To those across the pond, it seems absurd that most in the United States have never so much as heard of “Top Gear,” a wildly popular British television show, focusing primarily on cars. Worse, an even smaller number of Americans have watched the show, and only a fraction of them watch it religiously. Do not let the lack of popularity of “Top Gear” in the United States fool you — it is one of the biggest television programs in the world.
In 2010, “Top Gear” was being watched by about 350 million viewers in 170 countries every week. For reference, in its sixth season, “American Idol” was averaging 37.44 million viewers per week, in the United States. This year’s Super Bowl, with a mere 114.4 million viewers, was the most-watched television event in America, ever. And so it bears repeating: “Top Gear” is mind-boggling popular.
That is what makes the March 25 announcement from the British Broadcasting Co. (BBC) that co-host Jeremy Clarkson will not have his contract renewed all the more shocking.
Clarkson is considered, by many, as something of a “first among equals” with his fellow co-hosts, James May and Richard Hammond. He is wildly popular and, to many, he is one of the main draws of “Top Gear.” Clarkson is completely irreplaceable, at least as far as the show’s legion of fans are concerned, and so the decision to fire him is extremely controversial.
The announcement came as a result of an incident that occurred on March 4. Clarkson had come back to the Simonstone Hall Hotel late, and was informed that he would not be served a hot meal. He then proceeded to scream and verbally abuse “Top Gear” producer Oisin Tymon for 20 minutes, physically assaulting him for another 30 seconds, before a witness stepped in and ended the attack.
No one is disputing that these are the events as they happened. There were multiple witnesses, and the facts of the story are consistent regardless of who is recounting them. Many are reflecting on the fact that this incident was not wholly unpredictable. Rumors of Clarkson being difficult to work with have existed for some time, and he has allegedly come close to being fired in the past. Fans of “Top Gear” have been aware of this sort of behavior for years, but have largely been apathetic to Clarkson’s faults, due to how entertaining he is on screen. James May perhaps said it best: “The man is a c***, but I quite like him.”
Unfortunate as it is, the BBC is making the right decision here. Being difficult to work with and assaulting someone, both physically and verbally, are two very distinct categories.
Too often, production companies and celebrities have a habit of forgiving the crimes of its biggest stars. Director Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 for raping a 13-year-old girl and pled guilty to the charge of unlawful sex with a minor. He fled from the United States to Europe and continues to direct movies. He won an Oscar for Best Director in 2002 for “The Pianist.”
Similarly, Chris Brown has maintained his status as a superstar, despite assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009. As Seth Rogan said, “You can literally beat the s*** out of a nominee, and they’ll ask you to perform twice at the Grammys.” For some reason, we tolerate behavior like that in the name of money, or image.
The BBC’s firing of Clarkson makes it absolutely clear that the safety and dignity of its workers are more important than money or image. It will not tolerate behavior like that and neither should the public. This incident could have very easily been swept under the rug, but instead, the BBC chose to tackle the situation head on, and make the hard decision. For that, it should be applauded.
The future of “Top Gear” is uncertain. The fate of the show rests primarily on Clarkson’s two co-hosts, and many fans believe and hope they will also leave the show and work with Clarkson elsewhere, on a similar program. Only time will tell what they decide to do and what the future of “Top Gear” will look like.