The initial run of the post-Clarkson Top Gear era has finished.
Series 23 of the most coveted and highest grossing global phenomenon motoring television has ever seen was unlike any season that has gone before it. Largely because those sparkling superlatives are no longer relevant, or even true. BBC Top Gear, the globe-strutting behemoth – is dead.
Of course, this declaration is about as original and edge-case as the re-boot itself. Everyone’s been slating it. No matter how the Beeb decided to fill Clarkson’s lumbering shadow, the organisation would be chastised.
It is, however, fair to say that we all expected a little more. The decision to instate serial car collector and all-round BBC darling Chris Evans as Jezza’s successor was of little surprise. He was an easy fit. A safe bet.
This choice epitomised the thinking behind ‘New Top Gear’. The self-doubting conservatism. The “let’s throw sh*t at the wall and see what sticks” presenter line-up. The Clarkson era came with more baggage than a wartime evacuee. So what did the BBC do? Add more.
The appointment of a Hollywood actor, a German racing driver and a man with seemingly little grasp of basic syntactical structure did nothing to reassure die-hard fans of the old programme.
Whilst these early decisions caused me to fall off my chair laughing, I still remained hopeful that the BBC wouldn’t make a cock-up of this.
The producers were sensible enough to put well-regarded and deeply talented journalists Chris Harris and Rory Reid on the payroll. Petrolheads had these two to look forward to, at least.
So, the opening night of the series arrived. Motoring fans the world over waited with bated breath and pitch-forks at the ready, to see if their beloved Top Gear had been ruined. Clarkson, Hammond and May hadn’t simply created an amusing entertainment programme. They had founded a religion, and this re-boot was almost blasphemous.
To be completely honest, whilst I kneel at the altar of the Fab Four (if you include Andy Wilman), I was feeling hopeful. A decent motoring programme would be brilliant to have on mainstream television. We hadn’t really lost the old team, after all, as they are beavering away on their biblically-budgeted Grand Tour. If Top Gear was decent, it was ‘Winner Winner Chicken Dinner’, as they say.
Despite this, as soon as Evans proclaimed “TONIGGGHT!” the collective hearts of a nation sank. Kettles were switched to boil, shirts were ironed. Top Gear was doomed.
This detail said so much for the intentions of the new show. Almost every classic segment and catch-phrase the old team crafted was wheeled out – wheezing – into the studio, and trodden on. The Stig has become tired within six episodes. The Rallycross car element thing is charmless. Evan’s aping of Clarkson’s unique narration tragic.
Over the winter, former script editor Richard Porter brought out a rather poignant book, describing the trials and tribulations of creating such a cult success. He explained at great length how incredibly conscious the team were regarding segments such as the Stig Laps and the Reasonably Priced Car.
In order to keep the show growing organically, the programme demanded unerring judgment, boundless wit and a scalpel-sharp attention to detail from everybody involved.
BBC executives would have done well to have a flick through their old employee’s hardback.
Unfortunately they didn’t, and the new show has – predictably – come under a hellfire of criticism. ‘Bring back Clarkson’ seems to be the loudest cry.
Contrary to this opinion, I believe that the decision to sack Clarkson – aside from being morally sound – has boosted Pinky, Perky and May no end. Their behemoth had been on the turn for some time, we mustn’t forget, and whilst it remained one of the greatest programmes on global television right up to the last knockings, the format needed a shake-up.
The Beeb’s enfants terrible moved swiftly to capitalise on this, signing a mega-bucks deal with Amazon and (hopefully) creating a spectacularly fresh slant on their chemistry with it.
This is where the BBC had a golden opportunity to do the same. It didn’t take a fortune teller to predict what would happen if the show attempted to carry on with the same format, and to chase a wider audience with it. No matter, the damage has been done. The Top Gear brand has been inexplicably tarnished.
It isn’t the end, though. Or at least it shouldn’t be. At the time of writing, Chris Evans has just handed in his resignation, and Matt Le Blanc is favourite to host alone. Whilst I wish Eddie Jordan and Sabine Schmitz the very best, they were choices smacking of desperation, and should follow Evans out the door.
What we will be left with is Le Blanc, Harris and Rory Reid. The three that managed to cover themselves in glory in spite of the circumstances.
Le Blanc is an easy-going, easy-to-understand bloke who should provide the high-profile glue that holds the series together. Whilst I’m not entirely convinced of his longevity, or ultimate suitability as a Top Gear presenter, he has done much to earn himself a berth.
Chris Harris and Rory Reid are the rough diamonds in this sea of bleak mediocrity. Both qualified, highly-respected, intensely knowledgeable journalists, they have proved a hit with viewers. Doesn’t this give those in charge a clue about where the show should go next?
What is the point of a motoring programme without a firm base in honest, knowledgeable car reviews? Clarkson, Hammond and May got away with their focus on light-hearted entertainment (alas not without consistent criticism), but as they are still around, what is the point of aping them? Why constrain yourself to this rule-book when you will forever be at a disadvantage?
It’s time for Top Gear to earn back respect on its own terms. As a motoring programme. Play to Harris and Reid’s strengths, and the show will sing. Play to Clarkson’s strengths, and he will crush his old ‘baby’ with the genius that made it so prodigious in the first place.