In the last five years Top Gear has had more reboots than the Love Island wardrobe. They tried one thing, then another, then another. Eventually they came to land on a formula I don’t think anyone expected: a northern comedian, an ex-cricketer with a fear bypass and, perhaps the only choice that still made sense, a bona fide car journalist and semi-pro racer: Chris Harris.
The second series to feature all three, series 28 of the BBC’s vast global money-spinner, has just kicked off. Along with Paddy McGuinness, Freddie Flintoff and Harris, the cheap car challenge is back, this time with each presenter given £600 to buy the best convertible for a summer seaside holiday. Spotters of cars affectionately known as chod will have been beside themselves at the appearance of a Ford Escort ‘Calypso’ special edition, all rust-pocked but still plucky in the hands of the optimistic McGuinness.
Harris’ appearance in a very careworn Mercedes SLK 230 Kompressor is a pleasant surprise considering the budget, but then the real shock came with a Chrysler LeBaron V6; 140bhp of American stodge and extremely rare in the UK. So far, so good; three cars and all interesting in their own ways.
During the usual series of challenges, some more amusing than others, we see arguably the best and worst of the two northerners. Both can get a bit too shouty, a bit too overexcited and at times it all seems a bit much; you’re left wanting to either lower the volume or just pause it while you make a cuppa you didn’t realise you wanted until just now. But at the same time both are naturally very funny guys, bouncing off each other like best mates and each with a nicely spicy competitive streak.
McGuinness in particular seems like he’s been turned up to 11 at times in this series 28 opener. Perhaps it’s just the cheeky escort’s charm getting to him. Flintoff still blows hot and cold, bringing a warm laddishness and a brashness that’s so different to the Clarkson, Hammond and May era, yet gels the current trio together to achieve an on-screen chemistry that feels sort of similar, even though it isn’t. Unfortunately, his attempts to read from a script send the cringe-o-meter to critical. If only the producers would just let him ad-lib all of his lines. Frankly, the whole lot of them would be better left to themselves.
All the same, I loved a lot of this episode. Anyone who doesn’t laugh at the sequence at the driving range, which ends up with Chris Harris being pelted with golf balls while wearing a novelty T. rex outfit, is made of stone.
Let’s not ignore the (slightly) more serious element, either. Chris Harris’ piece with the all-new Ariel Atom 4, complete with 320-horse Honda Civic Type R engine, is a thing of absolute beauty. The scope, selection and variety of shots that make up the piece is breathtaking. Some of the angles are favourites we know and love, then some are new and wildly dramatic. Some might have taken numerous attempts to nail perfectly, all for the sake of a single second of footage.
The final ‘challenge’ involves fearless Fred being strapped into a convertible Rover Metro and dropped from a crane off one of the world’s tallest dams. With a bungee cord attached. The tension in the edit is real and palpable, if just dragged out a little too long. Flintoff’s reason for being on the show is as the guy who’ll do anything. He’d earned his dinner after filming this footage.
It’s a positive start for series 28 and an encouraging step for the three presenters in their mission to recreate the viewing figures and financial gains of a decade ago. There are still a few sticky patches, like Flintoff’s autocue work and some of the bits where the boyishness gets a bit over-the-top, but the balance really isn’t far off. They all look like they’re having great fun, for starters, and they all look like mates.
Despite the associated brashness, that key achievement of real on-screen chemistry, so obvious but almost five long years absent, means series 28 is one I know I’ll watch every minute of. Not just that: I feel like I’m going to look forward to each episode in a way I haven’t done for what feels like half a lifetime. And that makes me happy.