A question! Which television programme, we ask you, is the most illegally downloaded in the world? 'Lost'? 'CSI'? 'The Jade's Salon Tin Bath Full of Quicklime Special'? Wrong, wrong and wrong. It is, in fact, the BBC's paragon of geezer, 'Top Gear'. Hugely popular amongst petrolheads and lovers of shouty-bloke-type comedy the planet over, and without a regular slot in some of the world's largest gas-guzzling nations, it is passed round YouTube and torrent sites like Fiesta Readers' Wives around the school bike shed. The mind boggles.
As another series of 'Top Gear' draws to a tyre-shrieking conclusion this Sunday, we ask ourselves the question that shakes the very psyche of the British nation right down to its foundations and beyond. Jeremy Clarkson: is he going soft? Has 'Top Gear', as they say, jumped the shark? And, of course, the clincher: is Top Gear Dog the Scrappy Doo of the motoring magazine show?
Brash, loud, offensive to just about anybody in the whole world who doesn't live in the South-East of England, or wear tight jeans without a belt at the age of forty, we get the distinct impression that under Jezza's gnarled, politically incorrect exterior, there hides, in a very small way, a bearded, cardigan-wearing Bickerton-riding vegan. We would be prepared to speculate, even, that when ordering six pounds of very rare kitten steak at Le Restaurant de Posh in Kensington, he will quietly take the maitre d' aside and request a side-dish of hummus and a nourishing three-bean salad. Time mellows all men.
Oh, and the other two fellas. Y'know. The comedy sidekick with the hair; and the hamster.
The change in the programme has been as sudden as it has been unexpected. Coming back from a month's enforced lay-off as a result of the World Cup, the 10 gallon-per-mile supercars have been subtly nudged slightly to one side in favour of cars that normal people might actually be able to afford. Granted, they still thrash them to pieces as they've done every week since the programme's shouty 2002 re-birth, but all of a sudden there are articles about people carriers without Clarkson and co being insufferably rude. Then, something with a Ferrari just to keep up appearances.
Back in the old days, 'Top Gear' was a worthy, public service magazine programme for the kind of enthusiast that buffs up the company Cortina of a Sunday, dreaming of upgrading to a Volvo. Speed limits were rigidly adhered to, and there were long, detailed discussions on the shape of the gear stick on the Mini Metro. It was, we are sure you'll agree, horribly dull. And hugely popular, despite the presence of Noel Edmonds.
The new programme is very much Clarkson's baby, with just the merest nod to public service. It's not even about the cars anymore. It's three blokes talking wanky bollocks in front of a pub audience, and if you took all the automotive guff away and called the show 'Pow-errrrrrrrrrrr!' it would still stand up as a pretty successful ensemble comedy. If 'Top Gear' was a person, it'd be Billy Idol - the cutting edge of cool, dangerous driving, but, God, he's fifty...
'Top Gear''s laddish rebirth has drawn a steady stream of critics, essentially driven by the programme's none-less-green agenda and its status as 'the cutting edge of cocking about', bestowed on the show when they fired a rocket-powered Mini down a ski jump. Impartiality is one thing to which 'Top Gear' certainly does not subscribe. It openly mocks any link between the automobile and global warming, and would probably attempt to prove this by driving a Range Rover to the South Pole and leaving the engine running for a month. And people would still call this 'a waste of the licence fee'.
Somebody on high has almost certainly had a word: 'A bit more educating, informing and entertaining if you don't mind, and let that be the last caravan you blow up for a while. There's a BBC Charter to renew, and Mrs Jowell's got an eye on the Caravan Club vote.'
William Woollard would be spinning in his grave. That is, if we hunted him down like a dog and bumped him off with Jeremy's dream set of wheels - a Bugatti Veyron with boot-mounted Katyusha rocket system. Come to think of it, with Raymond Baxter's still twitching corpse propping up the Cool Wall, they should bring back 'Tomorrow's World' as well, get a few geezers to fart around on the cutting edge of technology and perhaps scrabble together a hugely successful TV programme. Or, they could just call it 'Brainiac'.