The new new Top Gear got off to a strong start last summer – after several false starts, it felt as though BBC Two’s motoring show for people who aren’t really interested in cars had finally got it right with its newest hosting line-up, with Paddy McGuinness, Freddie Flintoff and Chris Harris (the one face to have survived from the Matt LeBlanc era) proving to be an unlikely but eminently watchable trio.
Reviews were positive and ratings nearly doubled, with an average of 4.5 million watching compared to the 2.4m who’d tuned in for LeBlanc’s swansong earlier the same year. Even so, after just six episodes, the spectre of previous failures felt as though it continued to cast a shadow, while there were clearly still a few small kinks that needed to be worked out – though an improvement on what had come before, the dynamic between the new hosts was still in a work-in-progress, with some viewers complaining about what they saw as Harris being ‘bullied’ by his co-hosts (something he himself denied).
Launching into its second series though, this latest version of Top Gear absolutely hits the ground running (or should that be racing?), with ghosts of the past laid definitively to rest. This might even be (whisper it) the best that Top Gear has ever been.
It’s clear from the first episode of 2020 that the new team have found their groove, with a more balanced dynamic between McGuinness, Flintoff and Harris helping to erase one of the few black marks against the previous series. Here, at various points all three emerge victorious and spectacularly come undone, earning a drubbing from their co-hosts.
The trio also work equally well split up into pairs – though McGuinness arguably remains ‘lead host’, fronting much of the studio segments, one sequence in this first episode featuring just Flintoff and Harris (of which more below) works incredibly well, so much so that the absence of 1/3 of the roster is barely noticeable.
BBC Studios/Lee Brimble
There’s proper belly laughs to be had here, as the lads good-naturedly embark on one ludicrous challenge after the other, from doing a timed lap of a motocross track while being sprayed with industrial lube to donning a series of ridiculous outfits while their open-top cars are pelted with golf balls from on high. (Harris running scared from his obliterated Mercedes-Benz dressed as a giant inflatable dinosaur is already a candidate for TV moment of the year.)
But by far the episode’s standout set-piece is the utterly outrageous stunt that has already been widely publicised and trailed – and understandably so. Flintoff bungee jumping off a 500-foot dam in a red Rover is both the funniest and most remarkable part of the episode.
McGuinness and Harris have claimed that Flintoff was the only one of them willing to take on the daredevil stunt, but whatever the reason, he’s the perfect choice, his naturally deadpan demeanour slowly cracking under the pressure as he gets closer and closer to finally making the drop. “What am I doing here? Why am I here? I’ve got an MBE!” he groans, as a near-delirious Harris watches from the sidelines.
When he finally drops, it’s a TV moment so outrageous, so flabbergasting, that you’re convinced the show will cut to a dummy in the car and a reveal that it was all a ruse – the sort of thing that might’ve happened during the Clarkson/Hammond/May era. Instead, we jump to a euphoric Flintoff, screaming his lungs out – and odds are, you were screaming too.
This rejuvenated Top Gear is wildly entertaining TV, if just a few marks short of being a perfect hour of entertainment. The studio inserts still feel a little stilted, though at least the celebrity guest spot – always one of the more painful segments of a Top Gear episode – is blissfully absent here (fingers crossed it’s soon put to bed permanently).
Meanwhile, Harris’s car reviews – in this case, he takes the new Ariel Atom for a spin – remain unavoidably the least interesting part of the show for anyone bar the most dedicated petrolhead.
Still, when Flintoff quips “I’d like to see Jeremy Clarkson do this!” while suspended 500 feet in the air, it does make you reflect on the fact that, even in their pomp, Clarkson and company rarely put out episodes as strong as this.
Top Gear continues on Sundays at 8pm on BBC Two