We’re going incredibly fast. I’m trying not to cry, as my knuckles whiten on the dashboard of a vintage Ferrari with a windscreen so low it might as well not exist. The wind blasts my face, making it hard to breathe.
Oh my God, there’s a tractor in front of us, we’re right up on its huge back wheels, we’re going to hit it, surely … until we swerve and fly past on the wrong side of the road and back again. This is brilliant driving, but I’m still scared. I don’t want to die this way, driven by a cackling, ginger television star who will take all the headlines.
“If you go into a ditch on these roads, you’re probably not going to walk away, to be honest,” shouts Chris Evans over the roar of a white and blue replica 1957 Ferrari Testarossa, a model built to compete at Le Mans, not tear up the leafy lanes of Surrey. He is in control but, to a novice like me who has never been in a car like this before, it feels terrifying. And fantastic.
“It’s a test. It shows what people are made of,” he says, and hollers that one of the biggest names in comedy has just failed it. This person came to Evans for advice on how to handle fame and was given a ride. “He was shouting out: ‘Don’t kill me!’” As the engine roars and the trees blur – and I hold on for all I’m worth – I can see why.
Fast-forward four years, and my driver has just become the new host of Top Gear, taking over from the disgraced Jeremy Clarkson. “It’s my favourite television show of all time,” Evans says, and it is a natural fit. He is a passionate petrolhead with a (literal) stable full of cars and his own annual event, CarFest, which raises money for Children in Need.
Even Clarkson has given his blessing, on Evans’s revived TV show TFI Friday, with a lesson in how to pause and ham it up like one of the current Top Gear presenters, the only people who talk like this … in the world.
His appointment gets the BBC out of a massive hole. Clarkson had to be sacked for punching a producer in a row over hot food (or the lack of it, after a cold day’s filming) but killing the show off completely would have cost a fortune. Top Gear makes an estimated £50m a year for the Beeb in terms of overseas sales, not to mention merchandising, DVDs, books and live shows. It is watched by 350 million people in 214 countries and there are licensed copycat versions in America, China, Russia and Australia, to name but a few.
Until 2012, half the proceeds went to Clarkson and his producer Andy Wilman, who together made the show what it is. But they were bought out three years ago and now every penny that Top Gear makes goes back to BBC Worldwide. At a time when the licence fee is in danger, Top Gear proves the point that BBC shows can be made to pay their way … and more.
Clarkson now claims he was offered a new deal, but could not return. “Too much has gone on. After I’d been compared to Jimmy Savile by someone from the BBC and it was splashed all over a Sunday newspaper, how could I go back?”
However, the BBC says he was not offered a contract. Evans made fun of his friend on 19 June, saying: “Whether Jeremy was offered his old job back or not – either outside or inside his own head – he still said no to the voices.”
When Richard Hammond and James May made it clear they would also not return, Evans felt free to take over.
The deal to present and produce the show is thought to be worth £5m over three years, but this will come out of the money that Top Gear makes rather than the licence fee. And the money is probably not the point for Evans, who has about £30m in the bank. He is as preposterously blessed as Clarkson, king of the Cotswold set that includes the Prime Minister; but while his predecessor comes over like a sour old fart these days, the 49-year-old Evans still has the gift of seeming like an ordinary chap who can’t believe his luck in life.
The car he drove the day we met in late 2010 was not his most expensive – he had just paid £12m for a real 1963 Ferrari – but it was still worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The long white nose was painted with two blue racing stripes. It felt like riding on a rocket.
“That felt much faster than 60 miles an hour,” I said afterwards, looking at the speedometer. “That’s the rev counter,” he said. Where was the speedo? “There isn’t one.”
If we had crashed, the bang would have echoed over lawns and swimming pools and fairways. Evans lives in the Fame Belt, the prosperous landscape on the edge of London where the kings of light entertainment keep their castles. This leafy paranoia theme park is a strange place to live if you are the sort of person who can’t sit still and has to keep moving, talking and finding new ways to feel like you’re on the edge.
