Top Gear is the biggest factual TV show in the world, and one of the biggest earners for BBC Worldwide. So UK pubcaster the BBC and its commercial arm had good cause to be concerned when its star presenter Jeremy Clarkson hit one of the production team, starting a chain of events that saw him and his two co-presenters drive off in the direction of Amazon for big paydays.
The BBC was left with what could have been a write-off. However, Chris Evans was soon installed at the helm, and the BBC has now put together a seven-strong team that sees him and Friends star Matt LeBlanc as the main hosts. The producers and talent (Evans is both) now have the task of keeping fans on board, but also serving up something new.
“It will be familiar to fans, but will also feel quite reinvigorated and different,” says Adam Waddell, Top Gear veteran and director, entertainment brands at BBC Worldwide. “So, you’ll get the same mix of VTs, pre-recorded films, the studio and [race] track, but within that framework it’ll feel quite different.”
Show one will be a huge global moment for the wrong reasons or the right reasons. Everyone will tune in just to see how good slash bad it is, and it is our job to make sure it is really bloody good – Adam Waddell, BBCWW
BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm, this week served several hundred international buyers a taster of the new series at its Showcase event in Liverpool, where cars were set on fire, super-cars wheeled in, and a clip played from the new show. A five-strong presenting line-up (minus Eddie Jordan, and numbering six if masked driver the Stig is counted), was also in attendance.
The move to a bigger team is a key format change. “Top Gear had become so much about the previous three that necessarily it had to change,” says Waddell. “The fact there are six-stroke-seven presenters is a very deliberate move to give it a different feel.”
“The one word everyone uses about Top Gear is chemistry and you can’t just buy that, it has to evolve naturally,” he adds. “All you can do is throw together personalities you think will work and hope for the best, and what we have done is put together a cast of people we think will naturally work.”
That line-up most notably includes Friends and Episodes and actor LeBlanc, who was a regular guest on the previous version of Top Gear (and still holds the lap record for the ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ segment).
He was recruited to front clip-based spin-off show Top Gear – the Races last autumn, and will now anchor the new series with Evans. The other presenters appear as their specialist skills are called upon.
“Everyone asked who the other [third] co-host was going to be, because they thought we were going to Xerox what was done before [with three presenters],” Evans says. “We would be stupid to throw the baby out with the bath water, but also really stupid to try and imitate what they did, because they’re really good at it. It’s like being asked to reform The Beatles overnight without any of their hits or ability, and to be as popular as them.”
The TFI Friday host is aware of striking a balance between keeping the best of the old format and reinventing it completely. “If you buy a great old house you’d be really stupid to knock it down – you take the best bits and maybe give it a slight modification,” he says. “The thing is you have to do the first season is to really know where we are with the programme. First of all you buy a plane and learn how to fly it before doing a loop the loop – so we are going to keep loop the loops for the second season.”
The time was right for Top Gear to change…. it didn’t necessarily come about in a planned way with the circumstances, but once you get over that it’s fine – Adam Waddell
“It wasn’t broken; you don’t need to fix it,” adds LeBlanc. Describing himself and Evans as “an unlikely comic duo”, he takes a philosophical line when asked about the competition with the old presenting team and their Amazon show, the deal for which was struck months after their BBC exits. “There’s more than one cooking show and more than one comedy,” says LeBlanc. “There’s enough room for two or more car shows.”
Evans, meanwhile, made several appearances on the old show. He says he has been in touch with the old team a number of times and received some advice, which he is keeping to himself.
Of the new team, newcomer Rory Reid is a tech wizard, fellow unknown (in TV terms) Chris Harris a respected online reviewer, Sabine Schmitz a racing driver by trade, and Eddie Jordan an F1 impresario.
Harris is known for his YouTube car reviews, and he will spearhead an effort to make Top Gear a bigger online, as well as TV phenomena. “It makes sense we continue this content though a longer tail and continue it on the web where Top Gear has enormous reach through YouTube and Facebook etcetera, and it is potentially very exciting,” he says.
Although Top Gear is a bestseller on iTunes, has over a billion views on YouTube, plus 1.9 million Twitter and 22 million Facebook followers (with seven million alone for The Stig), there is still a sense that there is more to be done with the brand online.
Waddell says: “Top Gear is a video brand; what we do is make films about cars. We do that very well on TV, but naturally have aspirations to make more of Top Gear on the internet. It doesn’t matter on which platform [we work on].”
The idea when assembling the new team, the producers are at pains to point out, is to underpin the entertainment elements with genuine expertise and takeaways. Evans is best known as a madcap TV and radio presenter and LeBlanc as comedy actor, so that recognised prowess was seen as essential.
Evans says: “I assembled the cast of people I thought the show needed to keep its credibility. It had to have that. It has to be about the cars, and has to be credible. My other rule was nobody I employed to work on the show could know less about cars than me – I had to be the most amateur of all.”
Co-presenter Harris underlines the point: “Chris said to me it needs a spine of credibility, we can go and cock about and do great things, but it has to be underpinned by a rigour, which means if we deliver some kind of verdict on a car, the person that drove it knew what they were doing,” he says. “Unless you underpin it with that credibility, you don’t have the right to go and do the jazz hat stuff afterwards.”
According to Worldwide, last year was the biggest ever for the Top Gear format despite the furore around the Clarkson incident, with new versions getting away in France and Italy, and more to come in 2016.
As a finished show it has sold into 212 countries around the world, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most-watched factual show with 350 million viewers claimed globally. The new season of the motoring show will take in trips to locations including Cuba, California, Italy, Kazakhstan, Italy and Morocco.
I haven’t been given a single directive from June 13 when I got the job… I have been allowed to do, without asking permission, anything I wanted, including getting together with Matt – Chris Evans
Evans says that although it is a British show, the addition of LeBlanc just adds to that international appeal.
“Top Gear‘s DNA will be in Britain and it will have that British voice, but now we have Matt LeBlanc on board. One of the reasons that I was so grateful to him for saying yes is the global nature of the programme.
“When we announced Matt was on we got so much comms from around the world. Matt had earned his money on day one because by signing him you get the message out there: here is someone who is an international superstar, and who has been for a long time.”
LeBlanc is aware of the global nature of the show. “I have been part of a big show before,” he said. “The making is small and intimate, and then it goes out and is a big global thing.”
With the show in the tabloids in the UK daily since the fallout around Clarkson hitting producer Oisin Tymon – the case was settled this week with the star apologising and a reported £100,000 (US$155,00) compensation payment – the BBC could be forgiven for keeping a very close eye on Evans as he takes over. The new frontman insists that the opposite is true, and that was part of the deal he struck with the UK pubcaster.
Three months ahead of the launch season 23 launch, Waddell says the show needed reinventing, even if he’d rather the events prompting that change hadn’t happened in such a glare of publicity.
“The time was right for Top Gear to change,” he says. “It didn’t necessarily come about in a planned way with the circumstances, but once you get over that it’s fine. [The previous presenters] are doing their thing and have been quite generous to us with Andy Willman, the former exec producer of the show, saying this is a good time for car fans as they now get two brilliant shows.”
Speaking about the live performance and sneak peek of the new show at Showcase, he adds: “You’ll have noticed we didn’t mention the past once, or reference it in any way shape form. It’s gone, it’s history; we are going out and doing our thing.”
With viewers, reviewers and car fans in the UK and around the world desperate to see the new format, Waddell acknowledges the launch will be huge news at home and beyond. “Show one will be a huge global moment for the wrong reasons or the right reasons,” he says. “Everyone will tune in just to see how good slash bad it is, and it is our job to make sure it is really bloody good.”