New Top Gear presenter Chris Evans is running down the list of cars he owns. “There are loads of things in my garage,” says the 50-year-old English radio and television producer and presenter. “I bought a 2000 Mercedes AMG at auction recently. I’ve got Peter Sellers’s Aston Martin DB5 Convertible, a 1976 Rolls-Royce Corniche Convertible, which was my daily drive until I bought one of the last Land Rover Adventurers. Oh, and then there’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
The eyes of his co-presenter, former Friends star Matt LeBlanc, light up. “Geez, when are we taking that out,” he purrs.
“Mate, whenever you like. Although that car does gallons to the mile, not miles to the gallon.”
“Cool! We can do it when my daughter comes to visit, she loves that movie!”
“Done deal. We’ll drive it to the windmill where it was filmed.”
And how about you Matt, what’s in your garage?
“Oh, I’ve got a fleet of Toyota Corollas,” he deadpans.
This tiny conversation – veering from the ultra specialist to the plain bonkers – illustrates how, one imagines, the producers, new presenters, even fans of this hugely popular motoring show hope the new Top Gear will go. Evans is slightly late for our chat, and he and LeBlanc awkwardly hug by way of greeting – people who aren’t quite friends yet, but know they probably need to be if the most widely-watched factual television programme in the world is to continue its dominance in the post-Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May era.
Because for all the news of seven presenters, it’s very much going to be their show. They say they’re not feeling the pressure, but ask LeBlanc what he thinks of the challenge and his answer is telling.
“Well, Chris and I are huge fans of the old show,” he sighs. “In fact, I wish it was still on, I loved it. It would certainly be a whole lot easier for me to just sit on the couch and watch it.”
“Top Gear is a big brand,” Evans says. “Jeremy, Richard and James are well known around the world. I am not. But if you get a show with enough heat, it can withstand people leaving – look at ER after George Clooney, or James Bond. I think Top Gear is the same.”
It’s fascinating watching Evans and LeBlanc grapple with the behemoth that is Top Gear. Clarkson might have been a good frontman, but Evans is an outstanding, innovative producer, too. As much an anarchic ideas man as a presenter, his Ginger Productions television company made him an incredibly wealthy man.
And yet, when we speak, they’ve just finished a very familiar first film, a trip from London to Blackpool in a convertible, three-wheeler Reliant Rialtos.
Keen Top Gear watchers will remember Clarkson mocking its predecessor, the Reliant Robin, back in 2010. Clearly, Evans and LeBlanc are having to tread very carefully.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” admits LeBlanc. “The format worked before, so we’re really just plugging in new people. It’s a television show about cars and having a few laughs, it’s not a cure for cancer.”
But why does LeBlanc think he was “plugged in”?
For all the obvious desire not to mess with Top Gear too much, casting “Joey from Friends” does change the feel of a show that celebrated a certain kind of aloof Britishness.
“I think they brought me in for the comic element,” he says. “I was pitching jokes all the time on the last trip and Chris was like: ‘All right, that’s enough. Just be quiet!’
“But I’m not trying to inject apple pie and hot dogs into Top Gear: I love Britain and it’s still a British show.”
“He’s actually playing down how much he knows about cars,” says Evans of his avowed petrolhead co-host (LeBlanc’s garage is actually filled with Porsches rather than Corollas). “So we’re in these two Reliant Rialtos, on this 12-hour journey. It’s raining and there’s no roof. Matt’s breaks down and he ends up on the back of a lorry, but he’s still in the Rialto. For six hours. And the breakdown truck has these flashing lights on it, right in front of him. He also had a bear suit on, with big paws.”
“It was like being waterboarded,” says LeBlanc.
“Anyway, one of the producers asked him to review the Rialto, and 35 minutes later I hear on the walkie-talkie: ‘Is that enough?’ He’d been talking about that car all that time! You have to know something about cars to be able to do that …”
Evans and LeBlanc are clear that the cars will be returned to the “centre of the story” – a wise move given that, in its original version, Top Gear had been more about the actions and opinions of the presenters. Not that this new Top Gear has avoided controversy: over the winter, key members of the production team left under something of a cloud and, after this interview, a LeBlanc stunt near a London war memorial left Evans “mortified”.
What they won’t do is force any of the more absurd elements of Top Gear’s storytelling, which had begun to be a problem with the old show.
“You can’t really say ‘we’re going to make this insane’, because then you start with the froth and it gets a bit silly,” says Evans. “I’m fascinated by what Matt did with Friends because I can’t remember any specific jokes, but I do remember it being funny all the time.”
“Right – we always had this rule on Friends that if you picked an obvious joke you had to do it in a creative and clever way and not insult your audience,” remembers LeBlanc.
“People often talk about how you keep something edgy, and you can’t,” adds Evans. “You have to be original – and actually original will, in the end, be perceived as being edgy. And that’s what we’ve got to do – not just in one film, but a series.
“So we’re not nervous about doing that: we’re focused.”