Like some great big fat cosmic joke, Radio Times has invited an interviewer whose motoring adrenaline falls some way short of Postman Pat’s to interview the World Famous Presenter of Top Gear. An interviewer who describes cars by their colour, who believes McLaren is a byword for a pram not a racing team, and who keeps one foot on the brake when driving on a motorway to kill her speed.
Yes dear reader, I am that person, and right now I’m caught somewhere between trauma and thrill at what is about to unfold. I’m setting my phone to record when the door opens and there – in a baseball cap, jeans and a slightly too-bright blue sweatshirt, stands Joey from Friends. Except he’s no longer Joey from Friends, he’s Jeremy from Top Gear. Except he would hate that even more. So let’s just say there stands Matt LeBlanc.
He looks trim, tired, slightly wary – little does he know how little I know! “Go gently,” I say. “I want to understand your passion for cars, but treat me like I’m engine blind.”
And so it begins: “Well, a car is a box you sit in that has four wheels. No, five if you count the steering wheel…”
But what emerges is not – as I had expected – the riff of a man who has been unsuitably parachuted into a role, rather like the character he plays in the sitcom Episodes, but a man who lives and breathes cars. A man who is not just at home behind the steering wheel but actually underneath any of the other four. A man who enjoys playing around with “the giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle”, who describes the thrill of “fixing things”, and who tells me, “I’m pretty handy… I was one of those kids who took stuff apart and put it back together and got into trouble for it.”
His dad, he admits, wasn’t around much, but he was a mechanic who bought him his first set of tools. “I’ve got more tools than most people,” he tells me. It’s a cracking boast and I giggle because actually I am properly impressed. I had not expected him to sound this, well, useful.
Does he feel sad, I wonder, that so much of the romance has gone now, that cars are more like giant laptops – data deliverers, not purring animals? He nods in agreement. “There’s not as much fixing these days as there is just replacing. You know, it used to be, ‘You need to change the gap on the points or file this down.’ Now you need to be a computer wizard to diagnose what’s wrong.”
We are here because Top Gear is back on our screens, after a pretty turbulent year. A year that began on a low note – the filming of stunts around the Cenotaph in central London that seemed dramatically to underestimate how seriously this nation takes its war dead – and then somehow got worse. Those stunts were dropped ahead of transmission, but not before an excruciating apology was issued. And with it the rumour that LeBlanc and his co-host Chris Evans didn’t much get on.
Within six months, Evans had quit. Was it bad chemistry?
“Um… Well, first of all for me, personally, I think with any job that I do – any part – it’s nice to have good chemistry with people. If you don’t get along with people it makes it a lot harder, especially with comedy, because it needs to have a light environment where it’s OK to try things you think are funny.”
He references Friends, the all-time supportive-cast show. So what happened here? Did he not feel safe enough to make mistakes?
“We got along fine. We talked, you know, about creative processes, and pitched ideas… Everything was going along smoothly and then he started… all those stories in the press came out about him and he seemed a little stressed about it all. The next thing I knew he had resigned. I didn’t know.”
LeBlanc admits he got no prior warning. I was a little surprised. I was like, ‘OK, well what does that mean?’ And then I spoke to Alex [Renton, Top Gear series editor], who said we were going to continue. And I said, ‘OK!’”
Last time around Evans had creative control of the show. This time, it lies with Renton (who started on the show as assistant producer back in 2006 and became series editor in 2009) – and out of the hands of its stars. LeBlanc says it makes it more collaborative than it was and endearingly admits his jokes frequently get bawled out for being rubbish. “With comedy, you kind of leave your ego at the door and go in and feel free to try stuff. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s [he laughs]… less than good.”
The advance clips I have seen of Top Gear have the three presenters (LeBlanc, Rory Reid and Chris Harris) staging a Bond-themed baddy chase in Montenegro, with a black tie-clad “Matt LeBond” in an Aston Martin DB11. It’s sweet and hammy. Gone are the withering put-downs, and the exhausting vertigo that came with constant flirtations with offence.
