Greg Dixon 's Opinion

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: Top Gear - A bridge too far?

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The latest Top Gear overseas special has landed the presenters in hot water.
The latest Top Gear overseas special has landed the presenters in hot water.

It's said the only two constants in life are death and taxes. Well that was before Top Gear (7.30pm, Sundays, Prime).

The long-running BBC motoring programme has, in its current iteration, been running for 21 series and 167 episodes. That is a truck-load of television.

But this doesn't make Top Gear, as seemingly endless as it seems, a constant. No, the third constant here on Planet Earth is not the show but the long-running list of complaints about it.

The criticism of Top Gear is legion. According to some among the millions and millions who have watched it, it promotes irresponsible driving, doesn't give a fig for pressing environmental issues, has gleefully mocked all manner of peoples including Germans, Poles and Mexicans and is possibly homophobic.

One viewer, actually a rather high-profile viewer, the British comedian and occasional guest on Top Gear Steve Coogan, has called the show lazy, adolescent and a trader in casual racism.

So it's awful then. Well not that awful. None of these countless accusations seem to have harmed the ratings: Top Gear is reportedly the most watched factual television programme on the planet, with mirror programmes made under licence in Australia, Russia, the United States and South Korea.

Personally, I haven't watched it for years. But this week came a new complaint, and it was a familiar one: that Top Gear is racist.

According to news reports from Britain the programme is being sued over comments in the second part of a two-part special set in Burma and Thailand which screened in Britain two weeks ago and screens here tomorrow night.

The offending scene has Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson standing looking at a bridge they will been seen by New Zealand viewers building over the River Kwai in tomorrow's programme.

After the bridge is finished, Clarkson looks across it and reportedly says "that's a proud moment, but there's a slope on it" as a man, presumably a Thai, walks across it. "You're right," Hammond replies, "it's definitely higher on that side."

I will leave it to the British courts to decide what the nature of that comment is, but after watching the first of the Burma specials I've concluded the Top Gear boys still seem to (jokingly of course) subscribe to the same view of the outside world as Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford's satirical novel The Pursuit of Love: "Frogs," the appalling Matthew rages at one point, "are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends."

(The Pursuit of Love is an inter-war novel and the more I think about it the more the view of the world of the Top Gear trio of Hammond, Clarkson and James May's has a distinctly British inter-war attitude to the outside world.)

Whatever happens in tomorrow night's episode, in the first part (which screened last Sunday) there was certainly no end of sideways winks, fun and guffaws at the expense of the "funny foreigners" as the three drove north through Burma in three beaten-up old trucks. Their accommodation was derided as awful (and to be fair it was, but it was all a jack-up for the cameras anyway), the Burmese pedestrians wander on the roads with no thought for the traffic apparently, while the driving is unsafe ("that would be illegal in Britain" says Clarkson at one point; but doesn't he hate over-zealous "health and safety"?) and the Burmese have a 20-lane highway in their capital but no traffic to speak of. Hahaha etc.

Of course the main schtick of Hammond, Clarkson and May is, and has always been, taking the mickey out of each other.

It is fair to say that if they are taking it out of everything and everyone around them, they are fairly merciless about each other too.

Does that save the show? I imagine the answer to that depends on whether you are one of the many millions who watch it - or one of the many millions who don't.

- NZ Herald

Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

It has been said the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are a rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. Despite having none of these things, Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. Although it has been rumoured that he embarked on his journalism career as the result of a lost bet, the truth is that although he was obsessed by the boy reporter Tintin as a child, he originally intended to be an accountant. Instead, after a long but at times spectacularly bad stint at university involving two different institutions, a year as a studio radio programme director and a still uncompleted degree, he fell into journalism, a decision his mother has only recently come to terms with. A graduate of the Auckland Institute of Technology (now AUT) journalism school, he was hired by the Herald on graduation in 1992 and spent the next eight years demonstrating little talent for daily news, some for television reviewing and a passable aptitude for long-form feature writing. Before returning to the Herald in 2008 to take up his present role, he spent three years as a freelance, three as a senior feature writer at Metro and one as a staff writer at North & South. As deputy editor of Canvas, his main responsibility is applauding the decisions of the editor, Michele Crawshaw. However he prefers to spend his time interviewing interesting people -- a career highlight was a confusing 15-minute phone interview with a stoned Anna Nicole Smith -- and pretending to understand what they're going on about. He has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

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