Was Chris Evans’ attempt to kickstart Top Gear doomed from the start?

Ben Dowell examines Evans' departure from the show, and reveals how taking over from Jeremy Clarkson proved a bridge too far for the presenter

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In the end, his best just wasn’t good enough.

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Chris Evans’ attempt to reboot Top Gear was in many ways a doomed enterprise from the start. He was taking over a much-loved show, a sleek BBC success story built upon the popularity of its three original presenters, whose chemistry could not be replicated. 

Few Top Gear fans wanted to see the demise of Jeremy Clarkson, who built the format round the rapport he had with his two mates James May and Richard Hammond (and their trusted producer Andy Wilman). The circumstances of his departure always rankled with the fans.

The Clarkson-era show was watched by a global audience of 350m and brought the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, around £50m in annual revenues. The stakes were, inevitably, pretty high. Improving on the original was a tall order. An impossible one as it turned out.

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Evans, an avowed petrol-head, had been approached early on in the hunt to find a new voice for the show, despite his public avowals that the replacement was not going to be him.

During early negotiations, there were arguments over who he wanted to take over and, according to sources, Evans’ initial wish to get former Friends star Matt LeBlanc was at first overruled by the BBC.

According to well-placed insiders, he was also keen to recruit David Coulthard, but his efforts to nab his services came to nothing when Channel 4 – eager to get the Formula 1 ace for their sport coverage – upped their pay offer. An F1 replacement was found for Top Gear, but it was Eddie Jordan, in a very minor role as a “friend” of the show. The sense that this was going to be a second-best Top Gear had crept in.

Who knows? Perhaps Coulthard, Evans and LeBlanc would have had the spark to make it work, but the hiring of the new team felt, said one production source, like a “patch-up job”.

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During the early skirmishes, one of the former Stigs is also believed to have auditioned for a presenting role but was said to be too “wooden”. There was confusion about whether one of the new faces was going to be a woman – Evans said it would, then appeared to back track – before the names had been announced.

In the end Sabine Schmitz, a likeable German driver and car enthusiast who had shone in an appearance on the old show, was brought in, alongside a very large cast.

Again, many at the BBC were worried about this. Not only did Evans have to reboot the show, audiences had to be introduced to a host of presenters many people had not even heard of. The pressure, I am told, was “intense”.

You could argue that this was a sign the BBC didn’t really know what they were going to do with the show – and you would be right. Was it to be the Chris Evans show? Or was Evans going to try and get more “amigos” and replicate the old one?

What parts of the old show would they retain? Keep too much and it looks like a bad copy; change it, and it’s not Top Gear any more.

LeBlanc, say sources, was only persuaded to formally sign up after RadioTimes.com discovered the BBC’s interest in him and approached the BBC three days before the announcement was made. The Friends star was told the news was due to leak, was given a few hours to commit and – to our considerable annoyance – the announcement came via Evans’ Twitter feed.

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This was another sign of the hasty make-do-and-mend approach to building the new show. With a name like Le Blanc, it was never going to be Chris Evans and friends – the former Friends star needed top billing as co-presenter and he got it. Time to change tack again.

The production meetings were also dogged by what kind of show it was meant to be. It is made by the BBC’s in-house entertainment department, but early production meetings were allegedly beset with arguments about this.

It must not, voices inside the show constantly said, be ‘just’ a motoring show. It had to be entertaining. But how were they to achieve this?

“I can’t believe we had to say this needs to be entertaining and not a car review programme. I actually used those words,” said a source.

The show’s budget spiralled in the absence of an executive producer (an apparently disgruntled Lisa Clark quit midway through filming), with an extra chunk of investment added at the last minute according to sources. Changes to the show’s racetrack at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, where guests test their driving mettle as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, cost £250,000.

All the while, production of the show was hit by delays. Evans had agreed to film a series of TFI Friday for Channel 4, meaning that he wasn’t ready to put his all into Top Gear until January 2016. As RadioTimes.com revealed, this helped ensure that the start of Top Gear was pushed back and pushed back and a proposed eight-episode series was cut to six.

The BBC was always fearful that if the show started too late it would clash with Euro 2016. It couldn’t be aired later in the summer because it would come up against the Olympics, and autumn was the time Clarkson’s new Amazon show was due to air.

While Evans continued to insist overnight ratings did not matter, they mattered to the BBC. The young male audience that was Top Gear’s heartland audience flocked to the football and the lifeblood drained away from the series.

Evans said he wanted five million for the opening episode. He only got 4.4 million, and the numbers steadily dripped away, with the final episode pulling fewer than 2 million in the overnights – half the number of an Antiques Roadshow repeat.  

Even assuming Evans was right about overnights not mattering, the consolidated figures for episode one reached just 6.4 million according to statistics provided by the BBC, with an extra 1 million for the repeat and 1.7 million on iPlayer. It’s still not enough.

Added to that, the reviews were iffy, the audience appreciation figures compiled by the BBC were lower than ever for the show, and all the plaudits were reserved for LeBlanc and irregular presenters Rory Reid, Chris Harris and Schmitz.

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For a perfectionist like Chris Evans that represents failure. Standing aside, as he said, was “the single best thing” he could do.