Wednesday, March 11, 2015
You say "fracas", I say "punch-up", let's call the whole thing off
And so, an alleged incident last week gets reported by the Radio Times (didn't it used to be a TV listings magazine?), and before you know it, BBC upper management has the excuse it has been waiting for to formally discipline Jeremy Clarkson.
Curious. And on the day after Rona Fairhead, head of the BBC Trust, came under fire for her relationship with the scandal-hit bank HSBC. Seeing as Clarkson's alleged "fracas" last week was only reported by the BBC's own publication yesterday, with the corporation suspending him soon after, you could forgive the suspicious for thinking they'd caught a whiff of conspiracy.
It was, though, Or, at least, a bit of a joke, given the Beeb's choice of "fracas" to begin with. How very British. How very PR. A fracas is defined as "a noisy, disorderly disturbance or fight", so no doubt lawyers came up with the word as a polite catch-all.
The facts of the case, however (and despite apparent chapter-and-verse details reported in today's newspapers), are not yet fully clear. Stories vary from Clarkson merely remonstrating with the assistant producer, Oisin Tymon, over, apparently, the absence of catering at the end of a Top Gear shoot in Newcastle, to Clarkson "aiming a punch at" him, to Clarkson actually hitting the producer. No doubt there is a span of reality between all three.
All of this reminds me of the incident many years ago in which two Sky News presenters, Chris Mann and Scott Chisholm, got into a proper fight. This was no "fracas", no "disagreement", "brief exchange of opinions" or any other PR euphemism. Even "altercation" sounds like Victorians observing Queensberry Rules. No, this was an actual punch-up. A Ron Burgundy-style face-off. A burly scot and a burly Scott (and both colleagues of Kay Burley) rolling down an Osterley corridor like clothed versions of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The pair were suspended with immediate effect, but not without Sky enduring ceaseless ridicule from every newsroom between London and Sydney.
If the Sky dust-up had taken place in any other office, it would have barely bothered the pages of a local rag. And to be honest, at the time, Sky was still in its infancy, and neither Mann or Chisholm were big names outside their own self regard.
Clarkson is different. He is, to all intents and purposes, Top Gear. And Top Gear, in the 'new' format he and executive producer Andy Willman created 12 years ago, has become a global hit making oodles of money for the BBC from show syndication, DVDs, iTunes downloads, Stig toys and all the other Christmas-bound detritus that has built up around what is essentially Last Of The Summer Wine with cars - three blokes "cocking around", as they like to describe themselves.
I can understand those who don't like Clarkson, Top Gear or both. He is/it is decidedly blokeish, at times painfully scripted, 22 seasons in, very formulaic, and in Richard Hammond, televises some of the most exaggerated mannerisms in the industry. But I also get its appeal: its high production values make for some genuinely excellent television. The specials, challenges and longer-form films have been brilliant. And, no, it doesn't take itself seriously. If you're going to be offended by the things Clarkson says, you're going to be offended by Alf Garnett, which means that you're missing the joke entirely.
That said, clearly Clarkson - for it is almost always him - knows how to get dangerously close to the line, one that - like guard fences in World War II POW camps - has a minefield either side of it. The "slope" joke during the Borneo special was appalling and actually offensive, and the excuses made by the BBC in its wake were just as bad. And I'm still hugely suspicious that the 'H982FKL' number plate of the Porsche driven by Clarkson in Argentina was no accident.
It's exactly this sort of thing that divides opinion so. Much - if not most - of Top Gear's personality is Clarkson himself. And readers of his weekly column in The Sunday Times will see no difference, either. He is partly a caricature - public schoolboy (Repton), politically incorrect, probably a Tory, hangs on to being a professional Yorkshireman saying shocking things to scare old ladies, not, for effect, either, and has spent the better part of three decades (since his first appearance on 'old' Top Gear) nurturing this image of belligerence.
Some say, if I can use those words, that it is calculated. It's not. Clarkson is Clarkson. For every tweet calling for him to be reinstated there have been those congratulating the BBC for finally calling their "vial" [sic] cash cow to account (an ironic typo given the toxic associations of such a vessel).
If the BBC does sack Clarkson, his somewhat sanguine banter on Twitter last night suggests that he's not bothered, and nor are co-stars Hammond and James May who have been anchored around him. Even though Clarkson and Willman sold the rights to Top Gear back to the BBC, lawyers will no doubt find a way to move it to Sky, who would kill to have such a property. ITV, too, could do with something to replace the Champions League for advertisers seeking to reach the sort of demographics Top Gear connects with on BBC2.
All this, though, does dangerously detract from the core of the issue. It doesn't matter who you are, or what you do for your employer, you can't go around punching colleagues. The 'don't fire Clarkson' campaign seems to be worryingly overlooking this fact. It might have held true for some of the near-knuckle things he's said in the past, but if his fist did connect with Tymon, there is no justification - Top Gear's commercial importance, a tired and famished presenter, even incompetence - that can stand in the way of punitive action against Clarkson, who might also face a chat with Inspector Plod, too.