Top Gear can still deliver the goods, even in the middle of a pandemic

The long-running series has made some changes in the age of COVID, but it remains as watchable as ever, says Patrick Cremona.

Top Gear

Throughout its long run, Top Gear has always had a reputation for setting extremely tough challenges for its presenters, who have regularly put themselves in incredibly risky situations in the name of entertainment. But for its upcoming 29th series, perhaps the biggest challenge of all was faced not by the show’s presenters but by its producers: how would they manage to make the motoring juggernaut work in the midst of a global pandemic?

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Production had already started when coronavirus first started spreading, but after filming was halted several plans had to be scrapped. All further overseas travel was off the cards, while the live studio audience segments would have to be significantly rethought as well. The good news is that having seen the first episode, audiences needn’t worry about a quality drop-off as a result of the forced changes – this is very much the Top Gear fans know and love.

Perhaps the most innovative change sees the introduction of a new ‘drive-in’ format, with an impressively-sized audience watching the studio sections from their own cars. It’s a bold move which could have gone either way, but I have to say it works really well – the fans seem like they’re having a great time and the whole set-up looks really impressive on screen. The on-stage banter from the presenters does admittedly feel a little forced – never quite as organic as the pre-filmed sections – but it’s easy to see why Paddy McGuinness has hinted this format could be here to stay even after COVID.

The bulk of the first episode was filmed before the pandemic hit, but the challenge taken on by Paddy, Freddie and Chris seems oddly COVID appropriate: the trio are forced to spend 24 hours inside one of the best new company cars without leaving for any purpose – even going to the toilet. The task takes place in Bolton, famously Paddy’s home town, which leads to an entertaining tour around some of his favourite spots, including a heart-warming meeting with an old friend outside his childhood home.

Since they first began presenting the show back in June 2019, the trio of presenters have proven enormously successful. Not only have they seen the show move from BBC Two to BBC One for the first time, they’ve also added more than two million viewers to the audience, with particular increases in the younger demographic and among women.

It’s not difficult to understand why they’ve been so appealing to viewers. The easy rapport and playful banter the three share is often a joy to behold and they strike a good balance between charm and expertise. Highlights from the first episode include Flintoff repeatedly teasing McGuinness about Bolton being in Greater Manchester and not Lancashire, the trio attempting to distract each other up while racing their company cars around a track, and perhaps best of all a karaoke section inside one of the cars – which quickly gathers an amused crowd for an impromptu singalong to Sweet Caroline. Yes, the humour between the three can be immature at times – but it’s all very good-natured and it’s hard not to crack a smile at some of their more childish antics.

While the Bolton challenge dominates the first episode, for motoring enthusiasts there’s also the return of the regular segment which sees Chris Harris review a new car, on this occasion trying out the Ferrari SF90. Although as a non-petrolhead myself I must confess I found myself switching off during this part of the programme, the appeal for car fans is obvious – and Harris is as assured as ever in delivering his verdict. Meanwhile some long-term fans will be disappointed to see the popular Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment dropped from the show, but even the most successful of long-running series needs to be revitalised from time to time, and this seems like a good opportunity to move forward with new ideas rather than sticking to such a tried and tested formula.

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With exciting episodes set to follow later in the season, including one in which the presenters take on a ‘Wall of Death’ and another that sees Freddie attempt to travel at 200MPH in a classic car, it’s safe to say that this is a show very much in its groove. Hilarious, outlandish, and just so very watchable – Top Gear has proved itself more than capable of overcoming the problems posed by the pandemic.

Top Gear returns for series 29 on Sunday 4th October on BBC One. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.