It’s taken a few years, but Top Gear looks to be in safe hands – and more than ready to take on The Grand Tour.
When Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May left the BBC’s golden goose after an altercation over a steak, they took more than just their name value and recognisable faces for viewers. They took the show’s identity, and it was always going to be a long journey back.
For football fans, it’s a bit like Sir Alex leaving Manchester United – things were never going to be the same, and whoever took over the mantle was facing an unenviable task trying to follow in the trio’s footsteps.
The stuttering start under Chris Evans didn’t help, of course. It was such a defined break from the show’s past that it could never hope to plug the gap left by Jeremy and his merry men, and viewers were never going to accept any kind of cheap imitation – not least because the boys themselves were giving everyone what they wanted with a bigger budget on Amazon Prime.
Even Matt LeBlanc’s stint on the show didn’t quite measure up. It was a step in the right direction, and he was a brilliant choice to front the show – no doubt. But there was something missing.
Finally, Top Gear has found its chemistry again.
Right from the beginning of Sunday night’s first episode, it’s clear that the producers have hit the jackpot with Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff joining the returning Chris Harris at the helm.
The balance is back, and everything feels so much more genuine again. Paddy seems to be taking the lead in the studio, which makes sense given his TV expertise – and Chris is well placed as the straight man, the car expert. Freddie is the big name holding it all together – and the three of them make for a whirlwind of charm, wit and fun. It’s about time!
It’s early days, but the first episode has already been getting rave reviews from critics and fans – loyal and lapsed – alike. It’s fair to assume that the show really is moving in the right direction, because we’re long past the point of any goodwill being left over from the programme’s heyday.
But here we are – a sense of genuine optimism, and it could be the turning point as Top Gear finds its way back on track and possibly even overtakes The Grand Tour.
The latter has announced it is ditching its studio (live audience) element in favour of taking the gang out on the road for a series of specials, and it’ll make for an interesting run for sure. Amazon thrives with its budget and production, so it’s likely that the upcoming series will truly take things to another level.
However, Top Gear could have a secret weapon up its sleeve, and it’s simply the idea of taking things back to basics.
It was very telling that the first episode of the latest rebirth saw the new presenters each drive the first car they bought. It was warm and nostalgic, and it was a wonderful metaphor for a show returning to its roots.
No, Top Gear won’t have the budget to match The Grand Tour – but that’s fine. The banter between Paddy, Freddie and Chris is something we haven’t seen since, well, James, Richard and Jezza. The challenges were wacky, the scenery stunning and the interactions were genuine.
This isn’t three pretenders to the throne. It’s the perfect mix of personalities that – given the rest of this run and another season or two – will be well established and totally comfortable in the same way as their more successful predecessors.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Top Gear won’t be redeemed in a series. But the starting gun has been fired, and The Grand Tour has a motoring classic racing up against it’s bumper.
The real winner is the audience – and we can’t wait to see what happens next.
Top Gear continues this Sunday at 8pm on BBC Two while The Grand Tour is expected to arrive on Amazon Prime in 2020.
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