I just can't get you out of my head

For some reason, I keep imagining Jeremy Clarkson in his underpants

<strong>Top Gear</strong>

It's good to try new things, isn't it? Or maybe it isn't. The other night, I watched Top Gear (Sundays, 8pm) for the first time. I did this on purpose; it wasn't that my husband had tied me to the sofa. He doesn't watch Top Gear, in any case, because he's not interested in cars. He leaves the subjects of cars, petrol, MOT tests, traffic and so on to me, his chauffeur.

So there. Anyway, for a while now, I've been dimly aware that Top Gear is exceedingly popular, not least because every time I walk past W H Smith, I see an enormous picture of one of its presenters, Richard Hammond, who has written a book called On the Edge, which makes me feel like headbutting the window. Then, the other day, I was interviewing a Hollywood star. The one moment that she became genuinely animated - as opposed to going through the motions for my benefit - was when she told me that she'd been invited to appear on Top Gear.

"Don't you like it?" she asked.

"Er . . ." What to say? It's one thing to politely praise some actor's terrible movie, but I think I draw the line at sanctioning their dreadful taste in TV shows.

In the end, I said: "I'm not sure." I might be a journalist, but even I draw the line at slagging off something that I have not seen. Which is how, last Sunday, I came to be sitting in front of the telly watching the aforementioned Richard Hammond - I bet he owns more than one Marillion album - and his appalling colleagues, Jeremy Clarkson and James May, whose defining physical characteristic is their strange resemblance to Alec Guinness when he was dragged up to play Lady Agatha in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Oh, I wish I had not done it. Ever since, I have been unable to put these men out of my head. For some reason, I keep imagining them in their underpants. What, I keep wondering, are these men like in bed? I know that this is thoroughly shaming and repulsive, but it's true.

Of course, this is precisely the effect they're after. Top Gear isn't about cars. It's about sex. If the three of them sat in the studio in tiny lime-green Speedos, it couldn't be any more obvious. I can't imagine that any of them was particularly successful with girls at school. Well, maybe Richard Hammond was; he still wears a leather thong around his neck, which suggests that he thinks he's pretty hot stuff. But those other granny-alikes? I think not.

No, Top Gear feels to me like compensation for past slights, like remuneration for congenital inadequacy, and this applies to its viewers as well as its presenters. Furious with your boss? So sit back and watch this Aston Martin go! Ignored by that pretty girl on the train? No matter. Here's a Ferrari racing a jumbo jet! But this still doesn't wholly explain its popularity. I examined the studio audience - it's their job to clap every time Clarkson makes a joke about vegetarians - extremely carefully, and not only were there lots of women present, they all looked quite normal.

I am mystified. Who cares which super car does the most miles to the gallon? (It's the Audi R8, if you're really interested.) Who cares that Justin Lee Collins, the rubbish TV presenter, didn't do a very good time on the Top Gear track in the "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" slot? Let's be honest: if you know what constitutes a "good" time on the Top Gear track - a necessary qualification if you're going to snigger at a "bad" time - then you need to get a life, or a girlfriend.

On 22 June, the show's stunt driver attempted to jump a mustard-coloured Austin Allegro over a few dozen cars backwards. I honestly have no idea why; I guess it was supposed to be witty. I mean, Austin Allegros are pretty funny, aren't they? Let's just total one. So they did. It crumpled obligingly, with all the grace of a pair of Y-fronts hitting the bedroom floor. Dear me. It's scary, this: watching the school geeks hit the TV big time. Haven't they seen Saxondale? Why can't they just stay at home quietly and listen to their Genesis records?

Pick of the week

Criminal Justice
30 June to 4 July, 9pm, BBC1
Five nights of taut legal drama starring Ben Whishaw.

This World: Bannatyne Takes on Big Tobacco
1 July, 9pm, BBC2
Marketing cigarettes to African kids.

Marco’s Great British Feast
2 July, 9pm, ITV1
If you go down to the woods today – you’ll find Marco Pierre White.

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 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug