New episodes of Top Gear return to Australian TV this week when Nine starts the engine of its newest multichannel, 9Rush.
Top Gear refreshed its hosts last year – Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness joining existing team member Chris Harris – and they have now been on air with their second season in the UK.
Nine has yet to show any of the two new seasons yet and will launch the new trio on 9Rush’s first night on air – Sunday April 5.
Flintoff told Mediaweek last month he has a “strange relationship” with Australia. Crowds used to love provoking the former England cricket captain during Ashes series. He later returned to Australia to play in the Big Bash League. Possibly the most success he had in a game in Australia though was in Network 10’s I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! which he won in 2015.
Motoring journalist and racing car driver Chris Harris is the Top Gear “veteran”, remaining from earlier series where the hosts included Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc. “I took all the pain in the reinvention, while the others just swanned in and took all the glory when we started doing well again,” he told Mediaweek with a grin. “They are not very modest about it either, claiming they made all the changes.
“But I can’t really argue about it can I? I am the one constant thing when it was shit. And now they have come along and it is good.”
He clarified quickly…“You know what? I am joking. There was always going to be a vacuum afterwards [when Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May left] and whoever took over in 2015-2016 was going to have a hell of a time.
“I remember signing up thinking this could be a bit tricky. And it was. If you look back, a lot of the content we made was much, much better than the public ever gave us credit for. They were just going to hate on it because it wasn’t Jeremy, James and Richard. For me I love working with Matt. He has become a good mate and we made some good films.”
Harris continued: “Credit to the BBC for persevering because it could have just strangled the thing, but now we are really flying. That’s largely because Freddie gets the lady’s vote as he is a bit of eye candy. And people think Paddy is funny…which is odd.”
Australian audiences will be least familiar with UK comedian and TV presenter Paddy McGuinness.
He told Mediaweek he has spent much of his life in and around cars and had his first driving lesson aged nine.
“I was involved in heavy plant machinery and driving big trucks. But when you get in a big truck with someone like Chris you realise you might need to brush up on a few things.”
Flintoff agreed: “When I was a kid I used to drive my dad’s car with mowers on the back to cut the grass at a cricket ground. Some of my earlier TV work has involved cars in particular drag racing. I too thought I was alright until I met Chris. I then realised I had some way to go.”
On the set even Harris relies on the work of a team of professional drivers. “They are important to help us with stuff because we want to stay safe. We are not about to fake the driving. In the past there has been some passing off. When you saw a great big slide and then it cuts to an interior shot of the presenter implying that was him. No it wasn’t, let’s not bullshit it was – we don’t want to go to that place.”
Harris emphasised Top Gear is now a more authentic product. “We are not going to pass people off doing things they actually can’t do. I can do certain things, and I think in a few years Freddie and Paddy will be able to as well. They need to be good enough drivers to do the job and they are more than good enough to do that. In the past we have had some people who weren’t.”
The basic Top Gear recipe has changed a little over various seasons. “But we are in a happy place now,” said Harris.
“There is a good blend of adventure with hyperbolic scenery when it can be almost like a travel show with cars. There is lots of humour and camaraderie. The review segment is quite stable and we will take one or two cars that are exciting, fast and quite expensive. Frankly people won’t watch a review of a 1.8L Ford Focus because it bores them.”
Flintoff said when he and McGuinness first started there was some nervousness. “Now people have more faith in us to go in, no script, and go on a road trip and see what happens.”
McGuinness: “The producers are already happy to leave us to it on some days. Around 90% of the dialogue you see is what we come up with when we are chatting.”
One highlight of recent episodes is when the show decided to have Flintoff bungee jump in a Rover Metro off the wall of a dam in Switzerland. “I had one bungee jumps before, but not in a car.”
The three hosts all realise the Top Gear brand is still very strong. Perhaps bigger than the stars of the show. “And that’s how it should be,” said Flintoff.
Harris: “The brand will always survive beyond the presenters. It is much bigger than us. Perhaps not Paddy…he is pretty famous!” [Laughs]
Harris has a background as a motoring journalist and he talked fondly about working for ACP and Bauer on Wheels and Motor, in particular working under a former Wheels editor: “Peter Robinson is my hero.” Harris also still produces some YouTube content and is hoping to do a bit more in 2020.
Flintoff is also a regular on Sky’s A League of Their Own quiz show. He also involved in property development too.
Harris interjected: “I don’t even have a house.”
Top Gear new season highlights
Chris: “Sitting inside a VW campervan on a roadside in Peru with Freddie eating a guinea pig as Paddy and I looked on thinking, he’s not the same as us.”
Paddy: “You do that much stuff it’s hard to pick one. There’s even some great stuff that didn’t make it on screen and we are talking about making a Top Gear Extra show.”
Freddy: “Probably the episode where Chris is racing an F35 fighter jet in a McLaren Speedtail.”
Top photo: Top Gear hosts Paddy McGuinness, Chris Harris and Freddie Flintoff