TV COLUMN: Top Gear, Versailles, Carla Lane

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his view of some of the recent events on television.

After the sackings, the hirings, the promises of rebranding and upgrading, toning down and suping-up, the ‘new’ Top Gear (BBC2) came back…looking almost exactly like the ‘old’ Top Gear.

If imitation is indeed the greatest form of flattery, then Jeremy Clarkson must have been feeling pretty chuffed this week. It was, however, the very palest of imitations.

‘Flop Gear’ is how it got tagged in some areas of the press. The Mail described it as being “at best like watching a Top Gear tribute band”.

Even in the Guardian, hardly a paper which would claim to be the spiritual home of Clarkson, Sam Wollaston ironically questioned “Jesus, did I just admit to missing Jeremy Clarkson, in the Guardian?”

Where to begin? The chemistry between Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc failed to fizz. They came across as a couple of guys who’d been told they were best budds, but spent an hour trying to work out just why.

The writing was clunky. The sort of thing that comes out of a computer programmed to imitate the original. It was a shoddy Clarkson knock-off, delivered with an embarrassing lack of fluency.

Evans was more himself with the impromptu and less scripted interview section, where guest, Gordon Ramsey, was his usual good value. Though the choice of second guest, Jesse Eisenberg, was surprising for episode one, as Eisenberg knew even less about cars than the writer of this column.

The viewing figures were down on the last run of Clarkson, May and Hammond, and well below the 8 million peak of previous years. And this was for the hugely trailed and over-hyped episode one. The BBC must be praying no serious competition goes up against it in the schedules – including a good England run in Euro ’16 – or Evans’ Top Gear could end its first run embarrassingly under the 4 million viewers figure.

Versailles (BBC2) is the latest period drama romp, with the emphasis very definitely on the ‘romp’. Games of Thrones has set the nudity benchmark in recent years and no costume drama worth its salt can call itself such without frequent disrobing of the said costumes.

Set in the French court of Louis VIX, Versailles is a dramatisation of the growth of Louis, the self-styled Sun King, and the building of France’s most iconic palace. (At the same time in England, we were rebuilding London after the great fire of 1666).

Versailles has all the ingredients of a modern political period drama: intrigue, lots of gratuitous violence, even more gratuitous sex and nudity, stunning sets and sumptuous photography. And sitting pretty in the middle of the midweek schedules, it’s sure to be a winner.

Any lover of television cannot let the week pass without a mention of Carla Lane, who died this week.

Lane wrote three of the 1970s and 1980s most iconic sit-coms, in The Liver Birds, Butterflies, and Bread. All three in their own ways both defined and reflected the social fabric of their times, none more so than for women.

Lane’s comedy writing was incredibly varied. She could dance between pathos, irony, wit, and even slapstick when the need arose.

A sharp observer of human folly and sadness, Lane was one of the few television writers who transcend the narrow confines of the small screen and join a lineage of British comedy tradition that stretches from Chaucer, through Shakespeare, Swift, Wilde, Bennett, and many more besides.

True comedy is more than just a ‘good laugh’. It is a laugh with others to reveal ourselves. Funny on its own doesn’t cut it; funny on its own is just a joke. For everything modern TV gives us, the one thing we have lost is the ability to laugh at ourselves. We need a new Carla Lane.