Culture Top Gear-style

I tuned into The Culture Show on BBC2 last night to catch their feature on the excellent American telly drama The Wire and its creator David Simon. Simon is an articulate and opinionated person with a lot of interesting things to say about the television industry and society at large, but I had a feeling the folks at the BBC would find some contrived way to mess up this golden opportunity. Sure enough, they decided to give the feature a ‘theme’ based on the show’s name, putting Simon in handcuffs and getting presenter Lauren Laverne to confront him with taped ‘wiretap evidence’ of his views about the show.

Simon is good value even under such duress, but this sort of time-wasting and gimmicky approach unfortunately seems to be increasingly common these days. Indeed, The Culture Show rather blatantly steals its format from the revamped Top Gear, being filmed in front of a live studio audience, and having its presenters Laverne and Mark Kermode stand up and chat in a pseudo-spontaneous fashion between the glossy and edit-heavy features.

A friend who is in a position to know tells me that, within the Beeb, the highly popular Top Gear is now seen as the Holy Grail of magazine show formats. Consequently it’s not good enough any more for a show to cover a subject just because it’s interesting, or to do so in a straightforward way and let the subject speak for itself. Every piece now has to have a Top Gear-style ‘angle’ involving celebrities, ridiculous challenges or better still both.

But this misunderstands the reason why Top Gear is popular. At the end of the day, it’s because of its content, not its format. As Patrick West argues, it’s the fun, imagination, joie de vivre, love of risk taking and the wilful disregard for political correctness that makes Top Gear stand out from other shows and appeal even to non-petrol heads such as myself.

The Culture Show seems staid and self-satisfied in comparison, rather ironically for a programme that is supposed to be interested in breaking barriers and challenging taboos. Lauren ‘isnt everything so humorous’ Laverne in particular exudes ironic disinterest. And while Clarkson and co may be boorish and infantile, they clearly love cars and their passion is infectious. Give me their half-scripted blokeish banter any day over the excruciatingly forced and arch exchanges between Laverne and Kermode – a match made in TV hell if ever there was one.

The Culture Show is so bad it almost makes me pine for its predecessors The Late Show and The Late Review. The Mark Lawsons and Germaine Greers of the world may be boring, pretentious and middle-of-the-road but at least they all share an unstated assumption that culture is worth taking seriously. The Culture Show on the other hand seems convinced that nobody really likes culture at all.

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