Sunday, 3 July 2011

Why I love Jeremy Clarkson.

Generations of motoring journalists have used metaphors to enliven their output. A bit of imagery can prevent a detailed account of, for example, the effect of the latest Haldex differential, from reading like a science paper. They can also inject a little fun to proceedings; it's easier to read with a smile on your face than a frown.

But it was Jeremy Clarkson, on BBC Top Gear in the early '90s who introduced the suggestive metaphor to collective consciousness, and it was this and the notoriety it lent him to which he owes his career. Particularly, the famous;

“...tighter than Vanessa Mae's G-String”.

This was genius. Calculated to sound offensive whilst not actually being so (Vanessa Mae is a concert violinist) it at once opened motoring journalism up to a whole new audience. 

I watched Top Gear in the '80s, simply because it had cars in it and I was obsessed. A typical episode of the then half-hour programme would contain a car test, a very earnest consumer affairs slot (during which I would probably zone out a little) and always finish with the inimitable Tony Mason presenting a motorsport feature. To be honest, it was of a limited appeal. It was popular, but only among a group consisting of mainly male, middle aged Autocar readers. As the only specifically car-themed programme on British TV, all it had to do to gain a following was to not be spectacularly awful.

Clarkson had begun by writing for such revered organs as The Rotherham Advertiser but had gone on to establish a pukka agency for conducting road-tests for magazines (a pretty forward thinking move). He had had a chance meeting with a BBC producer and it saw him in front of the Top Gear camera for the first time. He started fairly nervously, his mannerisms had that “first day at big school” vibe and he spoke with a slightly assumed, city gent accent. But from the offing his presentation technique was a breath of fresh air. It was clear that he wouldn't speak down to his audience, he delivered with a welcome degree of flippancy. And if something was crap, he'd call it.

It was a few months into his residency that he began to really make the franchise his own. Before long, every week at eight thirty on a Thursday evening, hundreds of thousands of people would tune into BBC2 to hear what Jezza (as he was quickly dubbed) would say. It would be talking point around water-coolers the next day, and more often than not he'd get a mention on moaning-viewers show Points Of View, not least when he opined that the Ford Probe was the first Ford he could remember that could “snap knicker elastic at fifty paces”. It totally made him as a household name, and it injected the arena of motoring journalism with a new energy. People who couldn't give a toss about cars would tune in for the sheer entertainment value of the show, or in the hope of catching some controversy.

Today, Top Gear is a global phenomenon, and, credit where credit is due, Clarkson is the man largely to thank. (Mind you, Andy Willman, long-time producer, deserves credit as the brains behind the whole endeavour).

This whole movement left its mark on the print world too, in '93 Top Gear was launched by the BBC in magazine format, and Jeremy Clarkson had considerable input. I was 12 at the time and remember thumbing the launch copy with sweaty hands, and then reading every single word at least a dozen times, scouring every page for bits I had missed last time round. As much as I loved CAR, Autocar and the rest, Top Gear rendered them all suddenly a little bit dated when it first landed with a thump on the news stands.

And they've almost felt like they were playing catch-up ever since. Today the standard of content has to be fantastic just to tread water, and a lot of the time they do a very god job. But in recent years there was an awful lot of me-too writing going on.

It would pain me every time I'd open a familiar magazine to see a new writer contributing, because I knew it could either go one way or the other. Of course, some were terrific, but occasionally one would show up and I would be utterly lost as to how the hell they were given page-space. And a large proportion of these came across as trying to “do a Clarkson”.

A piece would always open with a joke, or at least a feed-line, then there would typically be three phrases of fact, then a provocative metaphor, then three more bits of actual information, then another metaphor, and it would go like this for whatever length before ending with a pun or a punch-line. The middle-eight, if you like, would follow this rhythm:

“...Dum de dum de dum,
Dum de dum de dar.
Dum de dum de dum,
Twiddle diddle dee.”

Which, if we flesh those bones out with some car stuff, could read thus:

“...Flat plane crank V8 and
Sequential manual transmission.
Unequal length wishbones front and rear,
Ride harder than me at a lesbian orgy.”

And there seemed to be a race towards ever edgier metaphors. Clarkson started it with his G-String, but that had been clever. Gradually, when all and sundry were doing it, it became crass. It became boring. I wished that somebody would be the first to moderate things enough that they could keep the reader interested without suddenly lurching into comedy territory half way through every road-test.

It had, after all, been the '80s and 90's work of LJK Setright, Ronald Barker, Nik Berg, Andrew Frankel etc. that had feed my interest in cars in the first place, and they were able to spin a glorious web of sound and feel that drew me into the action, without constantly reaching for the next joke. Their writing was my drug, my distraction from schoolwork and the bane of my teacher's lives. In my teens I should have been expanding my mind with Tolstoy or Nietzsche, but instead I would have my head in a glossy, re-living a two-hundred mile per hour blast on the Mulsanne Straight.

These days, happily, the best journalism out there still creates fantastic kinaesthetic imagery without being overtly boorish. The vista through which every exotic road test passes is recreated in glorious technicolor, evocative language is used to not just outline the facts, but to bring the reader directly into the same world as the writer.

This is the bit that I love. And it's the bit that Clarkson loves too. He is still duty bound to deliver the occasional risque gag, it's his trademark, and everyone else does it anyway. I do, it's fun. But he's moved on, too. Nowadays he's comes over as more interested in creating a picture in broad strokes than using shock and awe. And, thankfully, the enlightened dozen or so of the industry are following suit, because motoring journalism as a whole is evolving.

Want to know my take on things? No? I'll tell you anyway. For me, a well written piece of automotive journalism shouldn't really read like a piece of automotive journalism at all. It should outline the facts, sure, and explain them where necessary, but it should read in the same way as a well crafted story. I love the idea of car-writing being of such a high standard that people turn to it for cultural stimulation as they would a good novel. Think of being able to choose between Autocar- The Next Generation, and a Bill Bryson book.

I feel that I can say all this as I am an outsider to the industry I love so much. But I also feel that the future popularity of written journalistic medial depends on quality and longevity, rather than short-term attention seeking. And anyone who disagrees is as wrong as Ena Sharples wearing a glittery thong.

Clarkson would be so proud.

Read Why I love Jeremy Clarkson here.

Everything you read herein is my opinion, nothing more. Hey, I've been wrong before and probably will again. Any innacuracies in facts listed are due to writing from passion rather than carrying out exhaustive research. Oh, and I flagrantly nicked the Clarkson image from Cheers Jeremy!