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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Can new hosts Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness save 'Top Gear'? 

It's all change on the BBC franchise again as a fresh pair are drafted in for the departing Matt LeBlanc

From left: Freddie Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris have been revealed as BBC Top Gear’s new presenting line-up, taking over the helm from Matt LeBlanc whose final series will air in early 2019 on BBC Two. Ashley Knotek / REX / Shutterstock
From left: Freddie Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris have been revealed as BBC Top Gear’s new presenting line-up, taking over the helm from Matt LeBlanc whose final series will air in early 2019 on BBC Two. Ashley Knotek / REX / Shutterstock

The Top Gear hosting ­merry-go-round continued apace last week as the BBC announced that the show’s new hosts would be former English cricketer Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff and comedian Paddy McGuinness.

The pair will replace Matt LeBlanc, who is set to hang up his driving gloves at the end of season 26, screening early next year, at around the same time new hosts begin filming season 27 alongside Chris Harris, who will keep his place on the show. Current co-hosts Rory Reid and Sabine Schmitz will no longer be lead hosts of the main show, although they are expected to present the spin-off feature, Extra Gear.

The programme, once the BBC’s biggest earner and one of the world’s top TV brands, has struggled with its anchors and audiences ever since the dismissal of Jeremy Clarkson over his conduct, and the subsequent departure of his two co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond to set up rival The Grand Tour in 2015.

Why LeBlanc was a 'statement appointment'

LeBlanc’s appointment at the time felt like something of a gimmick, a statement that the BBC were serious following the departure of the show’s long-running terrible trio. By appointing a bona fide Hollywood celeb, Top Gear’s producers signalled that they were not giving up.

No one can really have expected the Friends star to stay too long though. With a US$200,000 (Dh734,500) an episode sitcom, Man with a Plan, back home in Los Angeles to appear in, and his family all Stateside, it’s probably a surprise he lasted the four seasons he did, and certainly remarkable that he outlasted his original co-host Chris Evans, who quit just six episodes into screening his one, not-entirely-­successful season on the show.

So where should the Beeb go with replacements now? It could have brought in another big name from Tinseltown, but I’m inclined to suspect it has made the right decision by not doing so. Top Gear’s biggest appeal at its most successful was the matey camaraderie of its hosts, and that’s never really going to be replicated by operating a conveyor belt of Hollywood A-listers for a couple of seasons at a time.

Click to watch the trailer from Top Gear series 25:

The show is at its best when we find our hosts haphazardly negotiating some ramshackle segment that looks like it was conceived by a group of sugar-rushing teenage mates let loose in a car showroom. LeBlanc certainly brought a bit of sparkle, but Top Gear is ultimately a very British thing, more about the things that go wrong than polished, Hollywood efficiency.

Going back to the Brits

The decision to revert to ­British hosts is, at this moment, the right one. Is it a sign of lowered expectations from the show’s producers? Possibly, in light of global viewing figures that have never equalled the show’s 350 million heyday. But the appointment of two new hosts who are largely unknown outside their home country at least gives the programme the opportunity to build from the ground up and re-establish itself as the star.

For all his good-natured modesty and willingness to laugh at himself, LeBlanc was always the “big name” in the previous format, overshadowing his co-hosts, and perhaps even the brand itself. He is, after all, primarily famous for being in one of very few shows that can claim to be a bigger global property than Top Gear, a certain sitcom about some friends who live in New York.

Are these the right British hosts? That remains to be seen. One inevitable downside from a global appeal ­perspective is that many people reading about these appointments outside the United Kingdom (and cricket fans in Flintoff’s case) will likely be saying “who?”

So who are the new 'Top Gear' hosts?

By way of introduction, ­McGuinness is a likeable enough Mancunian comic, well he’s technically from Bolton in Greater Manchester, but let’s not quibble. He first rose to fame as a sidekick of Peter Kay’s in shows such as Phoenix Nights, in which he played bouncer Paddy, then the spin-off Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere … shows, where he reprised his Phoenix Nights role alongside Kay’s fellow bouncer Max.

More recently, he’s become something of a star of the UK’s light entertainment circuit, hosting variety staples such as dating game show Take Me Out, The Abba Christmas Party, and even popping up as a guest character in Coronation Street and guest hosting the country’s ubiquitous This Morning magazine show. He’s certainly a safe choice, although we probably shouldn’t expect too much in the way of biting criticism or sarcastic jibes – his comedy is very much from the “my mum likes him” school of loveable northern comedians that his sidekick Kay exemplifies.

Does he like cars? We don’t know, but he says: “Getting the Top Gear gig is a real honour and I’m thrilled the BBC have given me this opportunity. To be hosting a show I’ve watched and loved from being a small boy is beyond exciting”, so that’s a positive.

Speaking as a non-cricket fan, Flintoff is a bit more of an unknown quantity. He retired from the game in 2015 and has taken on a few TV gigs since, including participating in the Australian version of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and appearing on Sky’s panel show A League of their Own.

Flintoff definitely likes cars, as he told the BBC: “It’s not often you have the chance to do both of your dream jobs, but I’m now lucky enough to say I will have. I’ve always been passionate about cars and I’m so excited to be joining the Top Gear team.”

Will they gel with the incumbent Harris? Can anyone ever really replicate the enigma that was Top Gear under its original hosts, whatever you may think of Clarkson and his cronies, and their often bigoted, Little-Englander mentalities? Should the producers just put the show to bed after 26 seasons and an undeniable case of diminishing returns when it comes to trying to hoist the show back up to its former heights? We’ll have to wait until 2020 to find out.

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