In the spirit of recent posts on AIAC about reality TV shows in Germany and Italy which use Africa as background to national television’s asinine imagination, I’d like to step back a few months and check out one of England’s own televised fits of historical delusion.
BBC Two aired a two-part Africa special of their popular motor vehicle show, Top Gear. The show’s premise is pretty simple: three men with cars. In the special, the three hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, went to Africa to find the definitive source of the Nile. Before arriving at their starting point, Small Rural Village, Uganda, each bought a second-hand car for under £1500 in England. The first few minutes are spent describing their cars (and repeating the brands) and putting down each other’s choices through clever insults and witty banter. From there they set off on their epic quest for the source of the Nile. After driving through Rolling Hills, Rwanda, they eventually find it in an anticlimactic moment of discovery: a “puddle” in Middle Of The Serengeti, Tanzania:
There are the usual things to point out: all the ways the show comes replete with sunsets, broad brushstrokes in the place of precise descriptions, “bad Western characters” (in this case American tourists) and exotic food. Food is given so much airtime relative to people that the show doesn’t really give us the starving African or any other familiar trope in too much depth (though Rwanda’s genocide and the illegality of homosexuality in Uganda are things we hear about). The “locals” – as people not on Top Gear’s crew are constantly referred to even as the location changes and even if people are from elsewhere (as with the Ugandan soldiers they meet in Rwanda) – are shown as not much more than confused most of the time; sometimes they are helpful. Overall, though, there don’t seem to be much by way of “locals” to begin with. With few exceptions, Africans are blatantly absent from this African adventure. They are also absent from the show’s version of African history, which is told as a series of European discoveries.
It’s not all bad. I don’t mind, for example, that Clarkson compares his penis to a press stud after a particularly cold shower. I kind of like that he does. They also hold no humanitarian pretensions, for which I am genuinely grateful.
Some of the banter, too, is laugh-out-loud funny. That they mock each other also extends to mocking themselves and, for a few brief moments, even making fun of the history in which they place themselves (they muse that Victorian explorers were on a well-funded gap year). But this is as much credit as I can give it. This self-awareness as inadequate heirs to British exploration history, and the passing occasions of not placing Livingstone and Co. on a pedestal, is never extended to a self-awareness of themselves as heirs of the violence and silencing that British exploration has entailed. Instead, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the three hosts whole-heartedly adopt the macho-man gentleman explorer persona.
This is managed most effectively through the creation of their white manspace: their cars. After spending one night in a dingy hotel (and I’m sure the producers spent a while finding the dingiest within a 5-mile radius) at the side of the road in Outside of Touristville, Uganda, they decide it would simply be unbearable to use such accommodation on a regular basis. They spend a good part of the next day – on a whim, of course – converting their cars into mobile homes. It’s impressive: between the three of them, they manage to have three bedrooms, one of which is particularly lush with a plush mattress and white sheets of Egyptian cotton and duck down; a kitchen with running water, a kettle for tea as well as cooking appliances; a living room with a library of books about English explorers and of English poets, maps, a globe, a telescope and even a tool workshop; an upstairs sitting room (a chair on the roof of one car); and a bathroom with a toilet and shower set up. It’s truly incredible to think you can fit all these building blocks of civilization, not to mention the classic tools and symbols of colonial domination, within the confines of those modest brought-from-England cars. These are the cars which give “the familiarity of home, here,” Clarkson noted as he indicated the anonymous African landscape.
The Do-It-Yourself ethos is paramount. Clarkson, Hammond and May are shown sewing, welding and woodworking. It all promotes a particular brand of English male respectability: relying on nothing but themselves and what they can carry within their bubble of Englishness. When something goes wrong with May’s car, for example, he says you’ve got to work with what you can find in the bush, which apparently is nothing because he ends up stealing a bit of Clarkson’s car to do the repair.
These mobile vessels of English civility come to have personalities. Near the end of their journey, Clarkson, Hammond and May get sentimental and reflect on their quest and particularly what their car has meant to them, concluding that what makes them special is that you come to think of the cars as people, as “a mate.” They are survivors. Sold off because their previous owners had assumed their imminent death, they proved themselves in Africa where, unless the roads are Chinese-built, it’s so bad that Clarkson was led to declare “No car is built to survive conditions like this. None. Not one.” But these cars made it. Cue the violin-laden inspirational road trip movie music. Slowly fade and transition to action sequence music, overlaid by engine-revving sound effects.
Perhaps it’s for the best that Africans had minimal presence in the show, since the imaginations of those who put it together seem more capable of personifying the inanimate than understanding the full human status of non-English people. Perhaps they should simply not have gone to Africa in the first place. Even better would have been two episodes of Top Gear which were capable of satirizing their position not only in English history, but in Africa’s as well. Instead, Africa, through the exclusion of its people and history from its geography, is used as background to white English gentlemanly machismo.