The BBC said today that longtime British radio and TV presenter Chris Evans is strapping into the driver’s seat as the newest host of Top Gear. He replaces Jeremy Clarkson, whose contract was not renewed following his suspension after a physical altercation with a producer in March. The Beeb said Evans, who had been speculated to take the wheel, signed a three-year deal to top an entirely new Top Gear lineup, essentially leaving Clarkson’s co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May in the dust. The two previously had indicated they would not return to the show without Clarkson by their side.
Evans is a media fixture in Britain, having worked early in his career for BBC Radio and going on to make a name for himself on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast in the early ’90s. After a return to radio, he emerged with TFI Friday on C4, another groundbreaking chat and variety show that ran to 2000. Evans went on to several hosting and producing gigs, never far from the media spotlight, and just this past Friday returned to Channel 4 for a one-time revival of TFI Friday — on which Clarkson appeared.
Evans, a known “petrol head” who owns a collection of vintage cars, created a frenzy the Sunday prior when he said he was making a “secret Top Gear film.” That led to further speculation he might be revving up for Clarkson’s seat. But the BBC said Evans wasn’t making a film for them and, as it turned out, it was a special Top Gear featurette that aired on TFI Friday, during which he and guest Clarkson joked about Evans’ rumored candidacy for the job. “You’re not going to get my old job,” Clarkson said. Evans replied: “Don’t want it. I ruled myself out.” Today, he said he was “thrilled” to get the gig, describing the motoring show as his “favorite program of all time.” He added, “I promise I will do everything I possibly can to respect what has gone on before and take the show forward.”
Today’s news is likely to be seen by many as the ideal alternative — which will come with its own brand of outrageousness. BBC News reporter Mark Savage noted that Evans is seen by some as a “divisive figure” by whom viewers might be put off over “the unruly, egotistical behavior of his tabloid years.” BBC Two Controller Kim Shillinglaw said of Evans, “His knowledge of and passion for cars are well-known and combined with his sheer inventiveness and cheeky unpredictability, he is the perfect choice to take our much-loved show into the future.”
While he’s a household name in Britain, Evans is a relative unknown Stateside, where Top Gear airs on BBC America. The long-running series is among BBC’s most popular, which the pubcaster says is seen by about 350M viewers worldwide and pulls in overseas sales worth an estimated $78M a year.
Evans takes over a franchise that made a worldwide star out of Clarkson, the outspoken, un-PC host who raised more than a few eyebrows on more than a few occasions. Along with the “fracas” that got him suspended in March — which fueled a widely signed fan petition demanding his return — he irked pretty much the entire country of Argentina last year. While shooting there, Clarkson tooled around in a Porsche with the license plate H982 FKL, which was seen as a not-so sneaky reference to the 1982 Falklands War between the UK and that Latin American nation. The show’s cars were abandoned and the crew escorted to the airport after being hit with rocks by fuming locals. It later was reported that the license plate snafu was entirely unintentional.
In May 2014, Clarkson was accused of making a racial slur in an unaired clip from a 2012 episode. That same year, Clarkson was in hot water for comments he made during a Top Gear special filmed in Burma, for which the BBC apologized publicly.
Clarkson’s future elsewhere has yet to become clear, though he maintains columns for The Times and is thought to be a subject of keen interest from other networks. In the meantime, the BBC last week released a first look at his final episodes of Top Gear, which were shelved amid Clarkson’s suspension. Footage that was shot before the kerfuffle will be unveiled fully on BBC Two within the next few weeks. It will mark the last time Clarkson, Hammond and May will be seen on the BBC program together.