There’s a moment in the new Top Gear series that sees former cricket star turned TV presenter Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff having to stop and ask for directions. As with many of the high octane segments on the BBC One motoring series, it’s mid-challenge and the presenting trio – Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness – are racing to see who reaches a set destination first.
Cricketing star Flintoff, 43, has just one small issue though – remembering the directions given to him. He explains: “The problem is though, every time I ask for directions, I’ll do the window, I say, ‘Oh, do you know where this is?’ and for some reason I never listen to them. And I’m being polite and said, ‘Thank you’, and what did she say? I have no idea. But I’m not one of them who is worried about asking – I’ll ask for help if I need it.”
Flintoff is joined by motoring expert Harris, 46, and McGuinness, 47, to talk about the returning Top Gear series, and the friendly jibes you see on screen are ever-present.
A grinning Harris chips in to Flintoff’s explanation: “Poor old passers-by are thinking, ‘That Ben Stokes has let himself go’.” The chemistry between the three translates onto the screen excellently, and the upcoming series – the fourth with them steering the Top Gear machine – is filled with many such moments.
For the second time, the series has been UK-bound due to travel restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But McGuinness says: “These films in the UK are really good and I don’t think the viewers will miss the big road trips this time.”
All in the same Covid bubble in order for them to film, it was a welcome relief for them all to be working. McGuinness, also a favourite on screen presenting ITV dating series Take Me Out, adds: “A lot of the stuff we were filming, we were a little bit out in the sticks, so you weren’t really aware of shops being closed and stuff like that.
“We were filming, we were always busy and it’s long days. But it was nice to get out and see the lads and have a bit of fun and kind of switch off from the news for a little bit, you know? And all the sort of… We’re all stuck in this terrible situation, and so it was nice to just take your mind off it for a few days.”
Former England cricketer and Ashes winner Flintoff concurs. “I just feel fortunate as well just to get out. You go out and you drive cars and you’re filming and you’re working, you’re a bit more appreciative of what you’re doing,” he says. “I’m not saying you take it for granted but, you know, work comes in all the time and then you stop, and then you have the chance to do it again. I think everyone was really looking forward to it, weren’t they?”
Some of the challenges they’ll face include them tackling the issue of “mid-life crisis” cars, a Scottish Highlands off-road adventure, driving some of the most-loved cars from the James Bond films and a trip down memory lane as they take older vehicles, once driven by their dads, for a spin.
A question about the mid-life crisis episode provides the perfect opportunity for Harris and McGuinness to poke some fun at the glasses Flintoff is wearing. When McGuinness dubs them sunglasses, Flintoff replies hastily: “They’re not sunglasses, they’re prescription lenses with a blue tint.”
Returning to talk of the episode, he says: “With the mid-life crisis, we turned it on its head a little bit. It’s more of an opportunity to get the things you’ve always wanted. So, I had a TVR convertible, so I wanted that car when I was 20. I got to drive it, so, yeah. A lot of these things you get and you wanted ’em when you was younger but you can have them now, but they probably don’t look quite as good as you think they do.”
The discussion moves on to the Bond episode, with 007 stars Roger Moore and Daniel Craig named as their top picks. McGuinness explains: “I think your favourite Bond is related to the era you got into Bond – and mine was Roger Moore. And I love, he sort of did a bit more of the comedy stuff, Roger Moore. It’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek and I really like that.”
Craig gets Harris’ vote as he says: “I think Daniel Craig is a fantastic Bond because I just quite like the moody, dark thing. You know, for me, Bond is a pretty confused character and I think he’s done a pretty good job of that.”
The episode that sees them all take the wheel of the same models once driven by their fathers – including a BMW, Ford Fiesta and a Cortina – is an impactful one. The show’s co-executive producer Clare Pizey says: “It offers something very different for Top Gear. It starts with the cars, and there’s the usual madcap challenges, but it gave us the opportunity to make a more emotional film than we would usually do on Top Gear, and I hope it really resonates with the audience.”
For Harris, it was an intensely personal episode. He says: “It was problematic for me – it’s a heartfelt film, and it was probably further than I ever wanted to go sharing my personal life on TV. My father died a long time ago and even though you move on with your life, I still find it quite difficult to talk about him.
“I’ve got lots of cars and I’m very lucky that I can get hold of most cars I want, but out of respect for my father, I’d never sat in the driving seat of that BMW model before, and it took some persuading to get me to do the film. But I loved driving the car. I loved watching Paddy and Fred go through the same emotional journey as me and talking about how integral the motor vehicle was to your relationship with your parents.”
Is their love of cars a legacy they’d like to pass on to their children? “I don’t know,” reflects McGuinness, adding: “As a parent, as long as your kids are happy and comfortable in doing what they’re doing, I’m not really fussed about that to be honest. They’ve just got to be happy in my eyes – whether they’re into cars, bikes, running, walking – as long as they’re happy, that’s the main thing.” Flintoff adds: “I think for me, if I can be as good a dad as my dad is, that would be my greatest achievement.”
Harris says he tries to make car journeys with his children fun, including letting them having control of the airwaves. Prompted by Flintoff as to what they listen to on the radio, the revelation that they listen to BBC Radio 4’s sitcom Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is followed up by a string of jests from Harris’ co-presenters. The trio are all laughing as jokes fly thick and fast between them, including a good-natured jibe of, “Get Clive Anderson’s Loose Ends on, dad!”
A smiling Harris says: “I just can’t win, can I? I just can’t win.”
Top Gear returns to BBC One on March 14 at 8pm.