EXCLUSIVE: The BBC has achieved something few could have predicted a couple of years ago: it has revved new life into the faltering global brand that was Top Gear — and in doing so, proved that there is enough room on the road for more than one big car show.
The chemistry between new hosts Andrew Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness has turbocharged the show’s ratings in the UK, meaning last year’s season crossed the finish line with 3.8M viewers, some 1.5M ahead of the previous Matt LeBlanc-fronted season. And the engine was still purring for the premiere of Season 28 last weekend.
This return to growth prompted BBC Two controller Patrick Holland to observe that Top Gear has shed its baggage, including any lingering doubts about its viability without the men who made it a global sensation: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May, and former showrunner Andy Wilman.
But that’s not to say Top Gear has Amazon’s The Grand Tour in its rear-view mirror. Many of the BBC show’s team were around during the Clarkson years, including executive producer Alex Renton — and the 15-year Top Gear veteran revealed that there are times when the two shows have crossed tracks behind the scenes.
Renton said the production teams often talk informally and word will get around when the shows are targeting the same prize. For example, Top Gear was exploring making a film in Azerbaijan, but quickly abandoned the idea when they found out that The Grand Tour already had filming plans in the former Soviet nation. In another case, both shows carried out a recce in Nepal. In this case, Top Gear won the race, with the country providing the backdrop to last year’s Christmas special.
“If we know in advance they are going somewhere, we would avoid it because it’s not what viewers want,” said Clare Pizey, Top Gear‘s other executive producer. It also speaks to the mutual respect between the two shows.
Wilman has always insisted that he and Clarkson have not watched a minute of Top Gear since leaving the BBC, mainly because they don’t want to get asked about their old “baby.” He told Deadline last year: “I think we did the best one, so I’m happy with that. And I’ve got loads of mates who work on it. I wish them well, but I don’t have any need to watch it.”
Pizey and Renton echoed this sentiment. “I’ve watched the Mongolia episode [of The Grand Tour] and thought it was really good — I really like that one. I also saw some of the boats one [last year]. I wish them really well,” said Pizey, adding: “There is so much room with all the different platforms, it’s just not an issue having two car shows.”
But in a mark of the swagger that’s back in Top Gear, Pizey couldn’t resist one final remark. “I think ours is better, but I would, wouldn’t I?” she said.
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