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Chains of Consequences: How British Wartime Evacuation Created Top Gear

By Tom Anderson


WW2 poster promoting evacuation. Art by Dudley Cowes

As the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the British government knew that it would become necessary to evacuate much of the civilian population, especially children, to escape the German bombing campaign. This ambitious programme evacuated more than three and a half million people, mostly from London to the countryside but sometimes also to other parts of the British Empire. This produced a massive societal upheaval that disrupted children’s education and led to culture shock on the part of many of the evacuees (and their host families). For example, an oft-repeated story was that poor inner-city evacuees had had no notion of where meat came from and were shocked to find farmers slaughtering animals for food—an early example of a culture war divide that persists to this day. Evacuation naturally impacted on the lives of many, which can be traced through the world of fiction, especially children’s fiction. Some books, such as Michelle Magorian’s bittersweet Goodnight Mister Tom (1981) or Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War (1971) are explicitly and primarily about the experiences of a wartime evacuee. Others just use the setting as a plot device to explain why child protagonists are far away from their parents and in a big house in the country; the most famous of these is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the first of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. There are many such examples which could constitute a chains of consequences article on their own, illustrating the exploding chrysanthemum of impact on lives and culture that an event like the evacuation (and the Second World War as a whole) will produce. However, for this article we’ll focus on one specific example.


Children from Bristol arriving at Brent in Devon

Thomas Michael Bond, known as Michael Bond (1926-2017) served briefly in the armed forces as a teenager in the latter part of the war. Earlier on, like many others who lived through the war, he had seen newsreel footage of trainloads of children being evacuated to the countryside. The image of the children carrying small suitcases of possessions, with identification labels around their necks, stuck with him. He became a writer after the war, and after a few more modest successes, made a breakthrough in 1958 when he wrote a children’s book titled A Bear Called Paddington. Paddington, as multiple generations of British people well know, is a small orphan bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ with a hat, duffel coat and a fondness for marmalade sandwiches, whose foster Aunt Lucy sends him to the United Kingdom as she is now too frail to look after him. (The peculiar appellation of ‘Darkest’ Peru stems from the fact that Bond wanted to make it ‘Darkest Africa’, but was advised by his agent that Africa doesn’t have bears, whereas Peru does). He is adopted by the Brown family, who find him lost on the platform of Paddington Station and bestow that name upon him, as they cannot pronounce his actual one. Bond later revealed that the images of wartime evacuees had inspired the creation of Paddington, who is first seen sitting on his small suitcase and with a note pinned to his coat reading ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you’. These words have become so iconic that they are now on Bond’s gravestone, and on a statue of Paddington in the Parque Salazar in the Peruvian capital of Lima. Paddington was a hit with readers, who enjoyed his well-meaning ability to cause trouble through misunderstandings, whilst always remaining polite, charismatic and likeable (and obsessed with marmalade sandwiches). More than 25 books followed the first, spanning almost six decades, with the final book released in the year of Bond’s death. A very distinctive stop-motion TV adaptation was produced in the 1970s, and more recently the 2010s saw two very successful films. Paddington had been referenced in song lyrics, a Google Doodle and even a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the United States. The character and books have frequently been highlighted as having the deeper message of being welcoming and understanding of outsiders in a strange land, whether they be the wartime evacuees who inspired the character or immigrants from faraway countries like the bear himself.

The original toy produced by the Clarksons in 1972. Photograph by W. White and shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

