They say you should never meet your heroes…

Share this article

Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel, BBC2 James May: My Sisters' Top Toys, BBC2

NOT knowing a great deal about Evel Knievel, except that he made jumpsuits fashionable in the 1970s and that he died recently, I assumed that Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel, part of Top Gear Night In, would be a loving tribute from one speed demon to another. And maybe it was originally intended that way, but Hammond – initially awestruck to meet his childhood hero – seemed to become disillusioned with the frail 69-year-old he ended up meeting shortly before his death last month.

It wasn't just because he was old and battered by dozens of horrible motorbike crashes, though that initially threw Hammond: "The child in you still believes he's invincible, a superhero… of course he isn't." Perhaps it was also seeing the physical damage sustained by Knievel (his real surname, only Evel was the stage name), including breaking major bones 37 times. After all, it's not so long ago that Hammond himself was left fighting for life after crashing a dragster at 288mph.

Their encounters kept having to be cut short, as Knievel struggled for breath. Hammond filled in the time by reading Penthouse in his hotel room, "for the articles". He met rival stunt jumper Debbie Lawler, known back then as the Flying Angel, who told how Knievel had taken being beaten by her badly (though he did buy her a pink mink coat). And Evel's long-time buddy Gene admitted that the huge success the stunt jumps brought went right to Knievel's head. He turned his appearances into rallies, preaching against hippies, Communists and Hell's Angels.

Hammond actually concentrated less on Knievel's successful jumps than his famous failures, like the attempt to clear Snake River Canyon on a sky cycle (a sort of rocket), which temporarily convinced those watching that he had died, or the sickening crunch landing after jumping 13 double-decker buses in London. That made sense, really, for surely the whole point of such stunts is the intrinsic thrill of watching to see if there will be a crash, vicariously enjoying the danger. Except, as Hammond himself must know, it's not much fun for a daredevil's family to have to watch them repeatedly risk death and suffer their injuries along with them.

Knievel didn't want to answer questions on that, or on what really ended his career – not an accident, but a premeditated attack with a baseball bat on his former publicity agent in 1977. After six months in jail, his sponsorship and multi-million toy deals were over. Not only did he never show remorse, he didn't pay the compensation as ordered – the victim is still suing his estate.

By this stage Knievel was clearly getting fed up of Hammond and, frankly, I was getting tired of him. When eventually dismissed, Hammond concluded that his childhood hero was still his hero, but could only justify it by saying "because he's Evel Knievel". For those of us who didn't play with the wind-up motorbike doll when we were six, he didn't seem all that heroic.

While that was a much more reflective Top Gear-related product than usual, James May's accompanying programme, My Sister's Top Toys, was just the same old pseudo-macho showing off. Apparently the young May used to think his sisters' dolls, toy organ, Spirographs and fuzzy felt were rubbish and, 40-odd years later, he's still not over it, spending the whole programme being outraged by them all over again – and even blowing some up.

"When girls get to the age of 11, something weird happens," he complained. Yes, James, it's called puberty – perhaps you should try it sometime and stop moaning about how girls are yucky and silly.