Toys for the boys

Why has this silly man been given his own, eponymous programme?

<strong>James May's 20th Century<

A lot of people didn't think much of Saxondale, the 2006 sitcom in which Steve Coogan played a bearded ex-roadie who works in pest control (and as there is still no news on a second series, which was supposed to screen this autumn, perhaps this not insubstantial group also includes BBC commissioning editors). I didn't think it was especially funny either, but Coogan's Tommy Saxondale was, if nothing else, an extremely precise impersonation of a certain kind of man. Saxondale Man has bad hair and even worse clothes, and likes beer and fast motors. Women? They have their place, of course. "Nice girls in rubbish cars" are perfectly tolerable, assuming they've got "their own breasts".

Want to know how precise? Well, the above quotation is not from Saxondale, but straight out of the mouth of the charming and debonair James May, the Top Gear presenter. The BBC might be unsure about the future of Tommy, but it is more than happy to employ his real-life counterparts. At first May, like Jeremy Clarkson before him, was confined to driving silly cars too fast while shouting at a dashboard camera. Then, slowly, he was allowed out of his petrolhead pen and given other amusing gigs like Have I Got News For You. Last year, he was sent on a road trip with the wine writer Oz Clark, whose task it was to make him forsake his beloved Virgin's Nipple (or whatever his favourite beer is called) in favour of a nice Sauvignon Blanc. May behaved like a complete baby throughout. I've seen fussy toddlers approach creamed spinach with more style, wit and maturity.

Now he is fronting an Open University production on BBC2: James May's 20th Century (Tuesdays, 8pm), a "personal odyssey" through the greatest inventions of the past century. Needless to say, the inventions on which he is most keen are those that are macho. If an invention necessitates wearing camouflage or a fireproof flying suit, so much the better. Inexplicably, the series is being screened as three double bills and, fool that I am, I watched both programmes for 17 July.

In the first, May set out to show how science has enabled us to push our bodies to their physical limit, by flying in jets or diving deep under the sea. This was unfortunate. No doubt May's blokeish fans found his activities - he tried out a machine that accelerated to mimic G-force - mighty thrilling. But I just wanted the goof to be taught a lesson. "Can I come out, please?" he asked the man controlling this giant spinning wheel, looking green. The guy dutifully pressed the stop button. Why? The correct response would have been a firm: "No! Not until you promise to get a haircut."

Why does the BBC overuse its presenters like this? They end up so ubiquitous - and so obviously ill-suited to the task in hand - that they give me stomach cramps. Alan Titchmarsh used to be a gardening show host; now he is being pushed as he who will one day step into David Attenborough's shoes. James May used to be a car man; now it seems he is the new Heinz Wolff (the professor of bioengineering who used to present a science show, The Great Egg Race). The main trouble with May - apart from the Margaret Rutherford hair and the awful fleeces - is that he cannot, or will not, put his wretched motors behind him. "It's no worse than some Lamborghinis I've driven," he said of a Chieftain tank. While having a hi-tech brain scan, he gazed at a photo of an Aston Martin.

I've no idea how May became such a star that he was given an eponymous series, but I will say that his rise and rise does not bode well for the future of Tommy Saxondale. If May's TV appearances were accompanied by a sharp blast of Jethro Tull, you might not, especially after a few draughts of Virgin's Nipple, be able to tell the difference between them. Then again, as May would no doubt be the first to point out, Saxondale drives a Renault Kangoo - "Kangoo, not kangaroo!" - by day. I can't see May behind the wheel of a Kangoo, can you?

Pick of the week

How Gay Sex Changed the World
24 July, 11.05pm, Channel 4
Brian Sewell and others on the homosexual revolution of 1967.

Absolute Zero
24 July, 9pm, BBC4
Story of science's search for the coolest spot in the universe.

25 July, 9pm, BBC2
Much-hyped American saga of ordinary people with super powers.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet