There’s a reason why Jeremy Clarkson has been called the “Simon Cowell of cars”. The host of the hugely popular BBC series Top Gear has long been a controversial figure. In April, he was alleged to have used a racial slur in a clip in which he recited the children’s rhyme “eeny, meeny, miny, moe”. Clarkson denies that he used a racially derogatory word and said he was “horrified” to discover that a mumble might have been mistaken for the offending term. He issued a statement “begging forgiveness”, but that hasn’t stopped viewers from calling on the BBC to fire the host.
It wasn’t the first time Clarkson has elicited complaints from the public, although his fans argue that it’s his behaviour that makes Top Gear so fun to watch. The genius of the franchise lies in the interaction between the three hosts – Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May – even if it risks being politically incorrect (for instance, the three judged a Ferrari F430 Speciale to be “a simpleton” that “should have been called the 430 Speciale Needs”).
Today, Top Gear remains one of the most popular series on BBC. The Financial Times says the show is sold to 214 countries and has a global audience in the multimillions. It has also spawned a hugely popular computer game and a successful magazine. Five international versions have been licenced, including formats for the US, Russia and most recently, China.
But as Dragon Satellite TV has learned, exploiting the show’s cult status hasn’t been so straightforward. The initial response to its Chinese version, which was first shown last Wednesday, has been mostly negative.
“Speechless, speechless, speechless,” one fan of the original series wrote. “My mother asks why I’m kneeling in front of the TV, it’s because I can’t believe what they have done,” agreed another disappointed viewer.
So what went so wrong? The programme, which is co-produced by BBC China, has tapped the executive director of the original series in an effort to keep the Chinese show as “loyal” to the BBC original as possible. The Chinese Top Gear even features a Chinese Stig – the anonymous driver who always wears a helmet and protective suit – plus familiar segments like ‘A Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ (in which celebs race round a track, aiming to get the fastest time). And as with the original, each episode is shot inside a hanger.
But viewers say the presenters of the Chinese series just aren’t as entertaining as Clarkson, Hammond and May. While TV show host Cheng Lei was “funny”, and singer Richie Ren was “energetic”, the choice of former Olympic diving champion Tian Liang was just “random”. There is little chemistry between the three on screen, critics say. Netizens have complained the hosts are “too polite with each other” or “try too hard to be funny”.
But most of the displeasure was directed at how little attention was given to the cars. In the first episode, not one but seven celebrities appeared in an extended version of ‘A Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’. However, the session reviewing a high performance brand lasted only five minutes, says Bit Auto, a Chinese car blog (it featured the Porsche 918 Spyder, a hybrid that has previously set a course speed record at the Nurburgring motorsports complex).
The main reason for weighting the show away from more technical reviews is that the producers want to capitalise on the popularity of reality TV, says NetEase, a portal.
In fact, the producer of the show claims that the Chinese Top Gear is less about the review of cars and more about the lives of the three hosts and their relationships with the automobiles.
In other words, it has become Top Gear meets reality show.
That hasn’t gone down well with many of the show’s longer-term fans.“I feel like I’m watching Dad, Where Are We Going [a hit reality show that features a group of celebrity dads taking their children on a field trip] and A Bite of China [a documentary about food that features exotic backdrops] all rolled into one,” one netizen complains.
Another gripe is that the Chinese adaptation has become an hour-long product placement for the show’s lead sponsor, Ford. For example, the celebrities race in a Ford Focus. Later, another Ford vehicle races against a Tesla. (Moreover the Ford Focus used in the race has automatic transmission rather than manual. Producers of the show say they took this decision because most Chinese celebrities can’t drive stick shifts.)
Products from other sponsors like Red Bull and handset maker Vivo also saw made calculated appearances.
To be fair, adapting Top Gear for other cultures is challenging. An Australian variation was launched in 2008 and has gone through several cast changes. A Russian version completed its first season in 2009, but no new episodes have been broadcast since. The American version was also adapted by three different networks but failed all three times, prompting one fan of the BBC show to tell the New York Times: “I just want it to not suck.”
Perhaps the most daunting task is replicating the chemistry of the Clarkson, Hammond and May trio. A bit like the casting of US sitcom Friends, it takes a certain serendipity to find personalities whose chemistry clicks. The British hosts are alternately witty, insulting, thick-skinned and unabashedly opinionated; they combine a Churchillian nationalism with a blokey love of machines; and perhaps most crucial of all, they are given a vast budget to indulge their teenage fantasies and have enormous fun in the process.
Copying that is a lot harder than it looks…
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