear has been broadcast in other countries either in its original format, in a re-edited version, or (as in the case of the North American version) with specially shot segments in front of the UK audience.
The BBC also broadcasts edited versions of Top Gear on its international BBC World TV channel. Episodes are edited from their original length of one hour to 30 minutes, often leaving dangling references and inconsistencies in the episodes. Additionally, the original order of the episodes is sometimes not kept, so references to un-aired events are even more common. The only footage specially shot for the international version is the episodes' end, where Clarkson bids his goodbye to BBC World viewers, instead of BBC viewers.
Recently, BBC World has not shown cut versions of the current series, but has resorted to best of collections of the previous series. In both cases the BBC World edition mainly features the challenges and races from the normal episodes, with Clarkson's "stronger" remarks removed. Interviews and Car of the Year are generally not shown.
Top Gear has always used The Allman Brothers Band's instrumental hit "Jessica" as its theme song. Initially the show used part of the original Allmans' recording of the song, but later series of Top Gear use updated cover versions. For the original series run, the end credits music was "Out of the Blue", an instrumental from the 1976 Elton John album Blue Moves.
In November 2005, Top Gear won an International Emmy in the Non-Scripted Entertainment category. In the episode where the presenters showed the award to the studio audience, Clarkson joked that he was unable to go to New York to receive the award since he was too busy writing the script for Top Gear.
Top Gear has also been nominated three consecutive years, 2004-2006, for the British Academy Television Awards in the Best Feature category. Clarkson was also nominated in the best "Entertainment Performance" category in 2006. In 2004 and 2005, Top Gear was also nominated for a National Television Award in the Most Popular Factual Programme category; they won the award in 2006.
Top Gear has come under fire on many occasions for promoting irresponsible driving, causing ecological damage, and favouring performance over fuel efficiency and conservation.
Clarkson has spurred several controversies in his capacity as a presenter for Top Gear. During the November 13, 2005 episode a news segment featuring BMW's MINI Concept from the Tokyo Motor Show showcased what Hammond quoted as a "quintessentially British" integrated tea set. Clarkson responded by mocking that they should build a car that is "quintessentially German." He suggested turn signals that displayed Hitler salutes, "a sat-nav that only goes to Poland" in reference to the Nazi invasion of Poland that ultimately started World War II, "und ein fanbelt that will last a thousand years," a reference to Adolf Hitler's propaganda slogan of "the thousand-year Reich". These statements gained negative attention in the British and German news media, such as the UK Daily Mail article which noted that the BBC would follow a formal investigation of any complaints made on the matter.
The BBC compensated a Bristol local parish in 2004 after Clarkson rammed a Toyota Hilux into a landmark tree during a segment on proving the sturdiness and reliability of the truck through a series of torture tests. The parish had no idea the damage had been caused by a BBC television show until the item was aired, believing that it had been an accident or the work of vandals.
Top Gear was in negotiations to move to Enstone in Northwest Oxfordshire, close to the home of the Renault F1 team's British base and to Clarkson's home in Chipping Norton, but has so far been unable to negotiate a deal after their initial application blocked due to opposition by local citizens because of fears that Top Gear would create pollution and noise.
Clarkson has been critical of the BBC. In the February 2006 issue of Top Gear Magazine, Clarkson voiced his opinion that the BBC did not take Top Gear seriously. He also appears to be annoyed with BBC bosses for often replacing the show with snooker, despite Top Gear having considerably higher viewer ratings, and the show's shortening series runs.
In July 2006 the BBC rejected a variety of complaints about issues Top Gear chooses and the way they are covered by Clarkson, Hammond and May. The BBC argued that their "provocative comments are an integral part of the programme and are not intended to be taken seriously." Regarding offensive remarks traded between presenters and members of the audience, the BBC said "this is part of the appeal of the show and we trust most viewers are familiar enough with the style and tone of the show not to take offence." The BBC pointed out that they would act if such statements and actions were carried out with any degree of seriousness or if the programme breached legal and safety requirements.
In December 2006, the BBC upheld four complaints that comments Clarkson made about a car were derogatory references to homosexuality, and they had the potential to offend and should not have been broadcast. Clarkson had agreed with an audience member that a car was "a bit gay", on a programme screened in the UK in July, and also described the vehicle as "very ginger beer", taken to be rhyming slang for the term "queer". The BBC complaints unit said there was "no editorial purpose" for the remarks, and the "Top Gear team had been reminded of the importance of avoiding such comments about sexual orientation."
Top Gear has also come under some criticism for their negative views and depiction of caravans; once claiming to have received 150 complaints after they destroyed a caravan on a 'camping trip' during one of many caravan destruction segments.
