How the BBC hit the brakes on Top Gear
If you think back across the history of Top Gear, what is it that comes to mind? Clarkson’s controversies, perhaps. Maybe a few of the races in stupid vehicles. Or the cameos from big stars such as Tom Cruise. Mainly, though, it would be the crashes. Indeed there are websites recording “every accident in Top Gear’s history”. Whenever Top Gear makes the headlines, it invariably means there’s been another crash. Thankfully most of them are harmless; some are even hilarious.
But it’s doubtful anyone at the BBC is laughing about Top Gear’s latest accident. In December, Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff was airlifted to hospital following a dramatic crash that could damage the 45-year-old’s presenting career and has prompted questions about safety on the show and the future of Top Gear itself – with some fans calling for it to be scrapped altogether. Even some working on the show question if it can continue.
Flintoff’s open-topped three-wheel Morgan Super 3 car – which is not equipped with air bags – flipped and slid along the track at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey while he was driving it at high speed. The scale of his injuries are unclear, although he’s understood to have “severely” damaged his face – bad news for a TV presenter. Some reports have speculated that he was not wearing a helmet at the time of the crash, while a crew member in the car with him was. Flintoff’s teenage son Corey insisted that his father was “lucky to be alive”. (Calls to Flintoff’s agent went unreturned.)
The only official statement from the BBC came on Thursday, after it had finished its investigation. That came with an apology to Flintoff and the announcement that it had commissioned an independent outside company to conduct a health and safety review of the whole show. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One, the racing driver Perry McCarthy – who once played The Stig on Top Gear – suggested that the BBC should learn from the incident and implement better safety measures for “non-professional racing drivers … you’ve got to protect them from themselves and you’ve also got to protect the show itself”, he said.
Filming on the current series – which was roughly half finished, missing most of the studio pieces – won’t resume for the time being but may restart later in the year pending the health and safety review. Insiders insist that Flintoff (who friends say is “psychologically traumatised” by the accident) has yet to formally quit and, although it won’t return in 2023, the show itself has not been cancelled. Yet it’s hard to imagine how it can continue in its current form. After all, Top Gear has been here before.
The show first fought for its survival in 2006, when presenter Richard Hammond’s tyre blew out whilst driving a jet-powered Vampire dragster across RAF Elvington, leaving him in an induced coma for two weeks. Back then, the show’s producer Andy Wilman showed no desire to cancel the programme and threatened to quit if the corporation attempted to “tone down” the programme’s irreverent attitude and relish for speed. He was backed by Jeremy Clarkson, who promised to defy critics who “don’t like Top Gear and would love to see it off the screens”.
Staff working on the show are less gung ho these days. “It’s a difficult show in principle in health and safety terms,” one former crew member told The Telegraph. “I gather it used to be a car review show, but now it’s a car entertainment show. You have a solid lump of metal powered by 6,000 controlled explosions per minute going off a few inches from the presenters’ legs and you’re always looking for new ways to make that more exciting to watch. I’m not surprised bad things happen. We’d read all these tweets from fans saying it’s not as exciting as it used to be and then you’re thinking, what do they actually want? Are they hoping for a crash?”
The programme has had a number of nasty accidents in its history – Jeremy Clarkson drove a Renault Magnum truck into a brick wall in 2008, bursting his ankle and dislodging his head from his spine due to the impact, adding to his tally of broken thumb and two slipped discs, while James May suffered concussion and cracked three ribs in a variety of stunts. Flintoff had already careered into a market stall while shooting in 2019, but emerged unscathed.
If Flintoff doesn’t feel able to keep presenting the show – with the longer term questions over what the crash could mean for his presenting career – the news couldn’t come at a worse time for the BBC. Following a public U-turn over scrapping the BBC Singers, the ignominious departure of the Reverend Richard Coles from Radio 4’s Saturday Live, giving fans barely a week’s notice, and the possibility of strikes at the Proms remaining if any cuts to the classical music departments go ahead, the corporation must have been hoping for at least one weekend out of the headlines.
The point about Top Gear is that it doesn’t feel like a BBC show at all. It’s fast cars, hot metal, lads larking and rubber burning. It’s gradually and grudgingly accepting EVs, but still prefers … well, screaming down a runway on what is essentially a tricycle with a 1.5-litre engine attached and a top speed of 130mph.
So is it time the BBC cancelled it? Although long past its Clarkson-era pomp, it’s still the world’s most-watched factual entertainment programme, sold to and broadcast in more than 200 territories, has spun off the world’s most published motoring magazine, with 30 editions across the globe, has the world’s biggest motoring YouTube channel with more than eight million subscribers as well as a stream of merchandise from books to Stig toys, Twiglets and Wagon Wheels.
In July BBC Studios, the commercial arm of the BBC which is the producer of the show, announced record revenues for 2021/2022, naming Top Gear and Doctor Who the two strongest selling shows internationally.
According to Parrot Analytics – which measures the global demand, rather than the local ratings, using a mix of data sources to come up with figures you can compare country to country – demand for Top Gear is over 15 times higher than for the average TV series in the US, over 10 times the demand in Germany, and over five time higher in India. In the UK, demand is even higher, at over 23 times the demand for the average TV series. UK demand for The Grand Tour, by comparison, is just over 11 times the average.
And these Parrot figures are for the UK-produced version of the show. There’s also locally made Top Gear in South Korea, China, France and Hong Kong. “They might rest it for a bit, but they won’t let the brand die,” explains Ed Waller, editorial director of industry bible C21. “They can reformat, add new hosts, offer new twists. This is a global TV industry, not a national one. Both the network and the studio side have compelling reasons not to let it go – it gets the BBC a good chunk of a demographic it doesn’t usually get but even if BBC One dropped the show, BBC Studios is set up to keep making it – potentially on a different UK channel or a streamer but certainly around the world. Top Gear doesn’t rely on the whims of BBC One.” In other words: BBC Studios may flog their health and safety nightmare of a show to a much less risk-averse and increasingly beleaguered buyer.
Indeed, Top Gear is about as perfect an example of how detached TV brands have become from the old idea of TV programmes as it’s possible to get. When Jeremy Clarkson was sacked by the BBC in 2015 for punching one of Top Gear’s producers in the face after being told the team’s hotel couldn’t prepare Clarkson a sirloin steak late at night, co-presenter James May compared the three of them to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or professional footballers. When they signed to Amazon for £160 million to make The Grand Tour back in 2016, this looked about right. But Amazon’s audience is the world, and The Grand Tour didn’t appeal to a worldwide audience. Season five was its last.
Flintoff, with co-presenters Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris, had largely restored Top Gear’s ratings since they took over from the odd combination of Chris Evans and Matt le Blanc in 2019. The show’s best performing series was back in 2007 with average viewing figures of over seven million, possibly boosted by the publicity over Richard Hammond’s 2006 crash. By the time Clarkson and co departed, it was hovering around six million. In 2021, the show was averaging 6.42 million viewers per episode, although it’s dipped since then. Critically for BBC One, the majority of those viewers are the 16-34-year-olds that network television struggles to attract.
“We get an audience of young men who like watching Ferraris drive fast around racetracks,” the crew member explains. “With petrol engines being phased out, Top Gear could be one of the last places anyone can see that. People keep saying it’s past its prime. As long as young men like to watch fast cars, it just isn’t.” Except they may need to watch them somewhere other than BBC One.
The show has been on air for 46 years. If Waller is right and BBC Studios could even make the show for another UK channel or a streaming service, there’s no obvious reason why they won’t be making new episodes in some form or another somewhere in the world for another 46. Because young men like to watch fast cars drive as fast as they can. They like the danger.