Top Gear review: The format feels exhausted – but at least it now has a better presenting trio

Paddy McGuinness, Freddie Flintoff and Chris Harris have survived to fight another series of Top Gear, its 28thno mean feat given the programme is still in its post-glory restructuring phase. They are not a perfect trio. Each of the presenters has a weakness to match their strengths. Flintoff is handsome and warm, but clams up in the studio. Harris knows about cars but his banter can feel hurried. Despite not having much interest in cars, McGuinness is as relaxed in front of a camera as anyone in television. Compared to the Evans/LeBlanc era that preceded it, however, this kinder, gentler form of car magazine show has been a triumph. Top Gear remains essential to the BBC’s sense of self, especially in international markets, so you could hear the exhalations of relief from Broadcasting House as the audience figures rose, reviews were positive, and executives were allowed to step up from the guillotine.  

One wonderful sequence in the first episode proves there is life in the old Rover. Having reviewed the Ariel Atom, which does 0-60 in 2.8 seconds, Harris sets out to prove you can accelerate a Metro to 60mph in 2.7, by suspending it on an enormous bungee cord, putting Flintoff in the driver’s seat, and dropping it off the Luzzone Dam in Switzerland. Of course it’s stupid, but it is also cinematic, a tribute to the opening stunt in GoldenEye, the little scarlet car framed by the plunging forests and shimmering lake. Best of all, Flintoff seems genuinely anxious, which gives edge to the perambulatory banter about Ben Stokes stealing his other glories. “He’ll be doing this one day,” Flintoff says. “He’ll be doing it. When it dries up and he gets injured. We’ve all been there. At this point I wish I’d done Strictly.”  

Sadly it all comes at the end, by which point plenty of viewers will have switched off. The rest of the episode is patchy and occasionally verges on embarrassing. Incongruously for an episode airing in the middle of winter, the road trip is a summer jaunt from Bognor Regis to Essex. “It’s January, it’s freezing out, so let’s talk summer holidays,” says McGuinness, unconvincingly trying to cover it for the studio audience. At the start of the segment, Harris asks McGuinness whether he has come as a “mid-Nineties sex offender”, because he’s turned up in a Ford Escort, again. The word “escort” hangs over the dialogue like a bad smell, especially in a sequence where they must negotiate a dirt track while being sprayed in the face with lubricant. At a driving range they hit balls at each other, at a tidal causeway they try not to get washed over by the sea. It’s all very stag do, and like many stag dos, to be endured rather than enjoyed. 

The programme’s structural issues remain, namely that the format feels exhausted. It cannot decide whether it wants to be about the cars, about the lads on tour or about grand cinematic stunts. The mix evolved organically, playing to the strengths of the presenters at the time. Putting these three pegs into those holes is awkward, although they are undoubtedly a better fit than their predecessors. 

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