Matt Le Blanc, Top Gear

Review: Top Gear or Flop Gear?

Just over a year on from Jeremy Clarkson’s now infamous “fracas” that saw his era of Top Gear come to an end, Sunday night saw the launch of the “all new, improved” motoring show under the leadership of light entertainment favourite Chris Evans.

I should point out that “new” and “improved” are Evans’ words and not mine, as going on this first episode the show seems neither particularly new nor improved.

What’s striking is just how similar the format actually is. The style of the challenges, the editing, the somewhat overly dramatic music, these all remain unchanged. Even the car review segments retain the same Clarkson-esque cadence and humour, “It’s about as cutting edge as a rusty crowbar” aping classic Clarkson similes like “it sounds like the God of Thunder gargling with nails”.

What changes have been made are relatively minor, reinterpreting rather than revolutionising. Most notable is the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment, which now features two celebrities driving not a cosy Kia or an Astra, but a totally radical rally car! The plugging aspect of the interview is reduced heavily as well, instead Evans’ delves into the guests’ (Gordon Ramsay and Jesse Eisenberg this week) car history, calling for some audience participation (the horror) in voting for who had the worst first car.

It’s in these TGI Friday inspired elements that Evans succeeds most. If there’s one thing he knows how to do, its work a studio audience. He’s far less successful in the films and challenges however, becoming bogged down in his Jeremy Clarkson impression rather than trying to find his own voice. Matt LeBlanc instead has the opposite problem. A natural in the on location films, his review of the off-road successor to the Arial Atom was the programme’s highlight, classically Top Gear in its style, but with LeBlanc offering a different kind of charm in his delivery. The same can’t be said of him in studio, which feels far more stilted, always as though he’s reading from a film script rather than an autocue. You have to wonder why LeBlanc was needed in the studio at all. He and Evans share no real banterous rapport justifying his presence, and indeed LeBlanc is the only one of the myriad of new hosts to actual appear in the studio.

I can’t help but feeling that of his old shows the one that Evans should be borrowing from most is The One Show. A return to a more magazine format of the 1970s Top Gear would have made more sense than this bizarre carbon copy. I understand that if the format ain’t broke then don’t fix it, but the format itself is not what made Clarkson, Hammond and May’s Top Gear successful. It was Clarkson, Hammond and May themselves. If anything their show became more successful the further it deviated away from being a car review show and instead being show about three blokes mucking about. It’s this lightning in a bottle chemistry that’s really missing, and its absence is made all the more obvious by the fact that the show otherwise remains unchanged.

Chris Evans on new Top Gear
© Mark Yeoman / BBC Worldwide

For me, the most promising aspect of this new run is its sister show Extra Gear. Essentially “Top Gear Confidential”, it airs on the now online only BBC Three after the main show. Its hosts, Rory Reid and Chris Harris, seem far more comfortable in studio and far less awkward when interacting than Evans and LeBlanc do. Reid still seems a little nervous, but Harris is relatively assured in his role, acting as a cynical Clarkson figure rather than attempting to impersonate him as Evans’ insists on doing.

One of my biggest issues is undoubtedly with Evans himself. He’s a very capable presenter, and is arguably a more natural interviewer than Clarkson ever was thanks to his light entertainment background. The problem is I just find him to be such an arse. Clarkson undoubtedly had an ego, but he always seemed very aware of his persona, and he also had Hammond and May to knock him down a few pegs. Evans however has no such limiter. Instead, he’s free to run round the studio, jump fiving LeBlanc because they’re such good buddies, and bringing in all the fellas from his local Indian to represent a tonne of down force because why the heck not?

Obviously you can’t pass total judgement based on just one episode. Watch the first few series of Clarkson’s era and you’ll see that it hardly resembles the juggernaut it became. But the problem here is that Evans and co. seem far too preoccupied with trying to just keep making that juggernaut without finding their own voice. Challenges involving three-wheeled Reliants and air force pilots all feel Top Geary enough, but that’s precisely the problem. They feel too Top Geary, or at least too Top Geary as we’ve come to know and love it, so that the absence of the old trio becomes a greater elephant than it needs to be.

Fingers crossed they’re able to work out the kinks. If not, I might be forced to get myself an Amazon Prime subscription for when Clarkson’s The Grand Tour starts in the Autumn.

Image thanks to BBC World Wide

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Patrick Simpson

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