In one of his more thoughtful musings, Jeremy Clarkson once observed how today’s technology was so, well, boring.
While the great engineers of the 18th and 19th century transformed our lives with steam power, blast furnaces and electricity, today we all get excited by the tiniest of advances.
The DVD player for example. An improvement on the Betamax, maybe, but it’s not what you would call a giant leap forward for mankind, is it? Or MP3 player. No self-respecting teenager would be without one. But when you come down to it, it’s just a refinement of the concept devised by Thomas Edison in 1877. It’s a record player with knobs on.
Somewhere along the line, we seem to have run out of ideas. The pioneering spirit of Watt, Boulton and Brunel has made way for the calculated, commercially driven developments of Bill Gates.
But can you imagine, 200 years from now, a generation of wide-eyed school children looking back in awe at the invention of the touch-screen telephone?
Which is why millions will have looked forward with anticipation to the latest series of Top Gear. A motoring programme fronted by a stubbornly uncool middle-aged man and two unapologetically immature sidekicks does not sound a surefire ratings winner. But for the last 10 years, Top Gear has been the perfect antidote to the risk-averse, politically correct logic which conspires to make life so dull.
Take the unpronounceable Pagani Huayra which kicked off last night’s edition. There is no logical reason why any sane person would pay £800,000 for a new car, a piece of machinery that does largely the same job as one you can buy for £8,000.
But sanity is a very-overrated concept, as Richard Hammond proved as he was propelled around the track by 730bhp of raw mechanical muscle. The huge grin across his face surely echoed the sense of disbelief that must have accompanied the motoring pioneers who climbed aboard Nicholas Cugnot’s steam-powered contraption in 1769. Hammond’s child-like passion for the exposed workings of the gearbox and the titanium controls, his sense of wonder at the engineering which transforms an everyday appliance into a thing of such beauty, was a joy to behold.
This celebration of those who push the boundaries continued when James May put a Bentley through its paces on the rally circuit. But sadly from then on, it seemed to be downhill all the way, drawing us to the question about whether Top Gear is running out of fresh ideas too.
The Star In A Reasonably Priced Car had its day long ago, and these days is little more than Parkinson for D-listers. Does anybody really care that Damien Lewis out of Homeland once bought an Alfa Romeo off the forecourt of a junk shop? Or that he crashed it outside the Royal Shakespeare Company?
His timed lap descended into farce by virtue of the fact the test track was covered in snow. After two minutes of watching him scramble through the slush, Clarkson declared it the most entertaining of all time.
The last 20 minutes or so were little more than a remake from a previous show, where he drove the world’s smallest car into all sorts of unlikely places. This time he created his own microcar, essentially a quad bike with lights, and drove it around the British Library, Westfield Shopping Centre, and a West End theatre.
A clever and funny idea a few years ago, but dull and predictable this time around.
The closing skit, a limp parody of Dragons’ Den, posed the inevitable question: has Clarkson lost his mojo?
One must hope not. Over the years, the trio’s sense of wit, adventure and love of all things automotive has been a last bastion of unadulterated hedonism in a world which at times feels so sadly lacking in joie de vivre.
Sunday nights wouldn’t be the same without it.