I was a day late watching the most recent episode of Top Gear, but I was expecting big things. When it was actually airing on Sunday night, my Twitter was ablaze with people waxing lyrical about this third episode of Top Gear’s 25th series. Even so, when I finally stuck it on catch-up, the Japan-set ep went beyond my high expectations.
There was a used JDM challenge involving a Mazda RX-7. Incredible driving from Chris Harris matched with stunning visuals in a Honda Civic Type R vs Lexus LC500 showdown. There were Bosozoku cars. They even went to Ebisu to drift, for Pete’s sake. I couldn’t believe I was watching all this on a prime time, Sunday night programme on one of the UK’s biggest TV channels.
The chemistry between Harris and Matt LeBlanc felt more natural than ever, and Rory Reid seemed in his element exploring the madder side of Tokyo’s modified car scene. The iffy one-off season with Chris Evans was a very distant memory.
In the Jeremy Clarkson era, the presenter used to joke on the odd occasions when “we’ve actually made a car show for once.” Now it’s an actual car show every damn episode. For years, Top Gear felt like an entertainment show first and a car programme second - that’s part of what made it so popular.
Now, it’s far less mainstream, and all the better for it. But, this approach will inevitably mean that Top Gear is unlikely to ever achieve the kind of ratings success it did when fronted by Clarkson, Hammond and May.
Indeed, the 2.4 million viewers pulled in by the first episode represented the weakest series debut ever for the show since its original 2002 revamp. Episode three meanwhile managed just over two million viewers, representing a 9.2 per cent share. To put that in context, over on BBC Two, Call The Midwife regularly claims over a 30 per cent audience share with over seven million viewers.
Even with its more modest viewership, Top Gear is going nowhere. After all, the brand is a behemoth that goes well beyond just the UK show. But we have to cross our fingers that the BBC perseveres with the current format. It’s not a commercial broadcaster, but the organisation still needs to attract eyeballs to justify its public funding.
The temptation could be to dumb things down and make TG into a more mainstream entertainment show, but we have to hope that doesn’t happen. Top Gear is arguably better and more petrolhead-friendly than it ever has been - long may it (hopefully) continue…