Gentlemen, stall your engines. Top Gear returns to BBC2 on Sunday for its 27th run, just three months after the last. Following the second major overhaul of its presenting line-up in only four years it seems the programme will never recapture the chemistry nor the massive audience of its supposed heyday, when it was hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. But given their tenure was blighted by a string of controversies – including homophobic, xenophobic, ablist and racist remarks – maybe it doesn’t deserve to. By the time they left, after Clarkson’s alleged assault on a producer in 2015, their brand of sneering boy’s club banter had become synonymous with the show itself.
New blood brought in for season 27 includes presenter and comedian Paddy McGuinness (“the other one from Max and Paddy”) and Freddie Flintoff, the former England cricketer who has spent his athletic retirement hustling around British TV, most prominently as a team captain on Sky One panel show A League of Their Own. Some of the lesser-known presenters from the past few years have remained, including Rory Reid and racing drivers Chris Harris and Sabine Schmitz. The first episode brings the group to Ethiopia, whizzing around in their very first cars in a typical Top Gear set-up.
People weren’t watching in spite of Clarkson’s transgressions but because of them
Word from the re-constructed Top Gear camp is that there has been a gentle reform. McGuinness told The Guardian that the series was “bringing a different vibe”, edging out the macho ribbing in favour of “hugs and nice bits.” It’s a far cry from the series in which Hammond was asked after a life-threatening car crash, “Are you now a mental?”, or in which an Asian man was referred to as a “slope” while standing out of earshot.
There is, of course, no reason why a softer approach wouldn’t fit the format – or why it couldn’t have had “nice bits” since the very beginning. After all, Top Gear has always been a series with a pretty straightforward remit of interests: describing cars, driving cars and reviewing cars. It’s almost impressive how Clarkson was able to engineer so many opportunities to offend while talking exclusively about motorcars. But the series’ robust viewing figures gave him no reason to change. People weren’t watching in spite of his transgressions but – on some level – because of them. With Clarkson gone, and Top Gear drained of its poison, the BBC has been unable to curry much enthusiasm for a lighthearted magazine show about driving.
Clarkson, Hammond and May’s departure put a stop to Top Gear’s conveyor belt of controversies, but the programme has since struggled to recreate its old formula. The first hosts to replace the trio were apt enough choices. Radio DJ Chris Evans led the series in 2016 alongside Friends star Matt LeBlanc, whose insistently heterosexual alter-ego Joey Tribbiani made him a neat tonal fit for Top Gear’s desperate machismo. His considerable star power was also a coup for the BBC, and made him a face-saving replacement for the series’ frontman.
After a debut episode which drew nearly as many viewers as during the show’s peak, people quickly stopped watching, with figures eventually dropping by almost two-thirds. LeBlanc carried on for four series; Evans lasted less than a year. The group were roundly criticised for their laboured, unconvincing camaraderie. McGuinness and Flintoff now seem to be briefed for a change of tack, a turn in the general direction of progressivism. Top Gear will set out to be not just inoffensive, but actively positive. No longer will you watch and assume the expensive cars must be compensating for something.
For over a decade, the BBC was complicit in repackaging Clarkson’s crass speech and prejudice as schoolyard banter
In contrast, the series’ former darlings have showed no intention to change. After Clarkson was removed by the BBC – with Hammond and May in tow, worried the floor would scrape without his coattails beneath them – they migrated to Amazon Prime for the knock-off series The Grand Tour. A slew of homophobic jibes made during The Grand Tour’s trip to Colombia prompted outrage from many, including singer-songwriter Will Young. Instead of apologising, Clarkson doubled down. “I know I’m not homophobic as I very much enjoy watching lesbians on the internet”, he wrote in his Sun column. Last week, a lesbian couple were assaulted and robbed on a London night bus. The group of men who did it reportedly asked them to kiss each other, before throwing coins at them and punching them in the face. Presumably they are also men who “enjoy watching lesbians on the internet”.
This softer re-branding of Top Gear is good. It is necessary. But it is far too late. For over a decade, the BBC was complicit in repackaging Clarkson’s crass speech and prejudice as schoolyard banter, blurring the lines of acceptability.
In making excuses for him time and time again, the broadcaster helped legitimize bigotry, racism and homophobia. When, in 2007, Clarkson described a Daihatsu Copen as “a bit gay” and “very ginger beer”, the BBC did nothing. When, in 2014, the Top Gear team paraded a coded Falklands War number plate around Argentina, the BBC echoed Clarkson’s gaslighting, claiming it was a coincidence. When, the same year, Clarkson was recorded seemingly muttering the n-word as part of a rhyme, they issued only a warning. That Top Gear is a programme marketed in part towards impressionable teenagers only makes it more egregious.
The new line-up may help to distance the franchise from its past, or may be a last, futile bid at preventing the series haemorrhaging viewers further. But those dwindling viewers have got the message: Flintoff and McGuinness will never be Jeremy Clarkson. Why on earth would they want to be?
Top Gear is on Sunday, BBC2 at 8pm