Rebooted Top Gear eyes Asian adventures as new host Chris Evans promises to take the show on the road. But can he win over the critics? Etan Smallman reports
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Fasten your seat belts, Hong Kong. With the BBC’s revamped Top Gear due to begin airing in the city soon, its new host is vowing to bring the show to a country near you.
“We’d love to go to Asia,” says Chris Evans. “We had to get these programmes made as quickly as possible,” he says of the first series of six programmes, “but we will come, I promise. If you are a car nation, then we are coming to get you.”
The British television and radio star was speaking at a press conference ahead of the series’ UK launch on May 28 at Top Gear’s base at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, southern England. The BBC has yet to confirm when the first episode will air in Hong Kong. The new show was panned in Britain for mimicking the old format, while the BBC claimed it was a hit in terms of viewing statistics.
You can tell you’re in a post-Jeremy Clarkson age as soon as you enter the catering tent at Dunsfold. The breakfast table is adorned with platters of fruit, bowls of organic yogurt and a carton of soya milk. Surely Clarkson would never have stood for this New Age nonsense.
The controversial former host still casts his shadow all over Top Gear – part-car show, part-sitcom, part-travelogue. After all, it was because of a well-documented fracas in March 2015 that I, and journalists from as far afield as New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico, have been invited to the racetrack to get a taste of the new Top Gear era.
In case you have been hiding under a rock somewhere, let’s get up to speed: when Clarkson discovered that hot food was no longer being served at his hotel at the end of a day’s shooting, he reacted by punching his producer in the face. He was eventually sacked and his co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May, sped off with him for a lucrative deal with Amazon.
I don’t dare make my hot dinner joke to any of the new presenters during the cold lunch, which includes lentil and nut pastries, rocket and Stilton salad and hummus. It’s evident that although they are avid fans of their predecessor’s on-screen capers, they are simply bored of answering questions about Clarkson’s behind-the-scenes antics.
Evans has teamed up with actor Matt LeBlanc (Joey from Friends) to front the revamped show, which started out as a rather staid consumer programme in 1977 (the first episode included an interview with Britain’s transport minister) and became an entertainment juggernaut: the most-watched “factual” show in the world and the BBC’s biggest money-spinner, with a global audience of 350 million.
Evans and LeBlanc will be joined ad hoc by Irish former racing driver and Formula One team owner Eddie Jordan; the car fan’s car fan Chris Harris; fellow YouTube star Rory Reid; and a lone woman, German racing driver Sabine Schmitz.
The cars sitting in the aerodrome’s hangar give a clue into what’s to come in the new series. A pair of three-wheeled Reliant Rialtos – with roofs cut off – are used in a UK versus US (Evans vs LeBlanc) race to the rain-lashed northern English seaside resort of Blackpool. A Dodge Viper gets raced at the US Naval Air Station Fallon in the Nevada desert (also the location for Top Gun). And the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment is replaced by “Two Stars in a Rallycross Car”, with the track receiving an off-road extension complete with water splash and jump.
To get a feel of the track, I’m treated to a “Power Lap”, with Harris driving. I sign a waiver to accept “the risk of injury or death to myself” and head to what turns out to be Harris’ own bright green BMW M3 saloon.
“What’s your fast car experience?” he asks as I bump my helmet on the roof clambering in. Er, none at all. “OK,” Harris replies with a smile. “Hang on!”
What do I hang on to, I want to ask, but it’s too late as he releases the handbrake and screeches off.
We try to engage in small talk as we reach speeds of more than 190km/h and I get thrown about my fancy leather seat like a rag doll. “This is just a normal street car, but it’s quite a violent experience, isn’t it?” he enthuses.
I think of the show’s other Chris, who will be seen in one of the episodes throwing up his breakfast while being driven by Schmitz. “How can someone who gets car sick possibly host Top Gear?” an incredulous source exclaimed to The Sun newspaper.
Has anyone else vomited in this series? “I’ve not done any throwing up,” Harris insists, before seemingly trying to unsettle my stomach further by yanking the steering wheel round with the words: “Let me just throw it in sideways.”
As we complete the circuit, he asks what I made of it. With my thoughts mainly on the merciful fact that my breakfast is still where I left it, I reply with relief: “That was fine, actually.”
Harris collapses into giggles. “That’s the best adjective I’ve ever heard used to describe a visceral experience. Yes, it’s fine!”
Back at the media briefing, Evans says Top Gear “is the biggest gig by miles”. The 50-year-old has been on British screens for 24 years and also hosts the country’s most popular radio show, with almost 10 million listeners a week.
Unsurprisingly, he has taking a battering from the British tabloids since he signed up for his new job – for allegedly bullying his colleagues, crashing a Jaguar the first time he drove on the Top Gear track, and being unable to talk and drive at the same time. Then there was a stunt involving LeBlanc doing doughnut wheel spins alarmingly close to London’s Cenotaph, the national war memorial, causing widespread upset and “allegedly” driving a rift between the duo.
Combine that with the fact that Evans is a virtual unknown abroad and you can understand why he – and the show’s executives – would be experiencing a certain level of tension.
I’m told in advance I’m not allowed to ask any questions about the Cenotaph stunt or allegations of bullying by Evans.
In fact, on set, everyone is as cool as a Corvette. “I knew what my job was,” says Evans, whose personal car collection always numbers between 10 and 20. “I knew I was going to get the s*** kicked out of me.”
Where did the rumour of a feud with LeBlanc come from? “From somebody’s bored fingers,” he says, insisting it’s all water off a duck’s back. So what, I ask, does a journalist have to write to actually rile him? Evans raises his eyebrows. “I grew up with ginger hair and glasses, so I was called names from quite an early age. And so, in many ways, I was being prepared for this role I didn’t know was going to happen one day.
“As long as it’s not true, I don’t care.”
One thing that is true, I can reveal, is that the presenters’ “VIP” lavatory trailer is not only carpeted but has classical music piped in. I can also report that the team (minus LeBlanc, who is off filming for his other BBC job, on sitcom Episodes) seem to have an easy rapport, if not the matey hijinks of their predecessors. The Stig, of course, is the exception. He sits through an entire press conference as animated as ever – motionless and with his arms crossed.
Schmitz, answering the obligatory question of what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, says: “It’s great, it’s a privilege – I’m the only one. I can say what I want, I can do what I want. I can drink them under the table if that’s necessary.”
Evans interjects. “No, that’s not true actually. You can definitely make me throw up in a car, but not in a bar. So far.”
One gets the sense this is going to be the running gag of the series. In episode one, Schmitz makes a Top Gun pilot puke, too, or in her own words, makes “his belly a little bit, hmm, crappy”.
On the question of rivalry between the original trio’s Amazon venture and their successors’ take on Top Gear, Evans tries to dampen down the speculation. But Jordan can’t help himself. “I’m not going to speak badly about friends that I’ve worked with in the past. I wish them well,” he says. “I don’t want to sound arrogant – I don’t want to say we’re going to make a better show, but I do actually think it will be a better show.”