RogerBW's Blog

Top Gear season 2.23 and The Grand Tour season 1 02 March 2017

Top Gear: 2015, 6 episodes; The Grand Tour: 2015-2016, 13 episodes. In both cases, these are comedy shows lightly disguised as motoring programmes.

I can see why: the actual "motoring programme" as it was invented in the 1970s has become largely obsolete when one can find reviews of the car one might want to buy, and the places where one might want to drive, entirely adequately via the Internet. When Top Gear was reinvented in 2002 (retaining the name, while most of the production crew and cast went over to ITV to make the nominally more serious, but frankly dismal, Fifth Gear), it began with some slight façade of offering tips about normal cars that normal people might buy, but by the second series it was already getting into rocket cars, million-pound supercars, and smashing things up on screen.

In 2015, the BBC once more kept the name and fired a large part of the cast and crew (well, they only fired one of the cast, but the other two followed) who went off together to make their own show. But this time the BBC didn't completely redesign the format to suit its new presenters: they tried to continue the same thing, only with different people.

Which was obviously going to be a failure, but just how much of a failure wasn't clear until it became apparent that the new front-man of the show was to be Chris Evans, one of the few DJs not to be up on pædophilia charges. I haven't seen or heard any of his previous work, but as a presenter he was too obviously a comedian: the point of Top Gear version 2 was that it was presented as though it were the serious car show that version 1 had been, which just happened to involve doing very silly things, with a sly wink at the audience to let them know that they were in on the joke. In the hands of Evans it was just "ha ha, look at the silly man", a style of comedy that never works for me. He was joined by Matt LeBlanc, an American actor whom I also hadn't seen before but who had a very slightly better idea of what was needed. Neither of them had any particular history with motoring journalism, or motoring, or journalism; they were just there to be silly.

So a "duel" between two sports cars saw them fitted with paintball guns. The presenters raced Reliant Robins across England (painted with the Union Flag and Stars and Stripes respectively). They continued to interview celebrities and send them round the racetrack in a vaguely normal car, which I always found the most boring part of the show. It was all rather dull. (Evans has now left, but LeBlanc is apparently staying.)

Meanwhile the Top Gear team went off to Amazon to make The Grand Tour, only somewhat impaired by the BBC's retention of all the trademarkable names and insistence that having celebrity guests on a motoring show was a BBC monopoly. This is a crew that knows what it's doing, and is only slightly hampered by interference from above: this is most obvious in the second episode, with an extended one-joke action sequence at a Jordanian special forces training base, most of which has nothing to do with motoring. (If you've ever been to the RIAT at Fairford, you'll have seen how the Jordanian government can be very generous with its money but insists on having its own stuff on display as part of the result.)

Where it gets more interesting is in the "challenges", coming up with (for example) eco-friendly car bodies (meat and bone, a construction of plants and hazel wands, and blocks of mud), or beach buggies to go a thousand miles across Namibia. That's the sort of challenge a hypothetical serious motoring show might do, and the humour lies in the silly answers the team comes up with.

But mostly this series is more of the same performance art: three middle-aged men playing at being opinionated prats and messing around with millions of pounds of cars. It's getting a bit old, and so are they, but there's some life in the format yet.

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