Blog: Dave LeggettTop Gear and stereotyping

Dave Leggett | 6 February 2011

Let me be clear about this: I like the BBC's Top Gear TV programme. It is good entertainment and more about the dynamics of three (usually) highly likeable blokes talking about blokish things and having the kinds of adventures that many of us would like to have, than it is about the cars themselves. I like the mix. BBC licence-payers' money well spent. And, I gather, it's pretty popular around the world. Great. 

Jeremy Clarkson is the presenters' charismatic leader, unfailingly irreverent, straight-talking and often amusing with it. He comes right out with it. That's what you get with him and, to be fair, he is pretty up front about that and demonstrates a certain integrity. And I have never had him down as someone who likes being offensive for the sake of it; he's just straight-talking, if provocative and occasionally turning up with a phrase that looks a little ill-judged (you can criticise ex-PM Gordon Brown for many things, but why include the fact that he is one-eyed in your pejorative description? - that was unnecessary).

He also likes to be provocative in his Sunday Times column, but much of what he writes strikes a chord with Middle England and is refreshingly anti-establishment. I am of a certain age where I can empathise with him, his views, perspective on life and the many paradoxes that come with the strange world we live in. For example, I read in the Sunday Telegraph today that police forces around the UK are issuing officers with lengthy instructions/manuals on how to ride a bicycle (including helpful advice such as the need to apply the brakes in order to stop). Mad. The mentality behind such nonsense is just the sort of ludicrous thing that JC likes to have a go at, and I am with him on that. And I am a fan of his lively style of writing that often exaggerates, or goes for the absurd metaphor, but that's fine. Don't take it all literally people. And please, have a sense of humour. But there are limits. We all know that, we learn it as kids - what's okay to laugh about and what isn't, or is cruel, unfair.

If you heard about the furore caused by the Top Gear presenters' remarks about Mexicans you may have been a little bit shocked. It perhaps sounds worse than it is, out of context, but I have seen the episode concerned and I must say I was surprised with what they said. It just seemed a bit much, the three of them piling in on a pretty 'soft target'. Maybe make one crack alluding to the stereotype and that would be enough? Can we perhaps also hear a little bit more about the Mexican car (Mastretta)? If they had said a bit more about the car and had just one crack about laid back Mexicans nobody would have batted an eyelid, but they kind of embellished the stereotyping in the item, seemed to be enjoying it, and actually said very little about the car itself; dismissive to say the least. How would you feel if you were involved with the Mastretta project, never mind Mexican? Probably not all that happy.

Where should the line be drawn on comedy? I dunno, I'm no expert on that, and I confess to deriving much amusement from national stereotypes - and other stereotypes - in comedy (maybe it's a British thing, Fawlty Towers, Black Adder etc - though much of our comedy also pokes fun at ourselves, eg obsession with social class). But there are some lines to be drawn, some things that are unacceptable and clearly offensive because of what they say about the attitudes behind them or the perception of the attitudes behind them. And 'irony' can easily be lost in the delivery (Harry Enfield's late-1980s' materialistic London plasterer 'loadsamoney' character springs to mind).

There are some very interesting thoughts here from comedian Steve Coogan, someone who has been intimately involved with sterotyping himself in his comedy creations, who likes his cars (and appreciates their social relevance and comedy prop value - eg the 'Stang in Saxondale, Lexus in Partridge) and has been a celebrity guest on Top Gear more than once (that clip is worth a look). He is, I believe, mates with Clarkson off set. Coogan's Mex-gate criticisms do constitute, however, a no-holds-barred broadside from a source that is perhaps unexpected and from a friend. It is very much more likely to hit home than an article, say, penned by a hand-wringing, Islington-set uber-liberal such as Polly Toynbee.

I'd like to know what Clarkson, Hammond and May would say in response to Coogan's comments. Jezza will surely laugh it off and say that any upset is PC gone mad, that they weren't speaking literally, of course. But he surely has to accept that broadcasters must exercise some responsibility. Coogan rightly points out that the ethnic stereotyping of this ilk is very selective, plenty of other groups - more likely to be assertive/troublesome in defending themselves - conspicuously left alone. If it's not right for those groups, then why pick on Mexicans? This storm blew up because they overstepped the mark and upset people, not because the world has gone PC mad. If you're going to upset people, at least make sure you don't lay yourself open to accusations that you are picking on a weak target. Putting the morals to one side for a moment, it's tactically a bad move and an own goal.

As I say, I like Top Gear and I do sympathise with them in the sense that they generally say things that aren't actually meant to be taken deadly seriously. But you can't say just anything. Responsibility comes with broadcasting. The apparently freewheeling (but with some scripting) 'guys down the pub' chatter is a big strength. But maybe they just got the judgment a little wrong in this case, piling in a little gratuitously on a soft target, as Coogan maintains. Chaps, you're actually not down the pub, you are broadcasting to the world. Rein yourselves in when necessary. The Mexican ambassador could hardly laugh along and dismiss it could he, certainly not after Clarkson had lit the fuse and lampooned him as being permanently asleep?

Let's hope it's a one-off and that's that, business as usual continues with Top Gear, the three presenters realising that in this case they got things a little wrong. No need for a massive inquest or brouhaha beyond what we have already had. A few lessons learned. I find this whole area of comedy and what's funny - and the politics of that - fascinating, hence this rather long blog posting. I'd love to hear what others think.    

Before I go and get back to my roast beef dinner and warm ale and maybe this is a small point of detail, but one thing I don't quite get is the highly negative remarks about Mexican food. There's a little irony there; us English have such a great rep for cuisine, eh? Try Mexican food done properly lads, it hits the spot (if I were the Mexican ambassador I'd invite them over to the embassy for a slap-up feast and a highly publicised make-up, Mastretta car parked up very prominently).

Are they eating meat and two veg out of a mobile catering van on their (hugely watchable) trips to exotic destinations for the TG Christmas specials? Perhaps (ironically given the globe-trotting they do for TG) the TG lads need to - as we Brits like to say to those who appear a little blinkered or heavily reliant on cliched observations - get out more?

Top Gear's offensive stereotyping has gone too far, says Steve Coogan


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