It hasn’t been an easy journey to get here - but last night the sputtering behemoth that is Top Gear showed promising signs of turning around on the negative publicity - and setting off in the direction of a renewed lease of life.
It’s fair to say that expectations were low. After the troubles of last series and the high profile departure of Chris Evans, and the long shadow cast by erstwhile presenters Clarkson, May and Hammond, it feels as though this series could be one last roll of the dice for the show that was previously one of the BBC’s most important properties. And while not perfect, on the strength of the first episode, it appears that The Grand Tour should be glancing nervously into its rear-view mirror.
First, let’s talk about what didn’t quite work: And this, mostly, is everything shot in the studio. In a series that is known for its cinematography, it seems that like TGT, Top Gear just can’t drop the studio - even if the banter between the new team of Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid and Chris Harris is at times painfully awkward. The opening gags dropped like a lead balloon - and it was enough to make you worry that something was rotten at the core of what is clearly a very expensive show.
From left to right: Man, man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man.
Similarly, the interview with X-Men star James McAvoy felt awkward. To make matters worse, once the conversation was over McAvoy was kept around - awkwardly and silently perched on the sofas between the trio. When Chris Harris tried to enthuse about nerdy details, rather than challenge the audience the show instead grasped towards lazy anti-intellectualism.
Though mercifully, studio segments were kept at a relative minimum compared to The Grand Tour. Knowing their presenters hadn’t yet earned it, there were no tedious, self-indulgent riffs about the Oxford bypass or how ice cream makes you gay.
But it was in the filmed segments that the show really began to shine. The first piece, in which Harris reviewed some Ferrari or other was competently produced, and even as a non-car person I understood why he liked the car. It felt like a statement of intent: That this is a show where personalities weren't going to overwhelm everything else. The power-washer segment, in which LeBlanc destroyed a watermelon, a shed and a car was a nice visual spectacle too - even if it felt more like a YouTube video.
The Kazakhstan film though, is where the show really found its footing. For me, Top Gear is at its best when it stops being a car show, and starts being a travel show - and it also gave us a taste of how Reid, Harris and LeBlanc interact.
In fact, it was nice to see that the presenters clearly actually like each other. Despite the veneer of combativeness, it was a million miles away from the decidedly frostier atmosphere on The Grand Tour, in which boorish Clarkson ‘hilariously’ belittles his colleagues yet again.
It feels like the presenters actually like each other.
Perhaps the best thing about the film though was that unlike The Grand Tour, it didn’t feel as though every moment was contrived or scripted.
Don’t get me wrong, I know how TV works. I know that the producers will have worked out in which order to reveal the high-mileage cars in order to get the best punchline. I know that the three different milage-maximising strategies at the end will not have been the presenters improvising their own ideas. But it was done with a much lighter touch than The Grand Tour, and without the feeling that there was someone just off-screen pointing a gun at Richard Hammond and forcing him to read a cue-card. The crash between Harris and LeBlanc felt real, and exciting. Reid’s taxi careering off on its own felt like a real moment - even if it had been planned. In essence - the illusion worked and my disbelief remained suspended. Which is a very long way indeed from watching Clarkson and Co playing soldiers in a pound shop remake of a Michael Bay film.
Essentially, I think Top Gear felt fresh once again. It wasn’t perfect - how about letting a woman talk, or worrying about climate change? But it felt like we were watching people who cared about their work - rather than watching three loveless millionaires luxuriating in Jeff Bezos’ gold. In just one episode, in my view Top Gear bested an entire series of The Grand Tour.
If last night’s show was a sign of things to come, then Top Gear could be taxiing back into pole position amongst the BBC’s crown jewels.