In the wake of its Cenotaph stunt, Grant Woodward asks if the Chris Evans-fronted model is destined to stall before it even hits our screens.
Sun and sangria soap Eldorado. North Sea ferry potboiler Triangle. The cringe-inducing horror that was It’s a Royal Knockout.
The list of doomed UK television shows is long and undistinguished – and no one in their right minds would have thought it possible that Top Gear, a proven ratings winner for the BBC over the last decade and more, would ever join their ranks.
But that was before the bumpy ride endured by the team attempting to regenerate the show in the wake of the sacking of Jeremy Clarkson and the departure of co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond.
Due to hit our screens in May, the revamped version is helmed by Chris Evans and former Friends star Matt LeBlanc. And it was the latter who provoked the latest controversy to hit the programme with a stunt filmed near a London war memorial over the weekend. Photographs showed LeBlanc and and a professional driver performing “doughnuts” near Whitehall’s Cenotaph, sending clouds of smoke from the car’s tyres.
The scenes were condemned by many, including former British military commander Colonel Richard Kemp, James Bond star Sir Roger Moore and Westminster Council.
It was yet another setback for the latest incarnation of the show, which the BBC hopes will continue to be a moneyspinner worth £40m a year to the corporation.
Last December executive producer Lisa Clark announced she was leaving after just five months working on the show.
Teething production problems were reported days later with a source claiming the new team did not know “anything about cars”, adding: “Writers from Top Gear magazine have had to be called over to suggest ideas and offer advice on what cars to film.”
Reports emerged again in January that filming for the new series had “stalled”, but were rubbished by a BBC spokesman.
Then Mark Linsey, acting director of BBC Television, was forced to defend Evans amid reports that the host was against the appointment of LeBlanc and his behaviour had led to Ms Clark’s departure.
Such a catalogue of woe begs the question: Is the new Top Gear doomed before it even begins? Tony Harcup, a lecturer in journalism at Sheffield University, isn’t convinced.
“It’s very difficult to see this kind of story about the Cenotaph stunt as separate from the BBC bashing that certain publications engage in,” he said. “It seems a bit of a trumped up row and besides, I’m not sure the people who are expressing outrage are necessarily part of Top Gear’s target audience.”
He believes a combination of factors make the story about the show being plagued by problems a good one for the media to keep on the boil.
“There is the glee at the chance to attack the BBC, all the previous rows that have stemmed from the programme which make it newsworthy and the fact that Chris Evans himself has a long record of being in and out of the tabloids. Add all those elements together and it makes for a perfect recipe. On the other hand, how many people are talking about Top Gear?
“This row may make some people more keen to watch the new series and give it a chance when it comes on to our screens.”
He points out that Top Gear “had a life before Jeremy Clarkson” and believes it could still be a hit.
“Whatever happens is going to be on the strength of the show and whether enough people like it. I don’t think this row, which is fairly small compared to the Clarkson years, will derail it.
“It was interesting to see how quickly Chris Evans offered an on air apology,” he added. “Usually the BBC would have committees agonising for weeks. It was a canny way to try and defuse it. Now we shall see if it works.”