Saturday 10 December 2016

In the fast lane: 'Top Gear' is poised to revive winning formula

With Eddie Jordan on the team, the BBC is driven to prove there's life after Clarkson

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Up a gear: Can Chris Evans give Jeremy Clarkson a run for his money?
Up a gear: Can Chris Evans give Jeremy Clarkson a run for his money?
New recruit: Eddie Jordan.
Matt LeBlanc

There was a sense of things travelling full circle this week, with Dublin Formula One mogul Eddie Jordan confirmed as a new ­presenter of the BBC's Top Gear.

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It was, after all, another Irishman, producer Oisín Tymon, who, through no fault of his own, triggered the departure of voluble TG host Jeremy Clarkson when his face allegedly connected with Clarkson's fist in an off-camera fracas last year.

Clarkson was booted into touch by the BBC soon afterwards, having reportedly called Tymon a "lazy Irish c**t." (Tymon is suing). With Clarkson's exit, the future of the British broadcaster's most lucrative production was plunged into doubt.

Displaying a matey fealty absolutely in keeping with their on-screen camaraderie, his co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May followed "Jezza" into the sunset, leaving the BBC to rebuild its cash-cow on wheels from scratch.

That project is now a step closer to completion with Jordan joining the already confirmed duo of Chris ­Evans and Friends actor Matt ­LeBlanc. German racing driver Sabine Schmitz, motoring journalists Rory Reid and Chris Harris, plus The Stig complete the new-look team.

A flinty presence, happy to speak his mind, Jordan will unquestionably be a good fit for Top Gear. Not only is he deeply knowledgeable about cars - he also has a blokey streak that would chime with the sensibility of a soaraway franchise with an estimated worldwide viewership of 350 million across 214 countries.

With Jordan the white knight clopping to the rescue, it should seal a remarkable reversal. As recently as last month it appeared the reborn Top Gear was destined for the scrap-heap before it had even flashed a wheel trim in anger.

The departure of several key behind-the-scenes staff and tabloid chatter about radio presenter Evans' egomania boded ill - indeed, you could taste the schadenfreude as images of the host being violently ill after one stunt drive too many while filming in the United States circulated online.

But now there is a sense of pieces falling into place, with LeBlanc perceived as a canny choice as the BBC seeks to build on Top Gear's popularity in the United States (his Friends character, Joey Tribbiani, being the closest thing to an American cheeky chappie). Add Evans' undoubted ability to talk his way out of any ­situation and Jordan's car smarts, and it is possible to feel almost ­hopeful for the future of Top Gear.

This, naturally, is conditional on the public accepting an American on Top Gear - a turnabout that would be supremely ironic given Clarkson's loudly-declaimed dislike for the Land of the Free.

"The BBC faces a real challenge to find a way to reboot Top Gear with new presenters," says motoring journalist and car blogger Caroline Kidd (changinglanes.ie).

"The world seems to have ­accepted that Chris Evans will be the new Top Gear presenter, and as an experienced broadcaster and a genuine car lover, he should be able to carry the show.

"However the announcement that Matt LeBlanc will be joining as a co-presenter surprises me and I'm not sure if Irish, or even British audiences, are ready for their Sunday night car show to be delivered with an American accent from an actor who is most famous for a role he hasn't played in over 10 years. It remains to be seen how Evans and LeBlanc will relate to each other on screen."

It's just as well that the BBC has finally found first gear as the three former Top Gear hosts are plotting a very lucrative revenge in the form of a new Amazon Prime series for which they have negotiated a multi-year deal worth more than $70m (€62m).

Details are at a premium but it seems safe to predict the as yet unnamed offering (Clarkson has ­confirmed it won't be called Gear Knobs) will feature gags at the expense of cyclists, vegetarians and Guardian readers and that the petrolhead swashbucklers will be dispatched on pretend-dangerous jaunts across the world. Why tinker with a winning formula?

As the BBC and Amazon, ahem, "gear" up for battle it is worth reflecting on why Top Gear has become such a phenomenon, one arguably as popular among the general public as actual motoring enthusiasts (it isn't an all-bloke love affair either - 40pc of Clarkson's audience was female).

"Most television on a Sunday night - Heartbeat or The Royal or whatever - has got that underlying feeling of 'You're going to work or school tomorrow; your weekend is over'," was James May's considered opinion several years ago. "Our show's got the feeling of making an irreverent start on something exciting."

Deepening the appeal was the fact that Clarkson and company looked like the sort of everyday, ­unfashionably dressed types who, in the normal course, wouldn't be permitted within five miles of a ­television studio. Grumpy, ­rumpled, given to spouting politically ­incorrect opinions, they served as stand-ins for the audience plonked at home on their couches.

"Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson at the helm worked because it was unashamedly blokey and there was a special chemistry between the presenters," says Caroline Kidd. "Sometimes the stunts were ridiculous, the banter was cringe. Still, it always redeemed itself with production values that favoured sheer horsepower. Clarkson has a magnetic charisma on screen. He's honest, opinionated and completely immune to any corporate spin or influence coming from the motor industry's PR executives."

"Jeremy's got a paunch and a bald patch," opined former Top Gear producer Andy Wilman, the unofficial 'fourth musketeer' now toiling with Clarkson, Hammond and May on their endeavours at Amazon.

"James looks like he mends old motorbikes in his kitchen. Their attitude to the real world is just, 'Oh, for God's sake'. Everyone wishes they could have that attitude, so Top Gear's a release valve."

There was, of course, a dark side. To many, Clarkson's tell-it-like-it-is joviality reeked of prejudice. He caused an outcry with a gag about truck drivers killing prostitutes and later cloaked himself in the livery of the quintessential Little Englander with potshots at the Scots, Labour voters and environmentalists. The howling irony being that, far from an outsider railing against the powers-that-be, he's firmly embedded in the establishment, counting British PM David Cameron as chum and neighbour.

Yet, although the Top Gear formula is easily dissected, it is an open question whether it can be straightforwardly replicated. Clarkson, Hammond and May started broadcasting together in 2002. Only over the next several years did they strike up the chemistry that viewers would find so irresistible.

"It was just a car show on BBC2, so we were afforded the time without having to force it," said Richard Hammond in 2007.

"There was no artifice, there was no 'Jeremy will be the big bombastic one and you, Richard, can be the short, noisy one'. We just sat down and did what we did and let it grow organically."

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