Sunday, May 04, 2014

A Tale Of Two Jeremys

With apologies to anyone called Jeremy (especially the one I know who often reads this nonsense) and, indeed, anyone outside the UK who clearly won't know or, probably, care, this has not been the week to be one. A Jeremy, I mean.

To be more specific, a Jeremy working in the British broadcasting industry. Indeed, one working for the BBC. Actually, let's nail this one down: either of the Jeremys Paxman and Clarkson.

In case you missed the news, Paxman is to step down as main host of the BBC's late night current affairs snoozefest Newsnight (or "the most important agenda-setting news program of the day", depending on your priorities), while Clarkson was "caught" on camera reciting the nursery rhyme 'Eeny, Meenie, Miny, Moe', and apparently suggesting to mumble the 'n' word that we must refer to only as "the N word" (unless you're a bona fide American hip-hop artist - in which case, knock yourself out).

It is a neat coincidence that both Jeremys should have found themselves facing similar degrees of attention this week. Both are Yorkshire-born, which automatically gives them the right to be opinionated, heavy-handed, and over-bearing. Sorry Yorkshire folk, but face facts. 

The public personas of these two Jeremys have, to extent, been self-created, no doubt encouraged by producers and editors who've encouraged them to grow ever-more boorish. Like the Sex Pistols on the Grundy show, challenged to say something rude (on the ridiculous assumption that the viewing audience didn't get the concept of what a punk rocker was), those who supposedly have editorial responsibility for Paxman and Clarkson should accept some blame for the monsters they've created.

For example, it is alleged that the infamous grilling by Paxman of the evasively obsequious Michael Howard, when Home Secretary, in which he was asked the same question 12 times, was in part to pad out the segment. Now, personally, I'm with whoever said that "there is something of the night" about Howard, but still, this is playground bully stuff.

Paxo's retirement, he says, somewhat wearily, is to enjoy going to bed earlier, and that it was a decision he originally took last summer, with the 25th anniversary of him joining Newsnight coming up this year. But seeing as he only recently branded the BBC "smug", not to mention growing a beard as if to say ”I'm really not bothered about what people think", it's no surprise that the new head of BBC News recently gave Paxman a mild rebuke. An exit wasn't long on the cards after that.

And then what about Clarkson? I make no apology for enjoying Top Gear. Ever since it was reinvented as the motoring equivalent of Chris Evans' TGIF, it has been a welcome fixture in the Sunday evening schedules, an exquisitely filmed, mostly entertaining, not-too serious way to end the weekend and start the working week.

Of course it is chronically over-scripted; of course, it sets out to turn Clarkson, Hammond and May into broad caricatures of themselves - the public school show-off who amps up the political incorrectness for effect, the apparently anally retentive fop, and the boyish one with the exaggerated irony. But at least it is no longer presented by sweater-wearing dullards talking about camshafts and Morris Marina restoration projects.

The problem is that, apart from the exquisite photography of Top Gear, and the genuine interplay between the three presenters, the tendency to push the envelope on what is politically correct does grow tiresome. 

Personally, I think PC has gone too far, along with Health & Safety fascism. But what might make for mild ribbing amongst mates in the pub does not make for prime time television in an era when public tolerance of un-PC behaviour has been progressively eroded.

In fact, the issue over Clarkson's poor choice of "humour", which was outed by a Daily Mirror scoop of the offending video clip, is less to do with him being a racist (he's not - "a knob, but not a racist" wrote a friend of mine on Facebook this week, having known Clarkson from his motoring journalism days). He has simply been allowed to go too far too often. 

In Top Gear's otherwise brilliant "Christmas March", filmed in Burma with somewhat jingoistic references to The Bridge On The River Kwai, did they really have to throw in the "slope" joke? The contrived mea culpa that followed the denials and claims of innocence ("we didn't know it was an offensive term" - yeah, right) really demonstrates how poorly out of touch the Top Gear team have become in believing that their humour should have no limits.

Now, following the 'n' word revelations, Clarkson has revealed that the BBC has given him a final warning, and he will be sacked if he makes "one more offensive remark, anywhere, at any time".

If this was you or me being given a disciplinary ultimatum by our employers, we'd be wise to pay attention. Indeed, if this was you or me, we'd have been sacked a long time ago. But then, we probably don't make as much money for our employer as Clarkson does. Just sayin'.

The good news is that Clarkson, who rakes it in for himself through the merchandising and distribution rights to Top Gear, is clearly taking it seriously. Otherwise why would he open his column today in the Sunday Times with witty references to turning up for work with a copy of The Guardian under his arm, a promise not to goose Mary Beard in the BBC lifts, and the obligatory mention of lentils. For someone who pains at the unhealthy obsession the Daily Mail has on him, Clarkson goes out of his way to appeal to the very people who read that odious rag.

Frankly, when Clarkson's 'n' word revelation garnered just 300 complaints there are clearly more serious issues to get hot and bothered about. A controversy-for-the-sake-of-it ex-public schoolboy saying something offensive on television, or Syria, unemployment, the rise of Europe's new right wing, and the possibility of World War III starting in Eastern Ukraine. Know what I mean?

If Richard Keys and Andy Gray should rightly get fired from Sky Sports for making offensively sexist remarks off-camera, there has to a line the sand for Clarkson to either police himself from crossing, or have it policed for him.

Clarkson is no racist, and certainly isn't the messianic populist his media critics like to paint him as being. But when polls of who would make a better prime minister than the incumbent (currently some posh boy called Dave) are made, Clarkson is usually up there with Sir Richard Branson and Boris Johnson. Something to think about, methinks.

A Top Gear without Clarkson would probably be the end of Top Gear. May would go back to fixing motorbikes and writing dry motoring columns in the Daily Telegraph, while Hammond would probably return to local radio and his farm. Together, they have contrived to deliver for the last 12 years one of television's most entertaining formats. Perhaps now, the alpha chief of their little gang will grow up give us less of the back of the classroom joker and more of a genuinely excellent motoring journalist.

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