By now, I doubt many of my readers will be unaware of the news that Jeremy Clarkson, part of the presenting team for BBC show Top Gear, has been suspended for throwing a punch at a producer on the show, in anger over a lack of hot food at the end of filming.
Another day, another Clarkson “incident”. Usually it has something to do with racism, or national stereotype, or something of that ilk. Folk may remember I had something to say about that sort of thing earlier this year. The Jeremy Clarkson who makes those types of incidents happen, however, has always seemed to me to be a character portrayed by an actor in a sitcom. I describe Top Gear as my one guilty pleasure, because I am laughing at how buffoonish the White middle-class cis het men can be.
Clarkson in front of a camera (or other media recording device) is a portrayal of something. It may or may not be close to the real person behind the portrayal, and it may or may not be on purpose (I believe it is, to a significant extent – there are some remarkably self-aware comments in some Top Gear episodes). But he does and says things that are part of a performance of buffoonish, boorish, privilege. We may find that portrayal offensive in the things it says and does, but it is a portrayal. Let’s call that character “Jeremy”, and the actor, “Clarkson”.
A punch thrown at a workplace colleague after filming has ended, off camera, is a different thing entirely. I have no way of knowing if the Clarkson who threw that punch is in any way related to the Jeremy we see on camera in terms of personality. But Clarkson the performer has been revealed by his actions as a person who throws punches at people in the workplace. Over things like not having the right food delivered. That’s not part of a performance, that’s who the man really is.
As it happens, I have just finished a course called “Level 1 Retail”, and one module was about employment contracts, and covered what an employee can do to address a grievance against the employer, and what an employer can do if an employee breaches contract (i.e. disciplinary action). We discussed Clarkson and decided that violence in the workplace (such as throwing a punch at someone) would usually fall under “gross misconduct” and should be a summary dismissal. Clarkson is apparently “consulting with his lawyer” but I can’t see how he has a leg to stand on in terms of employment law. (It’s also a criminal offence!)
A lot of talk has been about how popular Top Gear is, and how valuable to the BBC. A Guardian piece today suggests that the BBC could owe compensation to overseas broadcasters over the suspension.
Interestingly, there is a comparison to be made, and it was suggested (if I recall correctly) by Richard Hammond, one of the show’s other presenters: he tweeted something like, “They could put Last of the Summer Wine on, and no one could tell the difference”.
Last of the Summer Wine followed three West Yorkshire elderly men through their adventures in and around their home town, often walking in the dales. “Compo” was a scruffy, grizzled, layabout with a crush on fierce next-door-neighbour Nora; Norman Clegg his easy-going, stay-out-of-trouble friend; and the third role was filled by various other characters they knew, who usually were old friends who re-emerged as and when a replacement was required for the third role.
Can you see where my thinking is going?
The thing is, when Bill Owen died (the actor who played Compo), the makers hired his son Tom Owen to replace the Compo role as “Tom Simmonite” (son of Compo Simmonite) but the magic of the original format was lost. Eventually the show trailed off, despite retaining a loyal audience.
So the assumption displayed by broadcasters (including the BBC) is that Jeremy is Compo: lose that character, and the show starts to lose its defining character. If Clarkson goes, so does Top Gear.
But it may be that Jeremy is actually just a Blamire, Foggy, Seymour or “Truly of the Yard”. I tweeted yesterday, “They found a new Stig. They can find a new Clarkson” (meaning the character whom here I’m calling Jeremy). In fact, I believe the most accurate mapping is that James May is Cleggy, and Richard Hammond is Compo. The chemistry, if they can find someone for the job, would probably support the change. After all, James May’s “Man Lab” show demonstrates a lot of the characteristics of the Top Gear format (albeit a bit more earnest and less sitcom-y) and Hammond’s stint as presenter on Total Wipeout is similar evidence that the buffoonery will survive. All that is needed is a character (and performer) who can get on well with the other two.
If such a person is that hard to find, there’s an obvious joke fill-in until they do: The Stig. That joke would work for at least two or three episodes.
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As a viewer, I find it hard to care one way or the other whether Clarkson “beats the rap” and is given “one more chance” for the umpteenth time, or not. The show is clearly going to survive if people want it enough. Lots of shows survive the death or departure of the lead character (Doctor Who has done it 11 times and counting!)
As a person with a passing interest in equality, political correctness, progressive/leftwing politics and all that stuff, I also find it hard to care that much what happens to Clarkson. If he survives it’s just more proof that the well-connected White cis het middle-class male is dripping with privilege and can get away with shit that most couldn’t dream of. If he’s sacked, then there will be plenty of other similarly White cis het middle-class men to take his place. (Or worse, a white cis het middle class woman who wants to be “one of the lads” and joins in the “banter”.)
Every time there’s a Clarkson Incident, I sigh, observe that this is what he plays for, and console myself that the debate is important regardless of what happens. Talking about how violence in the workplace is unacceptable (just as talking about how racist/national stereotypes are Not Okay) is an important conversation and we can at least use Clarkson as our springboard for that, just as we used Jeremy.