And so to BBC2 at 8.00pm last night, on a whim, in order to see the first outing of what Chris Evans and the BBC had achieved with their much hyped-reboot of Top Gear.
[For more expert critical reviews Rust readers should go to today’s newspapers and social media].
The disappointing answer was ‘not much’.
The inevitable balancing act facing the producers – the executive lead of whom is notionally Clare Pizey, Head of Factual Entertainment at the BBC, working with Series Editor Alex Rention, but rumour and reality have it that ‘marmite’ presenter Chris Evans has his fingerprints all over it – was always going to be between how much of the Clarkson format to keep and how much of it to jettison.
For this onlooker they got it wrong. Simultaneously they kept everything but also sought to give it a tweak.
The studio hangar audience was closer, smaller and packed onto two tiers.
The star in the reasonably priced car segment had become two stars ‘in a reasonably-priced rally car’ (with assistance from little ‘off-road’ patches around their airfield circuit) with in this first episode Evans interviewing the passe celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and some unknown junior US actor on the same green car-seats that Clarkson and his mates used.
The ‘car comparisons’ were between two US muscle cars (the Dodge Viper and the Chevrolet ZO6), a Land Rover Mark I and a US Jeep, and two Reliant Robins decked out in the Union Flag and Stars & Stripes respectively – all of which had been done previously by Top Gear Mark I – and so much depended upon the ‘chemistry’ between Evans and US actor Matt Le Blanc and indeed their scriptwriters (or was it their ability to improvise humour?) as they carried out their supposedly competitive challenges.
The overall verdict of this onlooker was that the banter was pedestrian and Evans, perhaps understandably full to the eyebrows with adrenalin given the circumstances, was trying too hard to the tune of about 125-130%.
Ultimately – and perhaps Chris Evans was correct in identifying this – the success or otherwise of the new Top Gear will depend entirely on how its regular viewers react to him as lead presenter when compared to Clarkson.
Sadly for both him and me, Evans is an acquired taste that I grew out of about fifteen years ago.
Since I was about thirty I’ve never listened to much radio, but when Evans was presenting Channel Four’s The Big Breakfast and then Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday in the 1990s he was different to what had gone before in ‘live’ television [here called in evidence stuff such as Noel’s House Party], i.e. fresh, cutting-edge and breaking new ground for what was possible.
The trouble in 2106 is that he’s now fifty years of age – still rightly regarded as a skilled and seasoned radio and indeed television presenter – but now a ‘one trick pony’ about as familiar as Terry Wogan was in his heyday.
He’s still Chris Evans basically being himself but, as for ‘cutting edge and innovation’, these days he barely manages to get the proverbial MG MGB out of the garage.
And even when he does, for those of us sitting upon our sofas at home on a Sunday evening, it rapidly becomes a terminal case of ‘We’ve seen it all before’.
In part, of course, there’s nothing Evans – and mainstream television people like him – can do about it.
He’s still good at what he does, but we’re all aware that – instead of ‘walking a tightrope’ from which he could crash and burn (and return to obscurity) at any moment’ – he’s surrounded and cushioned by a rumoured £3 million per annum personal deal, a massive production budget and then the PR and promotional might of the BBC (and BBC Worldwide) behind him.
In summary, Chris Evans’s problem is that he’s Chris Evans – and not some twenty-eight-year-old wunderkid arriving out of nowhere to shake up the world.
He can bounce around the Top Gear television studio being irreverent and ‘edgy’ (or what he thinks passes for it these days) and indeed whoop and holler at the wheel of a muscle car, but it’s all artifice … and expensive artifice at that.
I did my best to avoid reading the overnight reviews of the new Top Gear but one I did see described it as a bit like the performance of a tribute act.
The trouble, of course, is that straightforward tribute acts rarely cut it. The best of them (think Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, or even Chris Morris of The Day Today at their best) have an angle – usually a satirical one – that takes their effort to a new level, not simply provides a vapid homage to the original which inevitably pales in comparison.
Seeking to rationalise my sense of anti-climax at Top Gear’s offering last night I came to the theory that what it lacked was professionalism. Chris Evans is nothing if not an enthusiastic car nut, but he’s not a motoring journalist.
Which Clarkson, Hammond and May all were, of course, before they branched out into making ‘off the wall adventure’ pieces laced with blokey humour.