As well as car reviews and time trials around the Top Gear track by The Stig, Top Gear features a number of recurring segments:
The show has featured a number of races where Clarkson drives a car against other forms of transport, typically involving Hammond and May taking the same journey by combinations of plane, train, ferry or bus; the most recent example of this was Clarkson driving a Bugatti Veyron against a Cessna 182 light aircraft flown by May. The race was held between Alba in northern Italy and Tower 42 in London. In all such races Clarkson has won; defeating May and Hammond.
Top Gear regularly reaffirms that the races do take place for real, and that many of the shots used in the film are then recorded over a few days by retracing the journey. In the case of the Bugatti Veyron race, the Stig drove the car back to Italy, although these shots are filmed so that it is not apparent that Clarkson is not driving.
Another common feature of Top Gear is a race between a presenter and an athlete; for example a race was held Fiat Nuova Panda with Clarkson driving against a runner AC Muir on a modified London Marathon route on a weekday morning rush hour.
Another recurring feature are the Cheap Car Challenges, in which the presenters are given a budget (typically around £1,500) and must buy a used car conforming to certain guidelines. Once purchased, the presenters compete against each other in a series of tests to establish who has bought the best car. The presenters have no prior knowledge of what the tests will be, although they generally involve a long motorway journey to determine reliability, and a race track event to determine performance. There is also the recurring element of the presenters having to spend their change from the initial budget on improving the cars. There have been 6 cheap car challenges so far, they are:
* '£100 car challenge', where the three presenters each had to buy any car for under £100.
* '£1,500 Porsche challenge', where the three presenters each had to buy a Porsche for under £1,500.
* '£1,500 coupe that isnt a Porsche challenge', where the three presenters had to buy any coupe, as long as it was not a Porsche, for under £1,500.
* '£10,000 mid-engined Italian supercar for less than a second hand Ford Mondeo challenge', where the three presenters had to buy an Italian, mid-engined supercar for under £10,000.
* '£1000 van challenge', where the three presenters had to buy a van for under £1,000.
* '$1000 car challenge', where the three presenters had to buy an American car each for $1000 and under, and complete a number of challenges.
During most programmes, a celebrity – usually of British fame – is interviewed by Clarkson. The light-hearted discussion focuses on car-related matters, such as the celebrity's car history. Then Clarkson, the guest and the studio audience watch the guest's fastest lap around the Top Gear test track, filmed earlier.
For the first seven series of its current incarnation, the car driven was a Suzuki Liana. Starting with the eighth series, this was replaced by a Chevrolet Lacetti, with a new blank scoreboard. The format was also changed so that instead of the best lap of several attempts being recorded, each star would have five practice laps, and then a final timed lap, with no allowance being given for mishaps.
In the Power Laps segment, The Stig completes a lap around the Top Gear test track to gauge the performance of various cars.
The qualifications for the normal Power Lap Board is that the car being tested must be a road-worthy car. There is a separate unofficial board of times for non-production car times.
The most powerful production car ever featured on Top Gear, the 1001 bhp (746 kW) Bugatti Veyron, has not yet been taken around the track by The Stig. According to Hammond, this is because Bugatti has not given Top Gear permission to run the car through a power lap. This was confirmed on the Veyron's second appearance in February 2007, when Clarkson made an appeal to Veyron owners to let Top Gear borrow their car and allow The Stig to take it around the track, offering up to £30 to do so.
Clarkson and Hammond decide which cars are cool, and which aren't, by placing photographs of them onto various sections of a large board. The categories are Sub Zero, Cool, Uncool, and Seriously Uncool, and a vehicle's placement has nothing to do with how good or bad a car it is. Initially, part of that coolness factor rested on the extent to which the presenters believed each car would impress English actress Kristin Scott Thomas, although more recently, BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce has replaced Scott Thomas as their notional judge. They have also added a separate 'DB9 Section' (which is a mini fridge) right after the subzero section of the board, which signifies that it is even cooler than a 'subzero' car. It contains the DB9, which was added right at the start of this section, and since then the "Baby Aston", the V8 Vantage, has been added to the "fridge" in the 7th series of the show.
Each year, the show presents a "Car of the Year" for the best new car in that year. Winners have included:
* 1997 – Ford Puma 1.7
* 2002 – Land Rover Range Rover
* 2003 – Rolls-Royce Phantom
* 2004 – Volkswagen Golf GTI
* 2005 – Bugatti Veyron
* 2006 – Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
Every year, Top Gear conducts a survey which consults thousands of UK residents on their car-ownership satisfaction. While for legal reasons, the survey is now conducted via the magazine, the results are still used on the show. The survey which used to be done in conjunction with J.D. Power, is now conducted by Experian. The survey asks respondents to score cars on build quality, craftsmanship, driving experience, ownership costs, and customer care. Based on these weighted criteria, the best and worst ranked cars from the survey are:
* 2003 – Best ranked: Jaguar XJ – Worst ranked: Volkswagen Sharan
* 2004 – Best ranked: Honda S2000 – Worst ranked: Mercedes M-Class
* 2005 – Best ranked: Honda S2000 – Worst ranked: Peugeot 807