“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
This was new presenter Matt LeBlanc’s attitude to Top Gear when The National asked him how he was getting to grips with one of the most popular factual shows in the world.
And yes, there has always been too much riding on the show for BBC Worldwide – they make an estimated $225m per season – to green light a complete reinvention. But as the credits rolled over the famous theme tune at the end of the first post-Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond show last night, Monday, May 29 – watched by 4.4 million viewers – it became clear that LeBlanc and Chris Evans’ Top Gear had indeed gambled.
Because this was a show almost identical to its previous incarnation, but without a shred of the enjoyable relationships between personalities that had made it so watchable over the years. It felt like watching a covers band playing hits to perfection – but leaving the audience wishing they’d seen the real thing.
The very first feature was almost staggering in its homage to Top Gears past. Evans attempted his very best Clarkson impression, shrieking with delight at the sheer power of the new Dodge Viper APR against a backdrop of moody, cinematic photography. It even had the old twist of “You thought this car was good … how about THIS!” as a yellow Chevrolet Corvette roared down a Nevada runway. In fact, the use of the setting was probably the best part of the entire hour: it was shot at the Top Gun airbase, and the programme ran with the 1980s film theme, strapping laser sights to the vehicles and challenging occasional presenter Sabine Schmitz to “lock on” to Evans’ car.
It was fun, Schmitz was enjoyably sweary and probably underused. But the same idea was then almost exactly repeated later, with LeBlanc testing the offroad Ariel Nomad and being challenged to outrun paparazzi. The show might have got away with it in a different episode, but here the whole thing was just, well, odd.
LeBlanc, however, was in his element describing the virtues of the Nomad – and strangely stunted in the studio sections, where the easy camaraderie between the previous presenters was noticeably missing. For all the talk of seven presenters flitting in and out of the new Top Gear, it does feel like Evans and LeBlanc need another voice to bounce off more regularly. Perhaps a trio would have been too similar to what had come before – not that this seemed to bother the production team in any other area of the show.
That LeBlanc and Evans are still working each other out was most painfully obvious in this week’s challenge, which started out with the duo driving open-topped Reliant Rialtos to Blackpool from London. The first segment not only had no point to it, it was fundamentally boring: two middle-aged men who don’t know each other driving up a motorway until one of the cars breaks, with no hilarious consequences. Thankfully it brightened up a bit when the UK vs USA element was ramped up with the addition of some Jeep vs Land Rover challenges, but the endgame – to get automobiles to the top of inaccessible mountains – was once again straight out of previous Top Gears.
Elsewhere, the unknowable Stig is still driving cars fast – introducing him with the words “We got custody” was probably the best line of the show – and the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car has now become two stars competing against each other in a rallycross Mini Cooper.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay – who has appeared on the show twice before – got to boast about his Ferraris and beat actor Jesse Eisenberg, who seemed a bit bemused to be there at all.
As, most worryingly, did LeBlanc. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he doesn’t last more than one season, but there were tiny glimpses that Evans might be able to mould Top Gear into something that feels less constrained by what has come before. The studio elements felt much more like his TFI Friday chat/entertainment show; generally, the new Top Gear seems more obviously fun-seeking and less sneery and entitled. Evans has a track record of innovation: but here the BBC really need to let him off the leash. At the moment, he’s having to play to a crowd who probably wish Top Gear never needed fixing in the first place.