Like watching Joe Biden get through the first presidential debate with Donald Trump without dribbling or nodding off at the podium, I had low expectations of Top Gear (BBC One). The show exceeds them.
For a start, it has a Volvo in it. Not one of the rare sexy Volvos of the past, to be artfully filmed in some exotic location, or one of those trademark boxy dull ones Volvo used to make, there to be driven off Beachy Head to “test its safety credentials” in some ironic way. No. It is a contemporary Volvo S60 hybrid saloon, in sober dark blue, lined up against a BMW 330 and a Tesla Model 3 for Mexican stand-off. Or rather a Boltonian stand-off, because Paddy McGuinness’s hometown is the chosen location for this company car group test, which is a nice novelty. It’s quite a handsome city, just like Paddy, though you’d never know he comes from the area just by listening to him, would you? These are my kind of cars, and apart from a boring new Ferrari, much of the show is given over to them.
This being Top Gear, there have to be a few twists, in all senses, which the presenters mostly navigate well. Except, that is, for Freddie Flintoff, who manages to scrape the Volvo on some sort of go-cart track, the nearest thing Bolton has to the Nurburgring.
The idea is that McGuinness. Flintoff and Chris Harris (the only one who can drive and knows what he’s talking about, by the way) will live in their respective motors for 24 hours: no stepping outside, no comfort breaks, no crafty Nando’s. Fair enough, and you can sort of see the point about these comfy cars being habitable enough to pass that ultimate test; but that does mean that we have to see rather too much of Flintoff’s admittedly well-turned buttocks, pale as alabaster, and watch him piss himself (literally) while the other two piss themselves laughing (metaphorically).
I mean it’s not that hilarious or new, getting caught short on a drive, and improvising an onboard toilet facility, is it? There’s another sequence when they all have to eat one of those stinking cans of fermented fish, which is just an excuse to make them retch. It doesn’t have much to do with compact sports saloons, Bolton or anything else. It’s just lazy, gratuitous and puerile, with no added wit or wordplay or context or anything that might just lift it out of bogs at an infants school.
Fortunately, though inexplicably given the 24-hour span, we don’t get to see how the boys get round the difficult “number 2 on the go” question. That might have been a real shocker, and engendered some truly scatological moments. A prime-time dump and associated activity would mark all manner of firsts for British television, and much outrage in the tabloids (“Mucky McGuinness Makes His Mark”), but maybe it’s just as well they probably found somewhere private to be at stool; otherwise Paul Dacre and Charles Moore would have all the excuse they need to shut down the entire BBC. By the way, the BMW wins, because McGuinness in the end cheats the test by kipping in a hotel rather than inside his Tesla, which is a pretty pointless kind of twist.
The problem with the Clarkson-era Top Gear was that it was never all that much about cars, oddly enough, and all about the personalities of the presenters and their supposed “chemistry”. The post-Clarkson era Top Gear is better, just because it’s undergone its Clarksonectomy, but the banter is feeble and the stuff the current trio get up to is not as consistently well-thought through and creative as it used to be. They’re still emulating Clarkson’s gang, as if they’ve got an inferiority complex. But they’ve started taking “real world” cars a tiny bit more seriously, and, like Biden, Top Gear is better than the monstrous alternative (ie having Clarkson back). So it’ll have to do.