Will the new Top Gear work?


I may be pushing the boundaries of my brief here, but if I promise not to mention it again can I discuss the future of what I am told was until recently the BBC’s most globally popular show? Can I briefly talk Top Gear?

I don’t think there’s a great deal of profit in dwelling for long upon how the BBC got itself into its current position. Clearly you can’t go around thumping people in the work place or anywhere else, but the BBC’s solution ensured that every single interested party lost out, save the man who did the thumping whom, as I write, is being courted by networks around the world, presumably offering sums of money of which the cash-strapped Beeb, responsible to the tax-payer in a time of austerity, could only dream.

The BBC lost, those who worked on it who don’t have a job anymore lost and, of course, 350 million people around the world lost because they can’t watch it anymore. Even those who hate Top Gear lost because like it or loathe it, it was worth tens of millions to the BBC and if its replacement is not similarly successful, that valuable source of revenue will be gone for good.

What should have been done? If the answer was easy we’d probably not be in this situation now, but I expect Clarkson would have accepted almost any sane penalty in preference to walking the plank: Top Gear is what turned a talented young features writer on Performance Car magazine into a superstar and Clarkson – with help from Hammond, May, producer Andy Wilman, script writer Richard Porter and others – is who turned Top Gear from a worthy consumer show into a worldwide phenomenon.

The two seemed indivisible and it is worth saying here that regardless of your view of the man, however well Clarkson has done out of Top Gear, it is as nothing compared to how well Top Gear has done out of Clarkson.

But we are where we are and the BBC is committed to re-launching Top Gear with a new line-up of presenters headed by Chris Evans, whose record in creating new popular television formats and passion for cars cannot be doubted. Of all known candidates I expect he is the best man for the job.

Whether it will work is another question altogether. The last time Clarkson left Top Gear – for a year or two around the turn of the century – its ratings fell through the floor and I fear those locked in the BBC bubble responsible for its well-being have already miscalculated. The BBC thinks that the brand is Top Gear and those who present it merely its custodians. But I really don’t think it is: when 350 million people tune in, do they do so to watch Top Gear, or Clarkson, Hammond and May?

All three are hugely talented presenters but it is the way they work together that has turned the show into what it is. And it’s not as if they’ve all gone to the moon; I am sure there are all sorts of legal issues concerning what kind of motoring programme the three of them could present without being seen to be passing off Top Gear, but I expect more people would tune in to watch them present a show about pipe lagging than would want to watch Top Gear without them.

Top Gear in its ultimate guise wasn’t a show about cars, it was a show about Clarkson, Hammond and May, whose characters and relationships were explored through the medium of cars. Cars became a simple enabler and that’s why so many millions who have no interest in cars sat glued to every episode. And all that’s now gone, probably to a rival broadcaster.

Can the BBC hope to repeat it or somehow cook up an entirely different but equivalent formula for success fronted by the talented Mr Evans? It’s hard to picture and not just because even in the UK young people don’t know who Evans is, not to mention the fact it’s been many years since he last developed from scratch and presented a successful new television format.

I think that through a combination of some luck and more good judgement Top Gear became a unique proposition, a show far greater even than the sum of its conspicuously talented parts. In all walks of life where things are constructed, from cars to television programmes, just a few end up better even than their creators intended and Top Gear is one of them. In terms of acts to follow, I can think of few harder than this.

I am no apologist for Clarkson and it remains to be seen what, if anything, he and his former colleagues do next together. Nor is there any guarantee they will replicate their former success: even Morecambe and Wise struggled after leaving the BBC and they created probably the most loved institution in light entertainment history.

Moreover I wish the new crew all the luck in the world and do not underestimate just how many creative minds still lurk among the rent collectors, time servers and career lifers at the BBC. They are, I am sure, capable of producing an entertaining new show that by any normal standards would be judged a success. And maybe that will be enough for them. But for a third of a billion people around the world who have been deprived of a show they absolutely adored? I doubt that more.

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