‘Top Gear’ moves into fast lane

BBC show gets ready to shift to NBC

LONDON — The BBC’s “Top Gear” began life as a staid, 30-minute regional magazine show about cars aimed at male audiences who wanted to talk horsepower and camshafts.

It was a largely dry, serious, forgettable program fronted by a medley of jobbing presenters who might have been reading the news or fronting a quiz show.

That was 31 years ago. Today “Top Gear” is one of the pubcaster’s most successful domestic properties thanks to its opinionated presenter Jeremy Clarkson and a 2002 re-launch that, six years on, shows no sign of stalling.

It’s now an hour long, split between on-location car reviews conducted with wry wit and humor by Clarkson and co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May, and studio-based interviews with celebs and other auto-fanatics, filmed in front of a TV audience.

Skein routinely gets audience shares of around 25% in the U.K. and is one of the BBC’s most pirated TV shows, having been sold as a finished program into dozens of international markets.

Now BBC Worldwide, the pubcaster’s commercial arm, wants to step on the gas by making local versions of a show that provides a lot of opportunities for merchandizing spin-offs.

“Top Gear” magazine is already published in more than 20 territories.

A live “Top Gear” tour kicks off soon in the U.K. with plans to take it on the road to South Africa, Australia and Hong Kong.

The original, British version of the show takes up most of Monday night on BBC America, but NBC has commissioned a pilot of a localized version.

The Australian “Top Gear” — hosted by motorsport commentator Charlie Cox, cartoonist Warren Brown and race driver Steve Pizzati — premiered on the SBS network after the Olympics this summer.

Provided the localized shows capture the irreverent essence of the original, the chances of success must be high.

The only snag is that in the U.K. most of “Top Gear’s” appeal is tied to the personality of the singular Clarkson.

The show is deftly filmed deploying the kind of production values familiar to anyone brought up on a diet of MTV videos and, given the bigger budgets of U.S. TV, the NBC version could look even better than Blighty’s version.

The studio sequences are pretty good, too, punctuated by clean, locker room banter that somehow doesn’t alienate female auds; the BBC claims that around 40% of “Top Gear’s” viewers are women.

But, make no mistake, it’s Clarkson, who returned to the show after failing to cut it as a talk show host, who is firmly in the driving seat.

The scourge of Blighty’s liberal chattering classes, Clarkson is a curious mix of schoolboy macho bluster and self-deprecation.

Somewhat frayed at the edges — despite his advancing years, Clarkson seems surgically attached to his jeans — he writes the kind of politically incorrect scripts that have all the hallmarks of a tabloid newspaper polemicist.

Clarkson’s stock-in-trade is the kind of insults high school students dream about making but are mostly too afraid to voice.

His bon mots might compare, say, driving a car he likes to “smearing honey onto Keira Knightley.”

You get the picture.

For many, especially feminists and other progressives, Clarkson is the kind of guy you either love to hate or just plain hate.

On one famous occasion he described an auto he disliked as being “a bit gay.”

Clarkson gets off on making mischief — and the larky repartee between him and co-presenters Hammond and May is another key ingredient in the show’s appeal.

“What’s interesting about ‘Top Gear’ is that everyone thinks it’s about cars,” says BBC Worldwide’s content head Wayne Garvie. “It isn’t. It’s about men and their relationships.”

Garvie oversaw production on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” the successful U.S. version of BBC hit “Strictly Come Dancing” (incidentally based on another British show that was brought back from the dead by modernizing a tired format).

In these days of soaring gas prices and green politics — in Blighty some senior politicians now make a point of pedaling to work — a TV show celebrating the automobile may feel hopelessly anachronistic.

But bona fide smallscreen brands remain rare commodities and in this respect “Top Gear” is cruising in the fast lane.