Evans was the restless, cheeky boy-next-door who became intensely famous on Radio 1 and Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast. He produced his own shows such as TFI Friday and earned so much that he was able to buy Virgin Radio.
But he sold it again and got sacked, as his first career disappeared in a storm of drink, drugs and bad behaviour, such as not turning up for shows because he was on a bender. His best-selling book, Memoirs of a Fruitcake, detailed exploits such as getting on a night bus and trying to pay with a bunch of bananas, because he was so drunk.
“I lost control because I was playing with fire,” he told me. “I’m not saying I won’t play with fire again, but I don’t know if there’s any more fire to be played with.”
Top Gear has made an art out of playing with fire: firing a Mini off a ski jump, swinging caravans like conkers and destroying a Nissan Sunny with the flames from a dragster. But it’s all done safely, under carefully controlled conditions, and that is how Chris Evans likes – or needs – it these days.
He was genuinely grateful to be given a second chance by Radio 2 in 2005 and gobsmacked to take over the breakfast show from Terry Wogan. Many listeners hated him replacing their hero, but millions more loved it; the ratings soared. He will be hoping there’s a pattern there.
The secret of his renewed success was to chuck out the cynicism with which he had tried so hard to be cool. “I said to myself: ‘I’m going to take no chances here. Zero chances. I’m going to be safe, positive.’ It was a conscious decision because it had to be, whereas it used to be natural.”
There was still something restless about him during our encounter, which was extraordinary. First, he rejected the airless BBC room in which we were supposed to talk and got his driver to take us to a greasy spoon. Then it was on to a Ferrari showroom run by a friend, and back to his house for that testing drive, followed by a long chat about his life.
I thought our time was up then, but he got permission from his wife, Tash, to go to the pub, where the landlord gave us pints for free. The driver stayed in the car. We paid at the next pub, and the one after that, and two more.
Five pubs, five pints, then an Italian restaurant where he didn’t even look at the wine menu or prices, just said, “Can you bring us a really lovely red?”
The evening ended in the car park, where Evans briefly danced with Bruce Forsyth. It was surreal. Then he said, very generously, that there was no point in making the long journey home at that time, I could stay the night.
His producer greeted us the next morning like a couple of naughty schoolboys: “You boys have been out on the razz, haven’t you?” But Evans said: “No, not at all. We went out in the afternoon.” And it was true. We had been back at his by 9.30pm (although in my case at least, pretty drunk).
Evans was terrific company, but I realised pretty soon afterwards that it was only for the day. That’s how stars work. He needed a temporary pal, for a safer, controlled version of his old three-day pub crawls. He was keeping on just the right side of chaos, which is also what his new show does so well.
Top Gear needs saving from itself and Evans has the imagination and – crucially – the generosity of spirit to do that. He’s a petrolhead who also loves people and life and has a strong sense of gratitude. He’s no misogynist, and there will surely be at least one female presenter alongside him.
Top Gear will feel a bit anarchic, a bit silly, warm-hearted, inclusive and lively with Evans in charge. Maybe it will even have the courage to confront the inconvenient truths that Clarkson, Hammond and May ridiculed: that the world is running out of fossil fuels to burn, the petrol lobby is blocking the spread of electric cars and Formula One is a filthy sport that celebrates machismo and greed. Oh, and that cars are not just for “blokes”.
Let’s at least have better pranks, funnier stars behind reasonably priced cars, women treated as equals, not novelties or poppets to be leered over, and less bigotry. God, much less bigotry.
But then it’s hard to imagine Chris Evans making casually racist or homophobic jokes or trying to restart the Falklands War.
What about the pressure? Will he cope with putting the kids to bed, rising at five to shine on the radio then getting on a plane to Patagonia to cross a raging river in a Robin Reliant? I think so. It will give him the exhilaration he craves, without ruining anyone’s life.
Will the new Top Gear work? Hard to say. But I do know this from experience: with Chris Evans at the wheel, it will be a wild ride.
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