Top Gear used to be a programme about cars. Really, it did. It began on 22 April 1977 and was presented by Angela Rippon and some bloke called Tom Coyne (nope, means nothing to me either). It was produced at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham because: a) Pebble Mill made a lot of programmes for the network then such as Pebble Mill at One, Saturday Night at the Mill, Milling from the Mill (ok I made that last one up; but they did like to use the word “mill” a lot) and; b) The Midlands was the centre of the UK car industry. It may come as a shock to people under the age of 30 to realise that the UK did have a car industry, but back in the day, Britain did make cars. OK, British Leyland (BL) was the butt of a lot of jokes mainly about the quality of their cars; How do you double the value of a BL car? Fill it up with petrol. So what if the Austin Allegro was more aerodynamic in reverse than it was going forwards, at least we produced something.
Top Gear in the 70’s and 80’s developed into a motoring consumer/review show. Sensible William Wollard would test drive the new Mini Metro while Noel Edmonds would test the Ford GT40 (well he did own one). It motored on (no pun intended…oh go on, yes that pun was completely intended) for years as a safe little magazine programme in the style of Tomorrow’s World and Watchdog.
Then in 1988, a young Performance Car Magazine journalist called Jeremy Clarkson appeared on the scene and it suddenly got interesting. During the 90’s the show transitioned with new younger presenters (well they were young then). Motoring journalist Quentin Wilson turned up (looking less like a used car salesman in those days); Professional northerner and motorbike enthusiast Steve Berry popped up on our screens and would constantly be confused for Andy Kershaw by southerners (“notherners all sound the same to us”); Formula 1 driver Tiff Needell joined the gang as did Vicki Butler Henderson. This was the winning formula, which took the ratings from 6 million to 3 million, and so in 2001 the show was cancelled. (To be fair this slump happened after a few of the big name stars such as Clarkson left towards the end of the 90’s.)
It didn’t take long for many of the old presenters and production team to drive down the M1 to London and over to the newly launched Channel 5 to present Fifth Gear which was basically Top Gear with adverts. Realising their mistake the BBC decided to re-launch the programme with a new format (devised by Clarkson and his old Repton school friend and Exec Producer Andy Wilman) and they moved the production to London to be produced by BBC Entertainment. They kept James May, who had joined the gear gang in 1999 and recruited ex Men and Motors presenter Richard Hammond and turned it into a studio-based show. The emphasis of the show changed and it was less about sensible reviews of the latest Ford Fiesta and more about driving fast cars, blowing up caravans and generally dicking about. This was a motoring show for the LOADED generation and it worked well. Really, really well.
The new format made global stars of the trio as the BBC sold the show and its format all over the world. Along with Doctor Who it was one of the BBC’s biggest earners. Over the series the stunts and guest got bigger and the show looked to be unstoppable, until an unfortunate incident with a steak (or lack of one). The story is well documented; but in summary, Clarkson hit a producer, as there was no hot food after a day’s filming. The BBC said we can’t have people hitting each other and so his contract wasn’t renewed. Shortly afterwards May, Hammond and Wilman all left and went off to become Amazon’s new poster boys as the internet giant snapped them up to produce their new show The Grand Tour. This left the BBC with a problem. The show is big, really big, so they didn’t want to cancel it. Adopting the principle that “no show is bigger than its stars” they just needed to recast it. The BBC then spent the long and arduous task of trying to find a new host, and a couple of minutes later offered it to Chris Evans.
Evans is the BBC’s number one bad boy /good boy /volatile /reformed /loved /loathed presenter. He has had a torrid relationship with the BBC on and off the air. He left the Radio 1 Breakfast Show under a cloud in 1997, only to return to the Radio 2 Breakfast Show in 2010 “a reformed character”. Outspoken, loved by the public, prone to have tantrums with his production tea,..yep, he was a like-for-like replacement for Clarkson. Tick. Now what about the other presenters? This time around the BBC have gone for safety in numbers with a team of 6 presenters, but Evans’ main co host is Joey Tribbiani. Sorry, Matt LeBalnc. Top Gear is big in The States, but Evans is not, so the safest way to ease the transition and keep the US Dollars rolling into the Corporation was to stick a well known American star in it. So presenters cast, it was just a case of producing the show, right? Wrong. The Press had a field day (what exactly is a “field day” and why are the press the only ones to have one?); stories of disagreements between stars and producers, presenters not getting on, producers leaving…actually it all sounded remarkably similar to the old Top Gear, so perhaps this was a good omen!
On Sunday night the watching public got to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. The show started with Chris Evans shouting so much that it blew his hair backwards (or is that a comb over?). It felt more TFI Friday than Top Gear, but perhaps that’s the idea. Joey, sorry, Matt was introduced in a slightly awkward section, followed by the staff of Chris’s local Indian restaurant sat on a car to demonstrate something or other, and then it was on with the first film. From that point on it all felt strangely familiar….yet wrong. The show has been panned by a lot of critics, and there are problems, but they are not totally the presenters’ fault. They are trying to squeeze into a show format that was designed by someone else, for someone else and it just doesn’t fit them.
I said before that the studio format was devised by Clarkson and Wilman, who were 2 years apart at school, and funnily enough with the old presenters, the format did have a school feel to it. Clarkson was the head boy/school bully; May was the swot and Hammond the annoying little first year that wanted to be mates with the big boys but just ended up as the butt of their jokes. Basically it was Tom Bown’s School Days with performance cars. Also the three of them were all motoring journalists who could also turn their hand to larking about. The format was an extension of their personalities and played to their strengths. Evans and LeBlanc are none of the above. It’s not their fault. Also because the show’s producers have stuck so rigidly to the format, it just feels like they are “pretending” to be the Top Gear presenters.
The show isn’t awful, but if they really want to make it a success, they are going to have to make the show fit the presenters, not vice versa. Whether the audience will give them the time to do this is another matter. It had a healthy first outing ratings wise, but the proof will come next week to find out how many tune in again to see how this brave new world is developing.