The executive producer of the BBC motoring programme Top Gear has defended a segment regarding cycle safety aired earlier this month in which presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May, claiming it was not biased against cyclists and that it’s main message was that “motorists and cyclists should show respect.”
Andy Wilman was responding to a complaint made to the BBC about the programme, which aired on Sunday 2 March, by road.cc reader Adam Rees who forwarded us a copy of the reply.
As the comments to our article on the programme showed, it divided cyclists, some saying it trivialised the issues, while others insisted that since Top Gear is a light entertainment programme characterised by an irreverent approach to its subject, it shouldn't be taken seriously.
The issue of cycle safety is a serious one – more than 100 cyclists are killed on Britain’s roads each year, and thousands more seriously injured – but referring to the overall tone of the segment, Mr Wilman said: “The Top Gear film on cycling was always going to be done in a Top Gear tone, and I believe justifiably so.”
The show followed Jeremy Clarkson and James May as the attempted to make a cycle safety public information film to present to a panel including British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman at Westminster Council.
Their efforts weren’t well received, with the first film presented giving advice to cyclists to work harder so they could buy a car – a well-worn joke of Clarkson’s – and another telling them act their age and buy a car.
Mr Wilman said that those first two films were “specifically made to be absurd, and the joke here is centred on the hopeless misinterpretation by Jeremy and James of the brief given to them by Westminster Council.”
The programme also showed Clarkson and May riding through London’s West End, the former opining that since he was riding a bike, he could ignore red lights, which was the subject of another film the pair produced which told cyclists: “Red and Green. Learn the bloody difference.”
According to Mr Wilman, that reflected “a common perception of cyclists,” but he insisted that otherwise, May and Clarkson were “not critical of cyclists.”
“At what point does the film say cyclists should not be treated with respect on the road?,” said Mr Wilman. “It doesn’t – when Jeremy and James go out on their fact finding cycle around London, they make it clear that they believe buses to be the main danger point.”
But in London, it is in fact lorries that present the greatest threat to the safety of cyclists. Making up 2 per cent of the city’s traffic, they are involved in more than half of cyclist fatalities.
The show, which included images of mangled bikes and one sequence that showed a basket of fruit and vegetables being dropped from a height, supposed to represent a dead cyclist, followed by a bicycle.
Debbie Dorling, whose husband Brian was killed by a lorry at Bow Roundabout in October 2011 told road.cc after the programme aired that she had tuned in as a fan of the show, but had found that sequence particularly “distressing.”
She also said that she believed the programme had “totally missed the point of cycle safety.”
In his reply to Mr Rees, however, Mr Wilman insisted that the point of the programme was to reinforce the need for mutual respect between road users, whether on two wheels or four.
“The end film does state that both cyclists and drivers should respect each other on the road, and surely that is the important point Top Gear can get across,” he said. “Does it matter if we make childish jokes about cyclists’ clothes or body odour as long as we advocate that both parties respect each other’s road space?”
He concluded: “I would also say that although Top Gear brings its own distinct voice to the cycling/motoring issue, we are at least bringing more awareness to the debate, and if the main message from a such a car based programme is that motorists and cyclists should show respect, then that’s ultimately to the good.”
The programme is still available to watch on BBC iPlayer until tomorrow, Sunday 23 March.
Is the executive producer's rejection of criticism of the show justified? Did Top Gear really bring more awareness to the road safety debate and highlight that there should be respect between cyclists and drivers? Let us know in the comments.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.