Top Gear: How the nation fell in love again
Presenters Freddie Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris have turned around BBC Two’s sinking ship with a mixture of good humour, car bungees and inflatable dinosaurs.
It's been over 40 years since Top Gear first trundled onto screens with Anglea Rippon as the host, offering viewers mildly entertaining and vaguely informative films about road safety and MOT tests.
It's been nearly 20 years since Jeremy Clarkson remoulded the show into the ‘grumpy old men’ format that is still entertaining viewers on Amazon Prime Video with The Grand Tour.
But since ‘the incident’ that forced Clarkson, Hammond and May to depart the series in 2015, the BBC Two motoring show has floundered.
Caught between trying to reinvent itself and sticking with the successful formula that made the Clarkson era a ratings smash, the BBC have gone through two failed experiments with Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc at the helm.
The new lineup introduced in 2019 felt like a final roll of the dice for the series. Bringing in the unlikely pairing of ex-England cricketer Freddie Flintoff and Take Me Out presenter Paddy McGuinness to work alongside motoring journalist Chris Harris, sounded at first like yet more throwing ideas in the air in the hope that something might stick.
But exec producers Alex Renton and Clare Pizey had learned from previous mistakes and chosen this trio with care and an understanding of what made viewers fall in love with Top Gear in the first place. Unlike the rambling 2016 reboot, where it felt like the six presenters had never met before (and if it were up to them, never would again), Flintoff, McGuinness and Harris felt like a gang, old pals and just clicked.
"We didn't have much of a honeymoon period with this show. This lineup had to work from the start," admits Harris, the only remaining presenter from the 2016 relaunch.
Harris believes that the trio’s starkly different backgrounds and expertise, which makes the new version of the show a hit.
"I'm from a more rigourous journalistic background. If I say a car is good or bad, the viewers can trust the fact that I have spent all my working life reviewing cars," he says.
"Fred has a fantastic competitive ability and after his sporting fame has turned out to be a really great broadcaster.
"Paddy has the ability to make an audience laugh immediately and provide a bit of absurdity as well. So we are all quite different people, but we knock along together really well."
Top Gear’s second series with the new lineup started last week with its biggest ever stunt and an unforgettable British road trip.
Here are three reasons you need to catch up and watch the all-new Top Gear…
The stunts have gone to the next level
“I’d like to see Jeremy Clarkson do this,” bellowed a white-knuckled, terrified Freddie Flintoff.
The former England cricket captain was sat in a Rover Metro, hovering over a mammoth dam in Switzerland with only a creaky crane and a bit of bungee rope keeping him from crashing to the hard concrete floor.
The finale of the first episode back was a staggering TV moment, which everyone should watch to witness the sheer bravery (or should that be stupidity?) of Flintoff.
“The bizarre thing was, I was quite relaxed about it. I’ve done stuff like that before,” said Flintoff.
“Then, they hoisted me up in the car, and I just thought: ‘What am I doing? Why?!’ I’ve done bungee jumps before, and they’re actually alright. The problem with that one was that if you’re doing a normal bungee jump, you’ve got a rope around your feet and you know you’re attached. But in a car you can’t feel anything - you are just sat there.”
He joked: "Also if I had seen that crane driver before I did it, I’m not sure I’d have done it. He looked worried, he looked like it was his first day on the job! I was also worried about the crane and the thought of something like 7 tonnes of that coming down. I just imagined this crane toppling over, that was my main concern - all for TV!"
Exec Alex Renton said that the bungee stunt involved "months of planning" with bungee experts, structural engineers and top car mechanics.
"You will see that Fred is very relaxed when he arrives at the dam but there is a moment when he is waiting to jump where the cradle tips up 45 degrees ready to launch when the tone suddenly changes," said Renton.
"He did an incredible job, I am still amazed he agreed to do it. The question now is how we top that in the next series."
The trio have been labelled ‘dad TV’ and ‘lad TV’, but the idea that these presenters will only appeal to a limited audience is misplaced.
While the jokes and competitive spirit harks back to the days of Clarkson, Hammond and May, this is a million miles from the deliberately provocative humour and anti-PC jibes of their predecessors.
There's inclusiveness and warmth to the new Top Gear, which welcomes families to tune in together and it never sneers at you for not having the foggiest about cars.
The new spirit was embodied in the second-hand convertible road trip from Bognor to Essex. Whether you love classic cars or just or want to see Chris Harris in an inflatable dinosaur suit being pelted with golf balls, there truly is something for everyone.
“We shouldn't feel guilty about having a bit of escapism and that's where Top Gear sits,” said Harris.
“It's light-hearted fun and that's why it's viewed as a national treasure. The moment you see Fred grinning or Paddy gurning, you think: "I want to watch this!"
It is the authenticity of the trio's relationship which burns through the screen. You just know all three love spending time together when the camera stops and that their Whatsapp group will be a riot.
"I have been saying to the executive producer, Clare Pizey, that we should put stuff online that doesn't make the show," says McGuinness.
"There is so much that we do off-camera that might be a little too much for the episode, but if you put it on the iPlayer, people would probably watch it."
Explaining their chemistry, the comic said: “With us, it's not that difficult. Nothing's changed since we started. We will take the mick out of each other quite savagely - more so when it's not on camera.
"We all know that, and all roll with the punches. But having said that, if one of us is having a bad day, we're always there for each other. Our relationship doesn't feel forced. That's the beauty of it really."
You don't know what's coming next
The first episode back was a banger, but there’s so much more to come in the new series.
Chris and Paddy in a car versus fighter jet battle with a McLaren Speedtail, an American road trip (in Peru?!), the gruelling 24-hour Mexican off-road race - the Baja 1000, a sports car shootout and a very special tribute to the British World Rally Championship legend Colin McRae.
Catch up on Top Gear on BBC iPlayer and Sundays at 8pm on BBC Two.
Never miss an episode on BT TV - catch up on the BBC iPlayer app.