A few minutes ago, Top Gear’s actual car expert, Chris Harris, raced me at top speed around the Dunsfold Aerodrome, in Surrey, in a Mercedes AMG E63. This sequence of words meant nothing to me, but he helpfully explained that, despite its family friendly appearance, the car had “a whole heap of mayhem” under the bonnet. “It’s about as fast as a McLaren in a straight line but you can get your labrador in the back,” he said. As we rounded “the famous Hammerhead” turn, I felt, for a moment, quite Top Gear.
Now we have been joined by Harris’s new co-presenters, Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness, for an “interview lap” at a more sedate pace. The idea behind the day was to give a few chairbound TV hacks a taste of what it’s like to be a part of the world’s most famous motoring series, but instead it feels symbolic of the challenges facing the new series: three light entertainers attempting a little humour during a cautious lap of a famous track.
“You don’t often see chocolate leather,” says McGuinness, as he hops in, admiring the car’s upholstery. “It looks like one of your jackets, Chris.”
“I am a paradigm of great dress sense compared to you,” replies Harris. “You had studs on your trainers.”
“Can we please get through one interview without you talking about your clothes?”
“It’s brutal. Proper banter,” Harris says. “For the first time in a long while, I get dressed in the morning thinking about what they’ll say. About what I’m wearing, about how spotty my face is. It starts with appearance then moves onto everything else. You’ll pick up a cup of tea the wrong way, or talk the wrong way. [The banter] is absolutely ceaseless.”
The old criticism of Top Gear was that it was a dinosaur: three white men talking about cars, interspersed banter and racism, dad jokes and granddad jokes. Now it must contend with the worst accusation of all: that it is simply unfunny. Since Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May left in 2015, pushed by Clarkson’s sacking and pulled by Amazon Prime’s largesse, none of the hordes of presenters they’ve tried – Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid, Sabine Schmitz, Eddie Jordan – have clicked like the Big Three. Evans came under the heaviest fire. The finale of his first season was watched by just 1.9 million, compared to the final Clarkson-era figure of 5.8 million.
When the new cast was announced, the consensus was cautious optimism. “These two are great hires to the brand,“ says Harris, “they bring a lot of love and great following. There’s no less serious thing than making TV, knocking about in cars. We’re trying to add a bit of levity to Sunday night, not fixing cancer.
“We’re looking for the c word...” he continues, and the ghost of Clarkson briefly hangs in the air between us. “Chemistry, that is.” Still, the new charges had to know a bit about cars, even if there’s no pretence that they’re on a level with Harris. “You have to be passionate,” he adds. “If you’re not authentic you get found out. You wouldn’t watch Jamie Oliver if you found out he couldn’t boil the egg.”
The logic behind the casting is mostly obvious. Harris, 44, does the fast driving and knows enough about cars to satisfy the purists in the audience. “I’m not really interested in people,” he says. “I just like messing around in cars. It’s the best legal drug ever invented.”
McGuinness, 45, best known as the cheeky chappy host of the ITV dating gameshow Take Me Out, knows how to work the studio audience, a part of the job with which LeBlanc, in particular, never seemed comfortable. Thanks to Flintoff’s presenting gig on Sky1’s sports quiz, A League of Their Own, as well as his various batty excursions into boxing, musical theatre and adverts for Jacamo’s fashion for larger men (“I’ll sort you out,” he says at one point, gesturing at my belly), the 41-year-old has now been a “TV personality” for as long as he was a cricketing hero. Still, what’s he here for?
“I’m just ’ere,” he says. “For international.”
“It’s really for India and Pakistan, where he can bring in the cricket fans,” McGuinness adds.
“They don’t remember him playing,” says Harris, “but he looks a bit like Ben Stokes.”
On paper at least, both McGuinness and Flintoff satisfy the requirement of being broadly popular and blokey without being toxic. In the previews we were shown, there are moments where the group dynamic feels as forced as it does when the three of us are driving around, but the odd flash of humour shines through.
In the opening episodes they tour through Ethiopia. The lameness of some of the formal humour, like the “chunky knit jumper of shame” awarded to the slowest driver, is made up for by their delight in the landscape. For all the criticism, Top Gear remains one of the best jobs in TV, and the new boys at least have the grace to seem to be enjoying themselves. Did they worry about joining a programme with such “old-fashioned” associations?
“People might have that opinion because it’s about cars,” says McGuinness, sensing that I’m really asking if it is very 2019 to have two white blokes join the blokiest of bloke shows. “But nobody’s going around saying, ‘Should a male be doing The X Factor’.” It’s a bit of an odd answer, but they can be forgiven for feeling a bit defensive given the programme’s past.
In other ways, the new series aims to be much more of its time. Flintoff has spoken previously about his struggles with depression, and the three men aren’t afraid of the odd hug amid all the joshing. There’s at least one extended sequence on electric cars. “With the shift to electric cars, I actually think it’s a good time to be doing the programme,” says Flintoff.
The numbers disagree. Along with Top Gear’s ratings slide, Amazon has been tweaking The Grand Tour’s format, too, getting rid of the studio audience sections to focus on the trips. Have the three of them taken any lessons from their streaming rivals “I’d like to take elements of their wages,” he says. “Those boys are on Roman Abramovich money.”
For all the bluster, it’s clear there is a lot riding on this. Top Gear was one of the BBC’s cash cows, and they must be desperate for it to reclaim its status. But it can only endure so many reboots before it is sent to the crusher’s yard.
“The big picture, for me, having grown up with Top Gear, is that it was loved,” Harris says. “We need to get that back. It needs to be an institution.” He and his likeable new buddies have a big task. You can’t hurry love, even if chemistry can be reasonably fast.
Top Gear returns to BBC2 at 8pm on Sunday 16 June