LeBlanc has had lots of exposure to British versus American humour from the brilliant Golden Globe-winning sitcom Episodes, which is approaching its fifth and final series. The running gag on the show is what happens when BBC-type scriptwriters meet Hollywood-type executives. LA wants to sex up and dumb down; Britain wants word play. Has LeBlanc made the leap, I ask, between American and British audiences?
“American comedy tends to hit you over the head with the joke… It tends to assume the audience isn’t very well educated. British comedy assumes the audience will pick up on this.” He’s happy to play on the dislocation, though, in Top Gear. “I think there’s still a lot of fun to be had with an American and a Brit, and their different takes on things. Like Chris Harris and I get along really famously and the comedy really jumps off the screen.”
I’m wondering if he’s encountered resistance from the viewing public. Changing the Top Gear line-up was akin to changing the Archers theme tune or asking the British public to start calling the Queen by her first name: there’s only so much novelty we can handle. Has he felt he’s dealing with a sacred cow – something that’s Holy and Untouchable?
“Yeah, I read some things on social media like: ‘Go home Yank’, ‘You Suck’, ‘Eff you’, ‘Eff this’, ‘Eff that’. They’re like armchair quarterbacks out there. But as a production team we are interested in moving the show forward.” He’s at his most impressive and his most charming when he’s insouciant.
Chris Evans placed a lot of emphasis on ratings. Does he? “I look at the ratings, but I don’t dwell on them. My job is to make the best programme I have the ability to make. Once the show is broadcast it’s out of my hands, so the old saying, ‘Don’t worry about things out of your control’ works here.”
And do the ghosts of Jeremy Clarkson et al haunt him? He says he’s seen a bit of The Grand Tour (the Amazon motoring show with Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond) and thinks it’s good, but hasn’t spoken to the man himself. “I’m not friends with Jeremy. I’ve met him once [as a guest on Top Gear when he scored the fastest Star in a Reasonably Priced Car time] but I don’t have his phone number. Not because I don’t like Jeremy, I think he’s a brilliant guy. Super crafty, great writer, very funny. But he and I are not… mates.”
The Grand Tour trio
He says there’s room for both shows. Top Gear is more technical, more about the cars, and he leaves the camaraderie and the banter to The Grand Tour and its gang. He reminds me that Friends didn’t have the chemistry in season one that it had in season ten. So is he prepared to give this show ten years? “I certainly don’t plan on going anywhere,” he smiles, full of charm. “I’m having a good time.”
There is the echo of Joey from Friends in the line – calling to mind his “How you doin’?” catchphrase. I wonder how often he hears that…
“It happens pretty much everywhere they have electricity. If they have electricity they’re watching Friends.” It’s a bold claim, but he carries it through. “It’s funny seeing little kids do it. Because Friends every year tends to be discovered by a new generation, so young kids will watch it for the first time and when they see you they can’t believe how old you are. One kid called me Joey’s dad!”
And I blush as I suddenly understand my own response to him. I had done that thing: confusing clean-cut Joey with a near 50-year-old Matt. It must be tiring. Or delightful. I can’t tell.
I ask him what he would hope people would say about the new series, if he could write his own reviews.
“Well, it’s funny, Top Gear seems to come with all these preconceived notions and baggage because it’s been so controversial over the years. I would like people to sit down and try to watch it with an unbiased mind and just give it a chance. Is it entertaining? Even if you don’t like cars – are you entertained by it? That’s what we’re setting out to do. A little bit of escapism.”
So erase what you think you know?
“Yeah, possibly… but will people be able to do that? And give it a fair shot? I don’t know. Are people going to watch it with Friends in mind? I don’t know. You know people have things imprinted in their brain. It’s hard to sit down and watch it with an unbiased mind. I just don’t know if people are going to be able to do that. I hope so.”
Top Gear is on Sundays at 8pm on BBC2