Cape Town - His gaze is harder than the gear lever on a World War 2-era Russian tank. He doesn’t smile. He has about 10 minutes before he and colleagues Rory Reid and Matt LeBlanc start three hours of filming the last episode of season 25 of Top Gear, which will air in South Africa in September.
He’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and he’s revved up, moving and talking rapidly. I imagine he’s just snorted tyre rubber dust swept up from the race track outside; the track where The Stig was tearing around in a red Toyota GT86 earlier. Chris Harris sits down on the couch and starts talking faster than The Stig can leave the scene of a bank robbery in a Lamborghini Huracán, talking about how unusual the warm, sunny weather is for April in London. It feels like the last day of school; everyone’s got a spring in their step, he says.
This motoring journalist with a YouTube channel is a car fanatic. His mother was an amateur racing car driver in the 50s and 60s and she instilled her love of cars in him. He’s been reading motoring magazines since he was a child and remembers when, in 1982, his father handed him a copy of What Car? magazine to shut him up.
His favourite car? It changes daily, but he’s definitely a Porsche 911 fan. He loves its history.
“It’s the product of an evolutionary design. It just looks right for its time,” he says.
“Sports cars are quite emotive objects. They can become infectious to a human being – the look, the feel, the sound. A motor car can express so many key human facets. They’re emotional. They can look ugly, beautiful, challenging. There’s something about them. A motor car is the pinnacle of technological development. They separate us from the beasts.”
The show doesn’t sell cars so much as excitement. He compares this fascination with cars to the first time riding a bicycle, going down a hill and feeling the wind on your face.
“I get to work with a bunch of very talented people. Top Gear films are beautiful, expansive and ambitious.”
And he’s right. Those inserts of an exotic vehicle slicing through a countryside are a delight.
He excuses himself and we head to the hangar next door, where the show is filmed. The set and lighting are a combination of art gallery and man cave, all red and black. The lights glisten in the paintwork of a Lotus Esprit, a Porsche 911 Turbo and a Ferrari Testarossa – all of them red – that are mounted on a halo of white light that floats above the audience’s head in this automotive shrine.
This fascination with cars, this obsession with speed and power and looks, has drawn several hundred Londoners, with their calf tattoos and their bad teeth, to this place on a Wednesday morning to hear three men talk about cars the way art lovers talk about the brush strokes on a Monet.
Many of the guests, including a fair number of women, are well dressed and have either taken a day off or called in sick to be there.
Once the hangar doors shut and daylight has been banished from the set, a man I will refer to as the audience wrangler takes charge. He possesses the verbal delivery of a horse racing commentator, the humour of a stand-up comedian and the social grace of a strip show emcee and used car salesman.
Before the presenters – “the talent” – appear on set, he asks for several rounds of applause, each varying in enthusiasm: A 3/10, a 6/10 and a 10/10. Then he asks for laughter: Titters, giggles and guffaws. He’s a born flatterer.
“You guys are better than the last lot,” he declares. “We’re going to use clips of you in shows you were never even on. It’s going to be hot today. Please do not faint into the talent.”
The jokes go on for several minutes. Finally, LeBlanc appears. They love him. He’s filled out since Friends, and he’s got that bro next door bonhomie and a muscly Boston voice. Harris, meanwhile, is walking through the audience behind the cameras, fanning himself with his script. We watch a pre-filmed and edited insert of LeBlanc test-driving a car (we’re not allowed to reveal any details before this episode airs here).
Once the insert ends, the audience must clap vigorously, and then it’s back to filming the live segment. LeBlanc and Harris discuss the merits of the car and its rival. The transition from recording to live requires two or three takes. Even though the audience has to applaud and laugh at the same jokes again and again – until “the talent” nails it – the level of enthusiasm doesn’t diminish.
In between, the wrangler is prodding and teasing, eliciting laughter, shunting people around when the action moves to another area of the set and warning them not to touch the extremely expensive cars that are moved on and off the set throughout filming.
Once we’ve watched the insert of Reid doing his drive, it’s his turn to get in front of the camera to tell us about it. He and Harris then debate the merits and demerits of the vehicle.
Next, LeBlanc and Harris interview a guest, watch the clip of his lap around the track in that Toyota GT and reveal the lap time. LeBlanc is great at building anticipation and when he eventually reveals the time, the audience is genuinely excited – about a man in a car driving quickly around a racetrack. They clap with the same level of feeling when they do the retake.
LeBlanc puts it beautifully at the end when he says the show is “just a bunch of cars driving around fast”.
“See you next year. Goodnight,” he says to the camera before the cheers and applause (10/10) die down and the hanger doors are opened to let in that rare London sunshine again.
Top Gear by numbers:
Despite dipping by about 4 million viewers from its heyday in December 2010, Top Gear remains popular. In 2013, it was even entered into the Guinness World Records book for being the most widely watched factual TV programme, with a reach of 212 territories. Incidentally, Top Gear broke another record in March for the world’s fastest tractor; The Stig got their modified “Track-tor” up to 140km/h.
*City Press' Thomas Hartleb was hosted by the BBC