We’re halfway through the six-episode run of Top Gear and so far its been… mixed.
The focus has obviously been on the presenters so far, but first I want to talk about the films. The production values are just as high as ever, but the writing simply isn’t as good – the fact Clarkson is one of the best TV writers in the business went largely unnoticed – and, crucially, they lack ambition.
What Top Gear did so well under the previous regime, even in a simple car review, was showing viewers something they had never seen before. For instance, in Clarkson’s 2006 review of the Audi RS4, he raced it against a rock climber tackling one of the most treacherous ascents in the world. It was thrilling and utterly spectacular and you still learned everything there was to know about the car.
By contrast, Chris Harris’s review of the Ferrari F12tdf on the most recent episode of ‘new’ Top Gear involved him powersliding round a racetrack. Which you can seen a million times over on Youtube. Not least on Harris’s own channel. Yes, you learned about the car and he put himself across reasonably well, but where was the spectacle?
It was the same story with the Chris Evans/Sabine Schmitz Audi R8 piece, and Rory Reid’s review of the Ford Focus RS – which wasted a clearly amazing school-age drifter on a couple of limp gags, incidentally.
The bigger, multi-presenter films have the spectacle, but again they feel underwritten. Yes, the ‘old’ show did feel a little staged at times, but only when there was a good gag to play – those moments rarely happen naturally and there’s been very few of them in the new series.
As for the presenters, well, Evans has not gone down at all well. His TFI Friday-style mugging in the studio grates and he simply cannot deliver a script. Matt LeBlanc is better on location, but painful in the studio. Sabine Schmitz hasn’t been given room to shine, but neither has she made much of the opportunities she has been given. Eddie Jordan’s single appearance so far was much the same.
Rory Reid and Chris Harris have vocal supporters among petrolheads, but a straw pole among my non-petrolhead housemates that watched the show with me showed they fell a bit flat. Incidentally, the Radio Times recently suggested their spin-off show ExtraGear was originally slated to air on BBC2 after the main show but was bumped to BBC3. Hardly a vote of confidence.
Then there’s the vexed question of viewing figures. Despite Evans’ protestations, there’s no doubt that the overnight figures have been much worse than hoped. Even taking recorded views and iPlayer requests into account, the numbers are way below what the ‘old’ show achieved, and by all accounts it’s much the same story abroad. It should be noted that viewing figures in foreign markets matter much more than they do at home; if they drop to a point that those broadcasters struggle to attract advertisers, they’ll pull the plug. Were Top Gear on ITV, it would probably have been shuffled off to a late-night mid-week slot by now. BBC executives will no doubt be taking the numbers very seriously.
I still think it was a smart move not to attempt to recreate the chemistry that exists between Clarkson, Hammond and May, as it was lightning in a bottle. Single-presenter films are the way forward but, as I say, they need to be better written, more ambitious, and the presenters given room to show their character.
Supporters say it will improve with time, but I’m of the opinion that, given the talent involved, prep time it had and the expectations on it, it doesn’t deserve any. I suspect BBC management are of the same mind.
By Only Motors