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All flushed up about Top Gear toilet joke on India

London, Jan. 12: “The programme was replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity.”

These were the words with which the Indian high commission in London has protested to the BBC about a special edition of Top Gear, a TV programme that features a 1,300-mile drive through India by its irrepressible and controversial presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and two of his colleagues.

This 90-minute India special was shown over Christmas as one of the highlights of the season and is now due to be sold to 198 countries (including India) around the world that take Top Gear, one of BBC Worldwide’s most profitable products.

Though no final decision has been taken, the chances are this edition of Top Gear will be shown in India “so that viewers can make up their own minds”.

While Clarkson drives a Jaguar XJS during the journey, his colleagues, Richard Hammond and James May, take the wheels of a 1976 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and a modified classic Mini Cooper, respectively.

At the start of the programme, the trio declare they are on a trade mission to India because “Britain is bankrupt” and India “has emerged and is now one of the economic superpowers”.

Coming out of 10, Downing Street, Prime Minister David Cameron, who knows his personal friend Clarkson can only mean trouble, points at them and says: “Stay away from India.”

Indeed, Clarkson is no stranger to controversy. Many British viewers would probably demand their money back if the Top Gear presenter did not behave outrageously. And Clarkson does play up to his reputation.

For instance, Clarkson expressed disapproval of a strike by public sector workers last November in characteristically forthright terms: “I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how dare they go on strike when they’ve got these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living.”

There were howls of protest from the trade unions and calls for the BBC to sack Clarkson, but the reality is that the worldwide sales of Top Gear ensure he is virtually unsackable.

Indians do enjoy British humour (eg: Yes, Minister!). But in Top Gear, Clarkson’s jokes, though often self-deprecating, tend to be slightly ponderous and schoolboyish rather than witty. And the quarrels between the three drivers are a trifle contrived. Experienced TV reviewers say this is really a programme aimed at the British working classes rather than educated viewers and best watched in the pub over a couple of pints.

When the BBC approached the Indian high commission in London about filming a Top Gear special in India, diplomats extended all possible help but now feel let down by the result.

In negotiations prior to the programme, Chris Hale, Top Gear’s producer, assured the high commission: “Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May will travel across India in three cars filming a light-hearted road trip focusing on the journey and the inevitable idiosyncrasies of the cars they will drive, as well as the country and scenery we see along the way. There will be spontaneous interaction between the presenters and their environment, and potentially people they meet along the way. This will be in an incidental manner, not interviews. Key ingredients of what we film will be beautiful scenery, busy city scenes, local charm and colour within these locations, areas to illustrate the local car culture that exists in India.”

During the programme, Clarkson fits a lavatory on the rear of his car, which he says is “perfect for India because everyone who comes here gets the trots”. Lavatory humour is very much a part of schoolboy jokes in Britain.

At another point, he takes off his trousers at an upmarket Delhi party to demonstrate a British trouser press and how it can double up to make naans.

The trio put banners on trains carrying the messages, “British IT is good for your company”, and “Eat English muffins”, which became obscene when the trains moved and the banners were torn.

An Indian high commission spokesperson said today that the letter of protest had been sent to the BBC to “convey our strong disappointment”. Although the BBC claims to have received only 23 formal complaints, the high commission says it has had many more, including some from non-Indians.

He said: “We were very actively helping out facilitating the visit but they ran down the whole society, culture and people. It’s really disgusting.”

A BBC spokeswoman would only say: “We will respond directly to the Indian high commission in due course.”

Referring to a controversy linked to Mexico in February last year, Clarkson expressed his view in his newspaper column that “there are calls in Britain at the moment for all offensive humour to be banned. But what people don’t realise is that without offence, there can be no jokes.”