Try a Mid-Life Crisis for Fun and Profit! ‘Top Gear: The Great African Adventure’

There is a doubtless apocryphal story about the time that supermodel Kate Moss met Jeremy Clarkson at a party. Moss, apparently one of the very few Brits never to have heard of him, asked him what he did. Top Gear, he replied. Moss smiled approvingly. She thought he meant that he was a drug dealer.

Whatever its provenance, it’s a funny vignette. The idea that the perpetually middle-aged, jeans-and-suit-jacketed Clarkson being anyone’s go-to guy for high quality London blow is brilliant. He is comfortable Middle England personified. A Yorkshireman by birth, he is now firmly planted in the well-to-do Cotswolds. David Cameron is his countryside neighbor.

He is, however, a divisive figure, never happier than when winding up liberals with his views on the environment, cyclists, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and anyone or anything else that gets in the way of his fun. He is boorish, arrogant and bombastic, the last person on earth you’d want to be stuck in an elevator with. He is also one of the most talented TV presenters of his generation.

The evidence is plain enough. Top Gear, the show with which he is most associated, is colossal. With global viewing figures measured in nine digits, it vies with Doctor Who for the position of the BBC’s biggest export. Its extensive presence on torrenting sites notwithstanding, it’s one of the corporation’s biggest money-spinners, and has made millionaires of its stars.

Like Doctor Who, Top Gear is in its second incarnation. For almost 25 years it was a modest, consumer motoring show that road-tested and reviewed small family cars of the type that the average viewer had just driven home from work. Facing cancellation, the show was rebuilt as a brash, humor-driven circus that featured insane stunts, laddish pranks and the sort of high performance cars that would appear outlandishly expensive on the streets of Monaco, never mind Manchester.

That you can no longer tune in to find out how a Ford Mondeo fares on the school run is no loss. Top Gear Mk2 is less about the cars, and more about the presenters, and by extension, masculinity itself. It’s trite, but fun, to recall the usual saw about inadequate men using Bugattis and Ferraris as a kind of virility-by-proxy, but Top Gear is equally happy to leave the horsepower in the garage.

Extended challenges, of which this Great African Adventure is merely the latest, make a virtue of inadequacy. Using an arbitrary restriction, such as relying on a self-built car, the three leads compete to reach an equally arbitrary goal. In this edition, they attempt to outdo Dr Livingstone and find the source of the Nile. Each man is given a maximum budget of £1500 (just over $2000) to purchase a used estate car, or station wagon, the most boring car imaginable and must undertake the entire journey in it.

The deliberate unsuitability of the cars underlines the central theme of the show. They are not using hostile terrain to road test a fully equipped 4×4, they are seeking to make things difficult for themselves because it’s funny to do so. They care as little for the source of the Nile as they do the vehicles; they simply want an excuse to spend a few days tooling about Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania while merrily ripping the piss out of each other.

With its two hour running time and exclusive focus on the journey, The Great African Adventure is a road movie in all but name. Consequently, it has far less concern for the destination than the journey, and less concern for that than for the men making it. That’s just about right because Top Gear is not about motoring at all; it’s about men, and middle-aged men in particular.

Clarkson, who has presented since 1988, is joined by Richard Hammond, a small, enthusiastic motoring journalist whose boyish looks endeared him to female viewers, and James May, who has a professorial air, and, almost uniquely of the three, actually cares about what goes on under the hood of the powerful and expensive machines that they mess around with. It earns him no praise from the others.

Clarkson has written and spoken about great engineering with eloquence and passion, but has little interest in the mundanity of mechanics, deriding the mechanically-minded May as geeky and boring. Hammond, too, is subject to the aggressive jocularity of Clarkson as well as the gentle ribbing of May, who is also mocked by Hammond. There is a sense of arrested development in all three, that they are straining every fiber to remain the snickering public schoolboys that they once were.

It’s a battle they are doomed to lose. Their ersatz rock star mullets cannot compensate for their thinning pates and their Levi 501s struggle against expanding waistlines. They are perhaps the definitive middle-aged men of our time. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine Clarkson, who has been on national TV since he was 28, as anything other than middle-aged. He is now 53 and will probably continue to seem ‘a bit middle-aged’ for another 20 years.

