BBC2’s Top Gear returns this Sunday. I must be the lone cheerleading voice who dearly wants the show to be a success.
I say this as a committed non-petrolhead. I’m the sort of woman who could only describe a hire car at the end of a holiday as "silver, maybe?" But even if the thought of Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc, Sabine Schmitz and the team lamenting a Lamborghini leaves me cold, I will tune in regardless because I do love television – as a viewer, a critic and as someone involved in its production. And my interest is always piqued by anything Evans is involved with due to his 20-year history of risking his neck with epic, exciting and always surprising formats.
There’s an irony that Top Gear, a show made for people – but, let’s be honest, mainly men – who love driving, could be the most anarchic hour of the week. From The Big Breakfast through to TFI Friday, via Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, Evans has been at the helm of bitty, complex, difficult-to-execute formats, a fact that is constantly overlooked by his naysayers.
Evans adores making television with a dozen nail-biting production cues per hour, as well as live link-ups, jokes within jokes, pyrotechnics, zoo animals, performing children, A-list celebrity cameos and moments of high-octane silliness.
Fatuous? Sometimes, but never, ever lazy.
He makes television hewn from weeks of chaos, fraught nerves and people in headsets crying in Portaloos. Multi-award winning shows such as Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, with its "end of show" show, constant in-jokes and corpsing presenters, borrows heavily from the injection of devilment Evans, and the people he hires, first brought to British TV.
During last year’s brief TFI Friday comeback, the crew built a giant, vertical, slippery-slide and convinced Justin Bieber, among other celebs, to don an unflattering waterproof boiler suit and hurtle down it. It’s unfathomable to me, as someone who works in TV, how the slippery slide segments were signed off by the channel, by the terrified and litigious celebrity agents, by the insurance firms or by any of the rest of the vast army of fun-stoppers who prevent anything vaguely interesting happening in modern entertainment. (See the Brit Awards for details.)
If the new Top Gear does turn out to be a big dull dud, it won't be for lack of trying.
I wish Top Gear well, as its pre-production has weathered the most arduous storm of manufactured media outcries. Evans and LeBlanc are – it has been hard to remember, sometimes – merely making a show about cars. Not people-smuggling, or working on a smart bomb or plotting the overthrow of modern civilisation.
It’s been difficult to keep some sense of perspective about Top Gear in light of the gibbering news and social media melt-down each time LeBlanc was spotted filming a five-minute piece to camera in a Ford Mustang.
The team, we were told, had been disrespecting the war dead by allowing cars to go bang in Whitehall. Ah, that oasis of calm and repose which is the A3212 in central London.
And why were they using Matt Le Blanc, a major American TV star who might sell the show in multiple foreign territories anyhow? Couldn’t they use someone a bit less pricey like, say, Sid Owen or someone who wasn’t booked up on Celebrity MasterChef? One of McBusted perhaps?
And, hang on, had anyone heard that Evans himself had once been somewhat boorish in his management skills?
Yes, we all had. Bearing in mind Evans has written numerous eye-wateringly candid autobiographies about his rise to power and subsequent falls from grace, one of which – entitled Memoirs of a Fruitcake – charts his ego-fuelled follies.
The media has twisted itself in knots about Top Gear because it is a BBC show which has in the past made a lot of money and gained plaudits, over which the Beeb is supposed to feel slightly grubby.
It is a show about how lovely it is to drive cars fast, filmed at a point in history when we should all apparently be on bikes and tandems behaving like the Spandex-clad, bell-ringing berks who ruin every perfectly nice walk a pedestrian dares to go on.
Crucially, Top Gear is a show that was seen by the righteous to have raged “out of control” under its previous owner, the errant Jeremy Clarkson. Many felt it should have been removed from public life, alongside its floppy-haired antagonistic presenter.
But it wasn’t. And now Top Gear is back, with all the bells and whistles. Meanwhile, Jeremy Clarkson has taken The Grand Tour to Amazon, where the exact demographic of people who hate him now pay him four or five times his previous salary from their Amazon Prime subscriptions. He must lay his perm down on his gold-spun pillow and cry himself to sleep about that.
That’s the thing about the world of TV: I might not always love the players, but, goddamn, I absolutely love the game.
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