Top Gear had a mountain to climb from the off, those raised on Clarkson’s controversy, May’s bumbling demeanour and Hammond’s bombast not taking too kindly to this sacrilegious switch. However, the BBC didn’t help matters. When Brendan Rodgers offloaded Luis Saurez for his biting antics, he instantly signed Mario Balotelli, the second-most difficult striker to manage. In BBC HQ, they pretty much did the same. Chris Evans may not insult nations with Clarkson’s itchy iconoclasm, but he was an equally divisive figure. What was worse, Evans – unconsciously or not – became some sort of quasi-Clarkson, mixing his auburn contemporary’s acidic baritone with his own loudmouth, laddish style that worked to a degree on TFI Friday, but here felt like watching a child on too much Dib Dab.
Challenges were boring and predictable, and while co-host Matt LeBlanc provided the lesser of two evils, even his ‘fish out of water’ shtick wore thin. It was no surprise when Evans jumped ship after one disastrous series, and equally no shock when the new promo adverts for season two see LeBlanc sitting in between Rory Reid and Chris Harris.
In other words, it had reverted back to a winning formula, but the ingredients were supermarket’s own rather than the prestige brand – Harris shuffled awkwardly into the know-it-all, secretly self-hating James May prototype; all that was missing was a flowery shirt and a spouting of the word “oaf”. Reid was meant to be the wide-eyed enthusiast, but instead all he had was an annoying cackle straight from the Handbook of Hammond. At least LeBlanc doesn’t try to be Clarkson, but even his banter is painfully scripted. By the end of the hour, it was actually worse than last season – at least they tried something new.
Granted, at its peak the original revitalised Top Gear was a joy to watch. Clarkson quite rightly has his knockers, but on occasion he can be dangerously funny; a blowhard who doesn’t give two solids and is fiercely competitive. What’s more, the banter between May, Hammond and Clarkson has a believable authenticity. One particularly funny scene involved the three testing the horsepower on some pre-owned cars, Clarkson’s the main offender. “Look at all those horses bolting the stable,” Hammond sighs, before the more urbane May surmises, “put it this way, a VW Lupo has escaped from your car.” Not hilarious, but natural, and something the new Top Gear couldn’t replicate. And even an episode most likely scripted as the gang’s first caravanning holiday invoked some pretty convincing arguments.
But the BBC could do themselves a huge favour by stepping back and reassessing with fresher eyes. By the time of Clarkson’s famed fracas, the show was a behemoth, but quality-wise it was plummeting. The naturalism had fled along with Clarkson’s horsepower, the challenges had gotten sillier and May began indulging in a strange victory dance that was as uncharacteristic as it was disconcerting. With Top Gear’s revival, there was a chance to radically rework the formula, even with the trademarks they kept (The Stig, the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car). There could have been progression. Instead, it played to a gallery too busy joining Amazon Prime.
It already looks too late for Top Gear to lobby significant change, but if it wanted to, it could be an entirely different beast. It could move the show away from its laddish leanings, of three pot-bellied men falling over and talking about the extraction, intended or not, of poo. It could remove the dominant male essence altogether, break the mould and have three female presenters (last series attempted some gender equality, before referring to Sabine Schmitz as “Top Gear’s top girl”). After all, just how much of the show is devoted to the mechanics these days? It’s more about the expensive camerawork, the glistening locations and the thrilling challenges. If three female presenters were given that, could it be a whole new show? Even a ‘co-ed’ show could provide some interesting debate and badinage that would plumb Top Gear from its doldrums and, at the very least, give it some life. With most viewers turning over to Amazon anyway, what harm could it do?
For now, Top Gear will limp on, but the overall impression is that viewers will only watch to fill the hole left by The Grand Tour. And even then they won’t be full.
Words By Sam Lambeth