In episode three of The Grand Tour Jeremy Clarkson and colleagues finally get round to addressing the show’s title by going off in fast, expensive cars around Italy. Their route, they announce, is that which original Grand Tourists might take – Siena to Venice via Vicenza and Florence – and as they zoom through sun-blasted Tuscan hills they explain why. GTers – rich people mostly, but sometimes poor people with rich sponsors – sought to escape the confines of their own cities and regions and experience the best of other cultures. This rarified Renaissance-themed wander had, then, an open-minded, culturally curious and liberal flavour despite being aristocratic and expensive to realise. As such its name is lent to the tv series with considerable justification: Amazon’s production cost a lot of money and the team are obviously enjoying world travel and meeting foreign people.
Ha! ‘Meeting foreign people’? GT is definitely a lot of rich men enjoying swanning about but ‘meeting foreign people’? Banter-Hitler Clarkson enjoys ‘meeting foreign people’ as much as Donald Trump enjoys meeting Mexican shovel makers. He’s as ‘open-minded’ as a bowl of split custard. Fuc. King. Hell.
Well, sorry. But… yes. You might not like it but Clarkson is open-minded because… he listens and responds to what people actually think. And not what people should think. His open-mindedness consists in not pre-judging people; avoiding writing whole swathes of them off as bigots; failing to imagine that they are either stupid (actually, they get it when people fool around) or delicate (actually they’re pretty stable and won’t be mortally wounded by people fooling around), a generosity of spirit commemorated a few days after his sacking when 4 million people (from around the world) instantly signed a petition to get him back. Here was an act of loyalty by an audience who instinctively felt he was on their side, who felt a misdemeanour from anyone else would probably have got them severely reprimanded, not sacked, and that lungeing light-headedly for his producer on an empty stomach wasn’t a last straw but an excuse to dump the man for all the stuff the higher-ups didn’t like about him and all the stuff they did, which was this: his tone.
Clarkson pays tribute to this audience/presenter bond forged at Top Gear in the first few minutes of the new show during a sequence which probably cost millions to film and probably ranks as one of the year’s most feelgood pieces of television. And now, six episodes in, the audience has returned the compliment by making the show – inevitably – very popular. Which brings me to my point. This didn’t happen for the post-Clarkson Top Gear. Simultaneously over-engineered and bodged, the BBC’s box-ticked and peer-reviewed-up-the-wazoo comeback utterly stunk. Oh BBC, how far you have fallen. Is there anything, anything at all you can do to claw yourselves back into our affections?
Well, of course there is. And why stop with just clawing your way back to the same level as a content-delivery company more obsessed by drones than British culture? Jesus Christ, BBC, remember your history. Be realistic, demand the eminently possible. Think about how you survived and renewed over the decades. You might start to make out a pattern involving risk-taking and fearlessness. You weren’t afraid to challenge authority, to reflect the voices of the nation back at their stuffy, entrenched betters. When you saw energy, enterprise and rebellion from the young you encouraged it and invited it in. Illegal pirate radio sparked Radio 1; The rude and impertinent Cambridge Footlights spawned TW3; Monty Python, the Johns Walters and Peel, Danny Baker, were all sucked up from the underground and transformed into national treasures. The disgusting bliss of alternative comedy: trickled out of the Comedy Store and Raymond’s Revue Bar to become a comedy tsunami through The Young Ones, A Kick up the Eighties, Alexei Sayle, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Saturday Night Fry, Cabaret Upstairs – the list goes on and on. Remember all that? What about the reputation conferred on you by the fighting, kicking, biting son of a coal-miner Dennis Potter as the real national theatre? This is a matchless record born of a risk-taking attitude against those who said ‘don’t encourage them, that way lies chaos’. So if you feel a bit scared to reflect the rebellious voices of the present, bear in mind that over time centres of cultural gravity shift and almost always justifiably, for good reason by good people. The loud voices with critical takes on the ‘regressive left’ and its obsession with environmentalism and identity politics might seem insensitive and harsh and opposed to All That Has Been Fought For, but they’re not critical out of cruelty or on a whim. They might seem to trample on sensitivities but criticism can be healthy: treated as robust, people have a natural tendency to match expectations, thereby avoiding the trap of wilting into therapy or medication.
