These Two British TV Shows Are the Perfect Antidote to the World as We Know It

Our critic samples programs that are peculiar as they are timeless.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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'Top Gear' presenter Richard Hammond. The enthusiastic one.Credit: Reuters
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

There is a short monologue in “The Suitcase Packers,” written in the 1980s by Hanoch Levin (1940-99) one of the best Israeli playwrights, in which one of the characters, a young woman, announces that she is leaving for London. “I have no illusions about London. London doesn’t wait for me. There, too, I’ll be alone. But London has great music, in London people are nicer, London has great TV, and the despair becomes more comfortable.”

It does not rhyme, and doesn’t scan, but it was made into a song by Chava Alberstein, made the top ten in its time, and its last line, about the yearning for despair to be “more comfortable” became the perfect phrase for an existential Israeli malaise.

Oddly enough, that line from the play doesn’t mention the theater, which makes the capital of Great Britain a Mecca for theater lovers, and nowadays it sounds dated, as you don’t have to be in London, or even have a TV set, there or anywhere else on the globe, to savor British TV. It still enjoys a worldwide reputation of being classy, well written, exquisitely acted and hugely enjoyable. To mention just three examples of the wide variety of British TV fare watched by viewers all over the world: “Downton Abbey” with its noble landlords having to cope with time flying by, and not having much fun; “Sherlock,” reinventing for the 21st century the consulting detective who never lived and therefore can never die, as an exhibition at the Museum of London reminds us. (Benedict Cumberbatch, the hottest movie and TV star and the current Sherlock, will play Hamlet on the London stage next summer at the Barbican Center.) And last but not least, “Episodes,” a British-American series, highlights the differences in the common language on the two sides of the Atlantic. (Its female star, Tamsin Greig, is currently performing in a musical version of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” on the London stage.)

Recently I spent a week in London, sampling the local theater diet, so my TV viewing was limited to mornings and late nights; it mainly consisted of reruns of two rather peculiar, and very British, examples of talk shows with a twist, from two opposing sides of a wide spectrum: “Top Gear” and “QI”.

Though I’m an excellent driver, I’m not very passionate about cars. But you don’t have to be to enjoy the motoring romp that Jeremy Clarkson has been hosting for the last 22 years on BBC. It is apparently the most-watched British TV show all over the world, as motoring is apparently a universal passion. Clarkson and his sidekicks, Richard Hammond (aka The Hamster) and James May test-drive various cars, plan and execute the most elaborate stunts (Hammond was almost killed trying to break a speed record a couple of seasons ago, and it was not a publicity stunt), and generally have fun with cars. There is also a helmeted, anonymous driver nicknamed Stig who will drive anything on wheels faster and better than any other living creature.

It is a very macho, white, and not very young show. There are almost no women on it, and Clarkson is known to be politically incorrect. He is generally not pleased or amused with the cars he is driving (“rubbish” is his favorite adjective). Hammond is the enthusiastic one, whereas May is wonderfully laid back and sort of puzzled and resigned about anything that happens to him or the car he is driving.

If “Top Gear” appeals to the primitive male in us – and that may include women, by the way, since they can drive as well if not better than the men – “QI” is supposed to appeal to the quirky intellect of the human species. The acronym of the title, appealing to all of us who aspire to a high IQ, stands for Quite Interesting. The host is the one and only Stephen Fry, who made his mark in recent years as the man for all possible and impossible seasons. The show has just finished its 12th season, each of which is named after a letter of the Latin alphabet. Unlike “Top Gear,” which is made up of three guys and many cars, “QI” is rigidly structured, without anyone being able to explain or understand the structure.

It was originally planned as a radio show, and then morphed into an irreverent, crazy TV quiz about trivia no one in the world could possibly be interested in. Fry and Alan Davies were supposed to be two participants, with an MC and guests. Eventually Fry landed in the host’s chair, with Davies being there every week, along with a list of recurring comics. There are very few women here as well, and it is also exclusively Caucasian. They all try to answer questions on very strange topics, striving mainly to be funny and interesting. The participants hit a button when they have an answer; the hit produces funny noises (the show is very inventive here) and there is a scoring system, but even Fry admits that nobody understands it. Most of the time the participants crack up laughing themselves silly, and the viewers – that is, me – find themselves laughing along, more often than not, being unclear about what was so funny. There is a lot of unnecessary information being bandied about, and it’s all about having a good, silly laugh, pretending that it’s an edifying procedure.

What struck me about both those shows is that they are charmingly childish and playful as well as wonderfully timeless. They have nothing to do with the world as it is. They can be rerun again and again, and you wouldn’t know if it’s the current season or one from 10 years ago. In that respect it is the perfect antidote to the world as it is. It’s all in top gear and quite interesting, indeed. Unfortunately, they can only be seen occasionally on local channels, usually unannounced in advance.