Top Gear review: A mash-up of Mad Max and a stag-party video
New boys Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff are no Formula One-grade banterers
Chris Harris, Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff
Top Gear (BBC2, Sunday, 8pm) is back and not for the first time in its recent history it returns with a change of fluffy dice and a radical new paint job. The biggest shake-up is obviously the double-whammy of debutante presenters. Comedian Paddy McGuinness and former England cricketer Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff are in for the departed Matt LeBlanc, who seemingly has had enough of racing Tuk-tuks around Sri Lanka with grumpy sideman Chris Harris.
McGuinness and Flintoff have promised a shinier, happier Top Gear: less punch-a-producer, more hug a friend. So it’s a surprise that in their first outing the new boys spend a generous chunk of their time lobbing innuendo-filled firecrackers at poor Harris (who has held onto his job and this year functions as token motoring expert).
Really, they do seem to have it in for the unfortunate third musketeer. At one point they even force him to wear a woolly jumper driving across Ethiopia. Which is cruel but also a essentially a good thing. Forcing someone to wear a woolly jumper driving across Ethiopia is something you only see on Top Gear (unless Nationwide has really changed since last I tuned in).
You have to feel for Harris, a respected motoring journalist who in 2016 was drafted in as the BBC desperately tried to turn Top Gear around after Jeremy Clarkson was sacked following an altercation with his Irish producer. He survived Chris Evans’s disastrous and very shouty single season in charge. And he and Matt LeBlanc blossomed into an agreeably geezer-ish double act.
But now LeBlanc is off to spend more time with his family and also his Friends millions. So Harris is forced to play third wheel to Flintoff and McGuinness.
Sometimes it works – such as when the newcomers crack up as Harris boasts about all the naughty things he used to get up to in his first car. Here and elsewhere are glimmers of what Top Gear might become once the new crew settle in.
What hasn’t really changed is the formula. We have the usual trip abroad, with the threesome racing dust-caked bangers from Gondar in northern Ethiopia across a mountain range and through a desert. Gorgeous camera-work is supplemented by the traditional larking so that it feels you are watching a mash-up of Mad Max, Lawrence of Arabia and a WhatsApp video a pal has sent you from a stag weekend.
Back in studio, the peppery back-and-forths between Team Harris and Team Freddie and Paddy continue (he mocks their northern English accents, they mock … everything about him). There is no guest interviewee, no news segment, no Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.
Instead, Harris zips around Dunsfold in a spiffy McLaren and Ferrari (he recommends both!) and then it’s back to the second half of the Ethiopian odyssey.
Clarkson-era Top Gear was already passing its sell by date by the time Jeremy lost his temper with his producer, as the relative failure of the Grand Tour on Amazon attests (it makes Jezza loads of lolly – but who’s watching?).
So the introduction of younger and frankly less offensive presenters was probably going to happen sooner rather than later anyway. Flintoff and McGuinness are by no means Formula One-grade banterers – but they’re revving up nicely. And Top Gear may not be for the scrap heap just yet.