One of the more unexpected impacts of Paddington came in 1972. A couple in Doncaster named Eddie and Shirley Clarkson ran a small company called Gabrielle Designs. Shirley made a Paddington stuffed toy for their children, Jeremy and Joanna, which became the prototype for an entire line of toys. This proved massively popular—and controversial, as it was unauthorised by Bond. Litigation proceeded and Eddie Clarkson went down to London to meet Bond’s lawyers. By chance, he encountered Bond in the lift on the way up to the office, and with the same charisma his son would later be known for, he hit it off with Bond and eventually convinced him to let the Clarksons have the licence. Crisis averted. The toy Paddington line went from strength to strength. Jeremy, who had been 12 at the time of his Christmas gift, grew up and became a sales representative on behalf of his parents’ company, as well as dabbling in local journalism. His job, like that of any sales rep at the time, required him to drive around the country meeting with local businesses and trying to convince them to stock the Paddington toys. It’s the sort of thing that today might be done online—but it had an unexpected impact. Through his travels, Jeremy gained experience of countless rental cars, many of them the bare-bones ‘repmobiles’ used by others in his job. That meant he was able to make informed comparisons of their strengths and weaknesses, based not only on brief test drives but on having driven them from city to city across the UK. He brought this experience to his journalism career, and on the Shropshire Star local paper he was first given a motoring column in which he reviewed cars. This was far from the only subject on which he wrote; he reviewed computer games in the 1980s and has also had political and general-interests columns. But it was motoring journalism where he found his calling. (To this day, he occasionally complains that he has been stereotyped as an obsessive car bore when he considers himself a writer and presenter first who just writes about cars a lot). From the start, his journalism was noted for his use of colourful metaphors and audacious exaggeration; he later described his own early local-newspaper journalism with the example headline of ‘Literally fifty billion people visit cake sale’. Top Gear began on the BBC in 1977 as a largely straightforward car review show, first presented by Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne. Over time many other presenters were brought in, including some whose names are still associated with car journalism, such as Tiff Needell and Quentin Willson, and others whose careers took a rather different direction—such as Noel Edmonds. In 1988, executive producer Jon Bentley came across Jeremy Clarkson’s writings in Performance Car Magazine and hired him as a new presenter. Clarkson was a hit with the public, with his larger-than-life persona, much-mocked (including by himself) hair and denim obsession, and colourful command of the English language. He was also known for his blunt appraisals of some cars, most infamously the Vauxhall Vectra as ‘a box on wheels’, which some viewers found a breath of fresh air rather than having reviewers never say anything negative. In fact, legend says that Clarkson so offended one Italian car company that their CEO demanded that they ‘pull all their advertising from the BBC’ – before someone had to explain to him that the BBC is funded by the licence fee and doesn’t carry advertising.


Top Gear had grown even more popular—and controversial—with the British public over the years, but Clarkson left the show in 1999 after more than a decade, followed by some other presenters, and it came to an end soon afterwards. Clarkson spent the next three years making other programmes, before he and his producer friend Andy Wilman convinced the BBC to resurrect Top Gear in 2002 in a new format. Presented from an aircraft hangar by a team of three presenters—Clarkson, Richard Hammond and (from series 2) James May—the new Top Gear played to Clarkson’s larger-than-life style by focusing on ambitious challenges and races rather than basic reviews. A trace of cars for the common man was kept in the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment, in which various celebrities would race around the test track in what the presenters currently considered to be the best-value basic car on sale in the UK. As well as races in supercars, there were also challenges in which the presenters had to buy second-hand cars on a budget and make a long-distance journey in an exotic setting whilst dealing with said cars breaking down. Some challenges even involved developing new technologies from scratch, such as amphibious cars or a home-made electric car—these were treated with varying degrees of seriousness, and led to Clarkson declaring the programme’s motto was “Ambitious But Rubbish”. (Strangely enough, his enunciation of the word ‘rubbish’ was endlessly entertaining to non-Anglophone Japanese fans). While some big-name stars featured even early on, it is a measure of the success of new-format Top Gear that after a few years even top Hollywood movie stars were lining up to drive the Reasonably Priced Car (and promote their latest film). Whereas the old Top Gear had been a success in the UK, the new one broke records around the world. Fast cars, high production values and laddish banter between the three presenters (who developed a good comedy relationship over time) proved to be a formula that travelled exceptionally well. People in countries from the United States to Russia, Australia to Japan, France to China, watched the programme (through authorised means or otherwise) in huge numbers, and many less-successful localised versions were produced. Top Gear was voted best programme of the 2000s by Channel 4 viewers in 2009, and joined the revived Doctor Who, Harry Potter and later Sherlock as some of the most internationally impactful British media of the decade. It is no Clarksonian exaggeration to say that these together created an entire demographic of cultural Anglophiles in countries around the world, the reification of what Tony Blair had once vaguely described as ‘Cool Britannia’. All the more remarkable, considering Clarkson’s fondness of invoking national stereotypes for humour with chequered results. As many will know, controversies over Clarkson’s conduct on the revived Top Gear eventually culminated in his sacking in 2015 after an incident in which he punched a producer, leading to the presenters and Wilman moving over to Amazon to produce The Grand Tour. Nonetheless, the impact of this era of Top Gear on a global audience is hard to overstate. People who grew up watching the old format would never have dreamed that Clarkson’s catchphrases would find reference in unrelated media produced in distant countries (such as the USA’s Dilbert and a novel by Timothy Zahn of Star Wars fame). In Sea Lion Press’ “Fight Them On The Beaches” story collection, a less than serious but entertaining tale by Andy Cooke features Hitler setting ‘a number of challenges’ to three suspiciously familiar German generals in order to overcome the problem of the English Channel by home-made methods. Love or loathe Clarkson and his show, one cannot deny how it has changed the world. And all of this comes from Michael Bond watching a newsreel of wartime evacuees in the 1940s.

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth