When Jeremy Clarkson left Top Gear in 2015, the show seemed doomed. Yet it soldiers on, boring but unbowed, while Clarkson’s profile is much diminished. Duncan Greive asks whether the fading of Clarkson, Paul Henry and Bill O’Reilly means the end of an era looms for a particular species of male broadcaster.
Jeremy Clarkson, most recently in the news implausibly denying responsibility for porn videos he liked on social media, was fired as host of Top Gear in March of 2015 after a “fracas” with a producer who served him a cold meat platter, rather than the requested steak. It was a blowup too far for the BBC show, which has had so many controversies they merit their own 4000w Wikipedia page.
He made fun of – and this is a necessarily incomplete list – Mexicans, gays, Germans, the victims of a fatal train crash, Romanians, women, Asians and people with mental health issues, which is to say almost everyone who was not a phenomenally wealthy straight white man like him.
For many years, that approach was the most reliable predictor of broadcasting success. Think of Piers Morgan in the UK, Alan Jones in Australia and Bill O’Reilly in the US. Paul Holmes was its local exemplar, as he evolved in his later years from a fearless and often empathetic interviewer to someone who called UN Secretary General Kofi Annan a “cheeky darkie”. His children were Paul Henry and Mike Hosking, only one of whom survives, but is doing quite well, in case you were wondering, and will soon host our political debates on TVNZ 1 and probably do a pretty good job (sorry).
There are a number of bleak reasons they succeeded, but one that’s unfashionable to acknowledge is that there is something about these men. They have an unerring self-confidence which manifests in both the outlandishness of their public statements, and the certitude with which they’re delivered. Even if they’re not actually based in fact – or even particularly well-argued – they have the appearance of logic and ‘just common sense’. Something about the scale of their audience and the implicit courage of their conviction makes for incredibly compelling viewing.
I remember being at the launch of a new season for Three a year or so ago. It was groaning with celebrities and advertising clients. A bunch of different very famous people spoke to the room, and it was fine – we were drinking and eating and it was a good time.
Then Paul Henry took the stage. At this point he was months if not weeks away from the end of his TV career, and the way he slunk out, the indifference of it, suggests his heart had already left the industry. Yet even phoning it in to a client event he was electrifying – brilliantly funny and charismatic and devilish – you just couldn’t look away. This is the unfortunate problem with this generation of men: for all their faults, they are really, really good at their jobs.
Which brings us back to Clarkson and Top Gear. He left in one of the great shitstorms of recent television history, decamping with his colleagues James May and Richard Hammond to Amazon Prime and a new production entitled The Grand Tour. It would have been a creatively logical point to say ‘enough’, admit that Top Gear had run its course and deal with it.
Only Top Gear was too big to fail, a juggernaut brand which earned the BBC around $70m a year. So they rebooted it, with the much more mild-mannered Joey from Friends (Matt LeBlanc to his mum) and the laddish Chris Evans, clearly intended as Clarkson II. The lineup lasted two months, before Evans stepped down amid a little shitstorm of his own, with LeBlanc continuing alongside a rotation of other hosts.
So how is the new Top Gear? It’s essentially the exact same show: LeBlanc is now in the Clarkson role, eye-balling the camera, delivering scripted monologues and bantering with guests and co-hosts. They still galavant around the world, racing exotic cars and doing big budget hijinks. The edit and detail and weird shots and money of the show is all there.
Only, it sucks now. LeBlanc’s Clarkson impression is terrible, serving only to show how hard it is to make it look effortless. The new co-hosts are younger, gamer and definitely more well-rounded people. But they’re not Hammond and May, and it’s gone from being a riveting show which happened to feature cars to a car show, of interest to those who are interested in cars.
It makes me wonder if we’re actually witnessing the decline of an era. Strange timing, with an unerringly confident ex-pundit literally the most powerful person on earth. But he got there by exploiting the fears of a particular generation of men. And part of what scares them is that they don’t rule as of right anymore. They still have by far the best deal on the planet in the aggregate, but they can sense that things are moving fast.
The next generation of our white male current affairs presenters – the likes of Jack Tame and Jesse Mulligan – are different, in both politics and style. They’re more respectful of co-hosts, more curious about lives different to their own, and more conscious that their own experience of the world is grounded in a privilege that is alien to much of their audience.
More often, though still not nearly often enough, the next generation of presenters aren’t white men at all – Kanoa Lloyd, Hilary Barry, Mihingarangi Forbes, Rachel Smalley, Ali Mau, Nadine Higgins and Lisa Owen sit at various stages on different conveyor belts. One day a woman might even be given a prime time slot alone – a situation only RNZ really approaches with Kathryn Ryan and Kim Hill, each of whom has an argument as being the best interviewer in the country.
While that day will come, it’s not here yet. Mike Hosking remains atop the mountain, and his generation and his conviction remains the archetype around the western world. And while the type attracts immense loathing – there is a petition to have him removed from hosting TVNZ’s debates with 58,000 signatures – it’s impossible to deny that there is a white hot skill to what they do. It’s just waning, is all, in both its power and our collective interest in it. Just ask Mark Richardson, who desperately wants to join that club, but is finding our tolerance is lower. It’s as if he arrived at the world’s best party just as it was winding down.
So if you like those guys, savour these days. Because they won’t last forever.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.