A little under one year ago, everyone was watching the latest episodes of Top Gear with consternation as it struggled and faltered in its first post-Clarkson outing. The situation was so bad that at one point it seemed possible that the show – formerly one of the BBC’s most prestigious and profitable international brands – could even be summarily cancelled.
It didn’t help when Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s The Grand Tour launched on Amazon Prime later in the year and was everything that the BBC’s new take on Top Gear had failed to be – although naturally, anyone who had previously hated Clarkson on Top Gear continued to hate him in his new Amazonian habitat too. All of it piled new pressure on the BBC’s motoring show.
Everyone had their own ideas for how to ‘fix’ Top Gear. Even Taking The Short View stuck an oar in: Chris Evans was the main problem (he was inexplicably poor at hosting the studio sections, which was baffling given his decades of broadcasting experience), but we were optimistic that incorporating new boys Chris Harris and Rory Reid into the studio set-up rather than limiting them to filmed inserts could be the way forward.
Fast forward to 2017, and that’s pretty much what’s happened. Evans quickly decided to fall on his sword and left immediately after last year’s run; but Matt LeBlanc has stayed on, and Harris and Reid are now part of the main three-man hosting line-up. That might sound like a retreat to the old days of Clarkson, Hammond and May but the chemistry that’s started to grow between them is notably different: LeBlanc is the obvious star, but Harris had become his main comedy foil while Reid has ended up in a supporting role doing the ‘sensible’ pieces.
It started working straight away: Harris is a tremendous injection of energy and personality, and that immediately sparked a positive response in the otherwise laid back dry wit of LeBlanc. You could see that happening in the filmed inserts, but the studio sections continued to have a palpable sense of awkwardness and stiffness for the first two or three weeks. It was only when watching the most recent episode that I got to the end credits and realised that for pretty much the first time since Clarkson’s departure, the whole thing had run smoothly without any of the awkwardness. It had – for this episode at east, and I hope for the rest of its run – finally clicked. By jove, I think they’ve got it!
There’s also been some really fun, sharp filmed features including a trip to Kazakhstan in cars that have 480,000 miles on the clock; a supercar road trip for LeBlanc and Harris in the US; tests of the Ferrari FXX-K, Bugatti Chiron and Aston Martin DB11; and semi-regular cast member Sabine Schmitz taking a Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S around the Nurburgring. All of these have been delivered with the same panache and visual verve that always made Top Gear a feast for the eyes, even for those of us who aren’t actually petrolheads.
There’s a new studio that looks sleek and stylish, and tweaks to the format have dropped last year’s double guest star line-up and rally cross format that didn’t work. Much better is this season’s ‘Star in a Reasonably Fast Car” which is a twist on the old Clarkson-era segment by putting guests including James McAvoy, David Tennant, Tamsin Greig and Tinie Tempah in a zippy Toyota GT86. We even get to see the star of the week getting tutored by Harris (rather than the uncommunicative Stig in previous years), and it’s proved to be the single best new regular feature of the show in 2017.
Actually I’ll go further: in a new season that had already been pretty impressive, the fourth episode was possibly the best single instalment that Top Gear had put out in years. And that includes the last few series helmed by Clarkson and co.
In fact, let’s be honest about this: it’s mostly Chris Harris who is emerging as the likely saviour and true star of the show, not least by bringing out the best in LeBlanc. Considering that the former Autocar journalist and former racing driver originally got the Top Gear gig as a result of his YouTube car review channel, it must be slightly blowing his mind that he’s now working alongside a genuine Hollywood celebrity and getting the chance to drive some of the most expensive cars in the world. He looks as though he’s having a whale of a time with it all – and that’s exactly the sort of wide-eyed uninhibited enthusiasm that Top Gear has always needed at its core.
Now that the show has rediscovered the secret of its success, it seems the post-Clarkson regenerative crisis is finally over – and what a relief it is to say that. Let’s hope that the battered ratings now start to to recover after its difficult interregnum. Top Gear is back, long live Top Gear.
Top Gear continues its latest run on Sunday evenings at 8pm on BBC2. The companion Extra Gear is on Thursday nights at 12.15am on the same channel. Both can be viewed after transmission on iPlayer in the UK.