With that in mind, bring back Weird Weekends (your own popular world-touring show from a few decades back). Not, obviously, in the same guise – you couldn’t do now what Louis Theroux did then. As alluded to above, the centre of gravity has shifted on that front. The weirdos and obsessives Louis went round the world to meet and capture as they stumbled over their words and thoughts seemed laughable and isolated to odd pockets of society then, but post-Brexit and post-Trump it’s harder to… what? Look down your nose? Compartmentalise? Yes, they may still be outliers but the distance, the co-efficient of weirdness has shrunk.
No, the brief needs updating. As it happens, the weirdness-shift has exposed a whole new crowd on the other side of the spectrum as sociologically and psychologically fascinating. Consider Gina Miller, the strange woman who’s spending large sums of money in court to derail a democratic decision made by 17.4m more people than her; or just head into academia, you’ll be like a kid in a candy shop. Where to start? My choice would be Michael Mann; extraordinary man. Absolutely extraordinary. Or what about the vastly wealthy ex-vice-president who’s obsessed about everybody else’s consumption habits. Weird celebrities (previously Jimmy Savile and Michael Barrymore) might be the permanently-exercised Father Ted co-writer Graham ‘straight off the deep end’ Linehan or Thom Yorke. Again, there’s a long list.
Of course, as with Louis’s original series the aim would categorically not be to smear. Theroux avoided easy judgements for good reason: no-one is 100% mad or deplorable. He was too interested in people to just sneer at them even if, in the event, Blairite Islingtonians took from his work an invitation to gawp at the awfulness of various redneck-types and ponder on the weird cultural destinations certain paths of evolutionary psychology will pitch us all if we don’t listen to our betters. (But what do you expect from Blairite Islingtonians?) The aim would be to examine the nature of insecurity with a novelist’s curiosity, in this instance the kinds of anxieties that evolve in parallel with growing power and influence. (These worldviews seem to slowly prioritise ‘responsible decision making’ to such pathological levels that maths and science begin to metastasise out of all control and infest politics and ethics like a monstrous, ravening cancer.)
But there would also be a second, equally important aim (possibly even more important aim). What are the big institutions for? They’re there to unite, to bond people with clashing evidence and differences of opinion together in negotiation. If big institutions forget this they betray the people and themselves as they allow a process of polarisation to take hold. Left in the bearpits of Youtube and Twitter our current uppity voices won’t develop and grow but instead fester, and the same will happen for wider society. Pollsters will forever be in the dark about what the hell is going on. One side of the nation will continue to snub the other. Alternatively, imagine what we might learn if, just for once, some sceptical voices on the internet were given the space to grow out of the flame-wars. There is no question this would help us move towards a more rounded understanding of each other.
Come on BBC. After a couple of hundred years of elitist Grand Touring the Thomas Cook Company turned up in the 1840s to offer something similar at affordable prices to the masses and you can do the same now, culturally speaking. There’s a huge opportunity to hear from strong voices online. If 2016 was a year of Grand Tours (a lavishly bank-rolled Clarkson going off round the world to enjoy meeting foreign people; Farage and Trump touring remote psephological lands to take new knowledge back home to a bewildered, bubble-wrapped Westminster and Washington), why not make 2017 a year of Cook’s Tours with the famed little people brought into the process? BBC commissioners and producers, listen: you don’t need Amazon’s riches, you can do this on a shoestring (with the added bonus of embarrassing the hell out of those spendthrifts in the process). The internet is short-circuiting with thinkers, jokers, writers, tweeting detectives, questioners of a wide variety – who will expand your horizons and slap you bang in the middle of the nation’s affections for the price of a cheap weekend in Merthyr Tydfil. Visit them and, even better, invite them back home. Ok, from the thorax: B-B-C! BBC! BBC!
SOME MOVEMENT ALREADY?
As noted elsewhere on Cliscep, Radio 4 producer Jo Fidgen, who in her Nothing But The Truth interviewed Stephan Lewandowsky on the subject of ‘post-truth’ (but not in the most interesting way available to her) says she’ll read material sent to her by our own Ben Pile. Which is good.