Here are my personal observations concerning the new series of BBC2's Top Gear.
In brief: it was very similar in format to its predecessors, but distinctly more grown-up. There were still wacky stunts and challenges, but the schoolboy banter had gone. So too had the crassness, petulance, grumpiness, and plain bad attitude that had marred most of the previous series. Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc were possibly not so 'characterful' as the three men they had replaced as presenters, and they were clearly avoiding all controversy. Nevertheless, they exuded enthusiasm, driving competence and good humour. There was an easy rivalry between them, of the 'Britain versus America' sort. I don't remember any mention of Germans. Nor any other nationality. Certainly no provocative sneering. I found myself enjoying the programme, and laughing a lot. So if you like exotic cars, and fast driving, and enjoyable challenges, all straightforwardly and entertainingly presented, then watch this programme. It's been cleaned up - but it's still exciting. The prime focus is at last back on the cars, and not on three over-competitive egos.
I was however a bit concerned about whether Chris Evans would wobble. I knew he was a seasoned presenter, but had never watched him on TV, nor listened to him on the radio. I'd only heard about him when he had hit the news. It was very interesting to see his first interactions with that audience in the hanger at Dunsfold - yes it was all exactly as before! - and how they seemed to react to him. These were the first Chris Evans close-ups:
Hmm. A touch of nervousness? Look at those hands clasped together. But he soon got into his stride.
The man in the black leather jacket is co-presenter Matt LeBlanc, who initially sashayed on with aplomb...
But following this entrance, I thought he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the all-British and very close-up hanger audience. But he too got into his stride.
It's fair to examine the audience. I think they were full of goodwill, and plainly wanted Chris and Matt to do well:
Were they hand-picked? Who knows. There did seem to be a greater age-group spread than I'd noticed before, and more wives and girlfriends. But maybe that simply reflects the wide appeal of this programme. It's TV entertainment first and foremost, and not really a niche motoring-sport show.
I had hoped for a proper female presenter too, but Sabine Schmitz appeared only in a filmed muscle-car challenge, as one of the drivers. Here she is, at the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvette 206:
She's a racing driver first, so perhaps studio work isn't her thing.
The Stig was back. As handsome as ever, but a toned-down, Joe Cool Stig who actually seemed to understand what was going on, and to use a bit of intelligence. Here he is getting top speed out of a Dodge Viper ACR:
And here he is later on, holding steady a big truck into the back of which Matt will propel his car using ramps that The Stig lets down for the purpose, thereby letting Matt escape from a chasing motorbike rider:
The Stig is obviously enjoying his new role as an A-Team hero, a reformed character capable of Shakespearean subtlety.
So what else? The Stig's racetrack performance was - as it always has been - put up on a board. Not a new board. The same old one. So there was continuity.
The 'Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car' showed some development. Chris (sans Matt) had two stars for this first programme, not just one: Gordon Ramsay and Jesse Eisenberg. I'd never heard of the latter, who is an actor. Gordon Ramsay is the short-fused celebrity chef, whom I'd heard of but never watched. (That's no insult - I never watch anyone who is meant to be well-known). They sat on the same old car seats:
Chris asked them some new stuff: What was their first car? What was their best car ever? And when they got behind the wheel it wasn't a cheap and boring Korean saloon, but a snazzy Mini-Cooper. And there was a muddy 'Dirt Section' to drive through. That was rather entertaining!
There were several films. The first involved a Dodge Viper ACR/Chevrolet Corvette 206 speed and handling challenge, at the US Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Centre somewhere in the Nevada desert. Two cars equipped with roof-mounted laser guns, the idea being to get behind the other car, accurately positioned for a 'shot', and if the driver got a 'hit' he or she 'won'. Chris versus Sabine. Here are the cars:
Wow. What amazing machines! But let's have a reality check. So much depends on the camera angle. After all, my own Fiona looks like this:
Anyway, Chris and Sabine displayed great skill. And Chris certainly enjoyed the drive and his victory!
Then it was the turn of Matt to show his skills, by throwing off three types of paparazzi, who would be chasing him. They'd 'win' if any one of them got a clear shot of him. One was 'piloting' a drone. One would be airborne, with a propeller strapped to his back. One would be on a dirt-track motorbike. Matt was driving an Ariel Nomad:
Matt was confident he could out-drive his pursuers. The Nomad certainly looked handy in the dust:
But remember, the camera angle is always half the effect. Fiona looks just as capable in the right light:
Well, Matt downed the flying paparazzo, and made the drone crash. But he couldn't so easily shake the bike:
At least not until they reached proper tarmac - and some hairpin bends, which tamed the biker, letting Matt pull away. But then a big truck blocked the road! It was however the one driven by The Reformed Stig, and soon Matt was driving up the let-down ramps. The biking paparazzo never got a shot.
The next film involved Chris and Matt and two old Reliant open-top three-wheelers painted in British and American colours. Uh-oh. But it was not at all a Clarkson-style rubbishing of hated three-wheelers. None of this stuff:
The two cars were treated with respect. It was a friendly 'race' from the BBC HQ in central London to Blackpool on the Lancashire coast. A pretty long drive!
They make a good start, not tipping over at any point, even though London has bends and corners aplenty. Matt was amused by the quirkiness of his Reliant.
But then his car started to smoke alarmingly, and he spent most of the trip up north on the back platform of a road-rescue lorry. He insisted, however, on entering the fair seaside town of Blackpool under his own steam. So, with night and the rain both falling, both cars triumphantly entered the Blackpool suburbs, passing under a lit-up arch welcoming both, or at least Matt:
Next day, Chris and Matt filmed another series of stunts. This time it was the original British Land Rover pitted against the wartime American Willys Jeep, with the Lord Mayor of Blackpool reading out the challenges. First, hauling a caravan out off the wet sands: Matt and his Jeep won.
The last film was a hill-climbing challenge in the nearby Lake District, towing those Reliant three-heelers to the summit of Muncaster Fell by whatever route the two contenders, Chris and Matt, thought best. The Land Rover versus the Jeep again. They were not unassisted. Matt had a strong-man with him. Chris had two triathletes, one of them a map-reading expert. Both teams were chipper about their chances.
They each had profound faith in their route-planning. Matt was going directly for the summit up a steep track. Chris had selected a much longer route, but it wasn't so likely to get the Land Rover bogged down. For thick mud abounded.
Matt realised too late that he'd chosen the wrong way. The Jeep got seriously stuck in Lake District mire. Even strenuous pushing by the strong-man didn't help.
Meanwhile the plucky Britishers had also got stuck, the Reliant refusing to be towed further. But they thought of a very cunning plan: to wrench off a door from the Reliant (it seemed easy to do) and take just that to the summit. And they did. Hurrah!
Flying the flag. It was however perfectly fair for Matt, when he arrived, to query the fact that only a small part of Chris's Reliant had been taken to the top. But such was their friendly bonding by then that nothing was made of it. Naturally, Fiona could have managed even better, being of course a great towcar. She looks like this, by the way:
This has been a very, very long post, but I thought it important to study the first of the new Top Gear programmes in detail, and at length. On this showing, I'll be watching again.