Where Did the New Top Gear Go Wrong?
“Welcome to Top Gear!” shrieks Chris Evans, as the camera swoops in across the studio to give us a better look at the slightly unhinged panic behind his eyes.
In March 2015 last year, the BBC faced a dilemma. With Jeremy Clarkson dismissed from Top Gear, and his cohorts James May and Richard Hammond leaving with him, they were left without the iconic leading trio for one of their biggest-and most profitable-shows. The Top Gear brand was worth around £50 million per year and pulled in around 350 million viewers across the world when Clarkson and company left the show, according to estimates by the Guardian. Understandably, they couldn’t just dump the show and start over with a new Sunday night motoring magazine programme to fill the gap- no, they had to keep one of their biggest moneyspinners alive, at whatever the cost. The Top Gear brand was to be kept afloat, even with thousands of fans campaigning for Clarkson’s reinstatement and many declaring it dead after the trio, who fronted the show for more than twelve years.
So, what was the answer? Apparently, loading the show up with a precariously teetering pile of seven presenters, including radio DJ Chris Evans and Friends star Matt LeBlanc. Now, the day after the last episode of the first series was broadcast, Chris Evans has just announced his intention to leave the show. With viewing figures dropping and the new version of the show receiving a mauling from the fans, it’s time to ask the question: where did this new Top Gear go wrong?
I will happily admit to watching Top Gear for almost as long as I could remember, on a Sunday night after Scrapheap Challenge and Time Team. And I am far from a car nut- my brother (whos’s now a mechanical engineer) and my Dad (who was never far removed from one of his car renovation projects) were the ones to introduce it to the household, but soon it became a tradition. And that was because it was bloody entertaining television- the camaraderie between May, Hammond, and Clarkson was inimitable (even if I do firmly agree with Stewart Lee’s interpretation of them), and the show was slick, well-scripted and packed with segments that were plenty interesting and amusing even to those who had nothing but a shrug for the actual, you know, car bits. So, I’m well-acquainted with what made the show such a huge success- and why, so many, like me were so sceptical of the new version of the show without the leading trio.
So, what the hell is actually wrong with it? I think the show’s biggest problem is how similar it is to the original iteration. I mean, they couldn’t go for something completely new, but this version of the show…it feels as if everyone involved is at a dinner party where all the guests are just politely ignoring the guy who took a giant shit in the umbrella stand. We all know something game-changing has happened, so why not acknowledge it? Instead, the show seems intent on scraping up as many of the scraps as it can from Clarkson and co’s iteration and hastily repackaging them as if no-one will notice the difference, or remember when these segments were done better.
I think one of the least elegant transitions the show made into it’s new iteration was the scripting. When Chris Harris, who is a perfectly charming screen presence, steps into a Mustang and delivers a stream of metaphors and “off-the-cuff” comments that don’t sound right not coming out of Jeremy Clarkson’s mouth. The jokes are flinchingly grim, the banter forced and awkward. However much the other version of the show was scripted, Clarkson, Hammond and May at least made you believe that you could walk in on them having this very same conversation down the pub. However entertaining or amusing the lines are, they feel forced coming out of this new presenting team.
Which brings me to another point. There are too many presenters. I mean, that’s not news to anyone, but one of the best things about the previous version was that you felt as if you got to know the leading three, and their relationships with each other. While I wouldn’t say any of this presenting team are actively bad (except Chris Evans, but more on him later)- in fact, I rather liked the affable and genuinely witty Matt LeBlanc, and I had time for Sabine Schmitz’s passion and real knowledge- but I can’t really get a handle on any of them, leaving the whole thing feeling rather…removed.
And then there’s the Chris Evans factor. The painful, inescapable Chris Evans factor. I had no major opinion on Evans before coming to Top Gear (aside from “Oh, he’s the one who married Billie Piper that time, right?”), but he’s been plagued with rumours of fallings-out with his co-lead, Matt LeBlanc, from the start of production. But, watching the show now, that feels like the least of his worries- I almost feel sorry for him, because it’s so clear to everyone involved how wrong he is for this. He’s bizarrely loud, as if shouting each comment will cover up for the fact the audience isn’t laughing, while his solo segments are the kind you wander off to make a cup of tea for. I’m sure he knows his stuff, but he has no ease in front of camera, coming across instead as if he’s killing time until he can get back to his radio show. The rejigged celeb segment features him interviewing two celebrities in an almost unwatchably awkward eight minutes of TV in which Evans crashes through painfully inelegant transitions into clips from whatever show/movie his guests are clearly there to plug. Frankly, I’m surprised his lasted six episodes.
Suffering from series-worst ratings and controversy after controversy, Top Gear in it’s new form seemed marked for death from the start. Basically, the show feels like a pale imitation of what is was before- as almost everyone predicted it would be. It’s not without it’s merits, but at the same time, it feels wheezy, burned-out. Even before Clarkson and company left, I had long since stopped watching, and this show reads as the zombiefied remains of what was left when the original trio abandoned Top Gear. The question many people seem to be asking is whether or not this new Top Gear is salvageable after Evans’ departure, but the real issue that needs to be addressed is whether or not it should be salvaged at all.