I'm going to say it, straight from the off: I am (or at least have been; I've waned in recent years) a fan of Top Gear. The banter, the silliness, the cars... It appealed to me and my sense of humour. I own several Top Gear DVDs, at least three books written by the presenters and back when Richard Hammond nearly lost his life in a jet car accident, I was frantically glued to the news footage, praying to Gods I'm not even sure I believe in, for him to pull through. I loved the show so much that I went along to one of the Top Gear Live shows they put on every year. I even went to see the TV show being filmed and met the presenters. It was a brilliant day and all three of the guys - Richard Hammond, James May and of course, Jeremy Clarkson, were witty, chatty and entertaining.
Not the best photo of me, I know. But you get the point...
But in the last couple of years, my affection for the show has dwindled somewhat. It started to get a little same-y and then I started to feel slightly uncomfortable with some of the "banter." What had once had me chuckling away on my sofa, started to make me cringe.
In 2012, when Top Gear went to India, Jeremy Clarkson made several provocative remarks about the country's food and history. It was then that I started wondering whether he was crossing a line from close-to-the-knuckle humour into something bordering on xenophobia. It wasn't as though he hadn't made similar comments before, but I suppose when you're a fan of something to the degree I was (and yes, prior to that point, I was one of those people vehemently defending Clarkson to his detractors), you simply don't want to see that it could be problematic. But it was at that point that I started to feel less comfortable with the jokes being made.
By the time Clarkson was forced to apologise for appearing to mutter the N-word during an un-broadcast piece of footage in 2014, I was no longer regularly watching the show. When the footage made the news, it concerned me, but didn't shock me, which is of itself, fairly indicative of Clarkson's notoriety for that kind of thing. I presumed he'd said it deliberately, for shock-value and I thought it was a bloody stupid, offensive thing to do. But I wasn't calling for his head to be on the block - perhaps wrongly - because I hoped that the rightful anger directed at him for his use of such a word would shock him into reigning in his behaviour and seeing that racist language is not in any way, shape or form acceptable.
Then, just months later, he proved me wrong when he used the word "slope" as a derogatory term for an Asian man (whilst describing a makeshift bridge he and his co-presenters had built across a river, he remarked to Richard Hammond: "this is a proud moment, but there's a slope on it" - clearly making a pun on the fact that an Asian man was crossing the bridge at the time) and I came to realise that Clarkson was a person with no intention of changing his ways. Indeed, again just months later, he drove through Argentina in a vehicle with a personalised number plate that was a clear reference to the Falklands War.
It's at this point that people start saying things like "Clarkson shouldn't be sacked; this is political correctness gone mad!"
Don't get me wrong; I think we can be too politically correct in this country at times. And I don't want to see genuine humour curtailed by it. But it seems to me that too often, people use the term to describe a rightful reaction to a negative situation. "So you can't have a joke at the expense of Asians anymore? It's political correctness gone mad!"
Except, no. It's just bloody decency. If people are telling you not to make racial slurs, it's not "political correctness," it's humanity. Are we really prepared to fight for our right to be racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise bigoted?!
Recently, Clarkson was suspended by the BBC, following an incident in a Yorkshire hotel, during which he punched a producer in the face over an argument about food. Clarkson had supposedly returned from a day's filming at 10pm, after the hotel's restaurant kitchen had stopped serving hot food. He demanded a steak and was instead offered a platter of either cheese or cold meats. This wasn't adequate, so he became verbally abusive, swearing at the producer and telling him that he'd ensure he lost his job, before landing a punch. Witnesses have expressed shock at the display, but I think I've gone past shock, where Jeremy Clarkson is concerned...
What I am shocked by, however, is the reaction of the public. At the time of writing, over 800,000 people have signed a petition for Clarkson to keep his job. From the arguments I've read online, their main concern seems to be that he's a "good TV presenter." Well, yes, he is (when he's not being racist...). But is that enough of a reason to let him off again?
This is a man who was warned over his use of racist language, only to go right ahead and use it again. This is a man who used physical violence and verbal abuse against someone, just because he wasn't immediately offered what he wanted for dinner. And yet more people care that he keeps his job than they care about signing a petition to stop cuts to our vital NHS mental health services...
What's more important to you? Potentially life-saving intervention for those who truly need it, or an incredibly rich, white guy being allowed to go around saying and doing whatever he likes, because he's quite entertaining on the telly?!
What that petition says to me is that 800,000+ people think that assaulting a colleague over a trivial matter is an acceptable, non-sackable offence. 800,000+ people apparently miss the "good old days," when you could make racist jokes without consequences. 800,000+ people will think that in writing this, I'm dull, "politically correct" and trying to strangle humour.
I'm not. I'm just saying that for many, "jokes" that are at the expense of minorities aren't funny. And for many, assaulting someone over a missing steak sandwich is not acceptable behaviour, either. I'm saying that whilst Jeremy Clarkson was often witty and entertaining on Top Gear, that shouldn't mean that he's given a free pass to do and say whatever he pleases. Where do we draw the line? Do we wait for him to assault someone else, or make further racist slurs? And if/when that happens, do we put off the inevitable again? What exactly are we waiting for?!
The suggestion is that Top Gear might die out completely, without Clarkson at the helm. That would be sad, because it's capable of being a brilliant programme. But is it so beyond the realm of possibility that it could remain popular without him? The show could still feature banter, caravans being blown up and stars in reasonably priced cars, after all. It's understandable that the BBC are scared of losing viewers of what is one of its most successful and widely exported TV shows ever, but are they really willing to give Jeremy Clarkson just another slap on the wrist? Had it been the other way around and the producer had punched Clarkson, would there even be a question as to whether or not that guy lost his job?! Of course not. They'd be publicly stating that workplace violence is unacceptable. Which it is.
For me, Clarkson has crossed the line for the final time. If the BBC want to prove that they are anti-racism, anti-abuse and no longer tip-toeing around their star presenters, afraid of rightfully rebuking them, then they need to stop giving him second (and third, fourth and fifth) chances. He's an intelligent man, with a brilliant presenting style and I was once a big fan. But like a spoilt child, he has begun pushing the boundaries, to see just what he can get away with. With his deliberate attempts to "shock," he's ceasing to be funny on screen. And with this behaviour off-camera, he's surely beyond the usual excuses BBC bosses are so keen to make for him. Let him apologise, let him promise to reign in his behaviour from now on, by all means. But let him prove himself a man of his word on a different television show. You can't keep giving warnings, or they become meaningless. As a fan of Top Gear, I want to see it go back to being a funny, clever show about cars. I don't want to keep seeing it making headlines for the same reasons, over and over again. It's time for Clarkson to go.
I always preferred Hamster, anyway...