May is 50, while Hammond is the youngest at 43. The popularity of the show implies that their fan base crosses all ages and gender boundaries, but there is something peculiarly escapist about them. Theirs is the modern middle age of stag weekends, boys’ nights out and newly discovered passions for extreme sports.

It’s a tired cliché that men don’t talk about their feelings. Of course they do, they just don’t realize it at the time. At one moment in their sub-Saharan sojourn the three of them pause to reflect on the beauty of the landscape. Typically, it prompts a discussion of the male condition. The Victorian explorers described this land as an inhospitable hellhole, filled with invasive flora and deadly fauna. And the insects, oh dear Lord, the insects.

Clarkson, as ever, has a theory. These 19th century pioneers simply made the place sound bad so that they could excuse a lengthy stay. ‘It will take around five years, they’d write, ‘I shall probably get lost. The reality is that they were, in the words of May, the Victorians were ‘just a bunch of hoorays on a very long gap year’. I looked for any glimmer of irony in his words. I detected none.

We used to call this sort of thing a mid-life crisis (Hammond and May, hilariously, both own Porsches), but it’s been normalized to the point of becoming something of a mid-life expectation. It’s been rendered safe, and relatively inoffensive, an occasional temporary escape rather than a full-blown breakdown. We might call it a managed crisis. If you’re a bored suburban 50-something, you’re probably not going to seduce your daughter’s 18-year-old friend in a bath full of rose petals, but you might convince your wife to let you head off with your buddies for a weekend at a racetrack. Just as long as you finish your chores first.

Clarkson and May mock Hammond for having dyed his hair (43 with no gray? C’mon man) and compare him disdainfully to the eternally chestnut-brown Paul McCartney. It’s a telling reference. The Top Gear crew is at least a generation behind their rock ‘n’ roll heroes, but they are the obvious template, albeit not for the reasons that they might hope. When the soundtrack launches into the Rolling Stones it’s not the cool ’60s and ’70s Stones, it’s Doom and Gloom, from 2013. Clarkson and co cruise about listening to 70-something men larking about in leather pants and wielding Stratocasters like they are perpetually 21. Jeez, does anyone grow old these days?

Patchwork efforts at preservation aren’t restricted to the men. Over the course of their journey, each car will be subject to beatings, hammerings and crashes. Parts of the bodywork is cut out and bolted on to another. Early on, Clarkson attempts some functional repair to his engine. With a hammer.

In a section reminiscent of the A Team, the three rebuild the interiors of their vehicles to add comfort. Each man is reflected in his choice. Hammond adds a working stove and sink, along with a spice rack, May fits a workbench with tools and vise, and Clarkson makes a bed with fine Egyptian linen. Even if he hadn’t used a coffin to make a chest of horizontal drawers, which of course he did, it would look funereal. As it shudders along, behind his driver’s seat, it’s tempting to note the connotation of this overgrown man-boy running, well driving, away from death.

Every stop reveals a little bit more about the preoccupations of the middle-aged man. They stop at the bullet-scarred Entebbe airport and marvel at the Israeli Defense Forces who, in 1976, managed to ascend the stairs without losing their breath. In Kigali, they encounter an extreme version of that recurrent nightmare of the middle-aged man, a traffic jam. The scene resembles, in the words of May ‘a scrap yard on the road’ but they survive it.

They are sanitized adventures but they confer achievement nonetheless. ‘We’re not too old for this shit,’ they appear to be saying. ‘We’re not too old for this shit’.

Eventually, they reach the dirty well that they convince themselves is the true source of the world’s longest river. They make half-assed attempts to talk it up, proclaiming that this water will flow to Egypt and Italy, to Algeria and Morocco, but it’s really beside the point. As they jostle one another and pose for awkward sepia photographs, they paradoxically seek anti-climax. They’re still too involved in their journeys, and their destination is a thing to be feared, a thing to be fled. And if you can flee it in a modest family car that cost less than your last vacation, then all the better.

RATING 6 / 10