Will Matt LeBlanc’s Top Gear ever emulate the success of The Grand Tour?
American actor and Top Gear host Matt LeBlanc, who was in Dubai over the weekend to film a segment for the 24th season of the BBC’s beleaguered motoring show, is in the hot seat.
While details of the Top Gear shoot in the UAE remains under wraps, sources with knowledge of the production said that LeBlanc will be featured as part of a plot where Top Gear’s presenters (including Chris Harris and Rory Reid) will race from Oman to the UAE using cars, yachts and planes.
The show is in town only a month after former presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, hosted the finale of their rival show The Grand Tour in their studio tent under the Burj Khalifa.
Let’s hope that LeBlanc has his eyes set firmly on the future, because, let’s face it, season 23 was a disaster.
Once one of the most-watched television shows on the planet, Top Gear went into free fall after former presenter Clarkson left in March 2015, taking with him co-hosts and buddies May and Hammond.
British radio personality Chris Evans and LeBlanc were hired, alongside fellow petrol heads Reed, Harris, Sabine Schmitz and Eddie Jordan, to lead 2016’s six-part series, but it did nothing to save the show.
After a dismal pilot, where Evans was universally panned for his screechy Clarkson impression, the show drew fewer and fewer viewers with each episode.
The lack of chemistry between Evans and LeBlanc, format changes and lacklustre car reviews were blamed for what critics and the audiences viewed as a lemon of a series.
The fact that Top Gear was broadcast at the same time as the UEFA Euro tournament didn’t help, and the season finale was watched by only 1.9 million viewers – the lowest in the programme’s history.
Evans quit a day after the final broadcast, and it is now left to LeBlanc to steer the programme back on track, this time with the help of Harris and Reed as co-hosts.
To understand the magnitude of this challenge requires a close look at The Grand Tour, because it is Top Gear’s destiny to be inextricably linked with the men who made the BBC show famous in the first place.
Top Gear became a worldwide phenomenon because of the camaraderie between Clarkson, May and Hammond.
It was not so much a motoring show, but three ageing friends playing idiotic tricks on each other, blowing up stuff, and racing around the world in supercars. The Grand Tour pretty much follows the same formula, with the programme helmed by ex-Top Gear producer Andy Wilman and a formidable budget of £160 million (Dh737.6 mn) – four times the amount they had on Top Gear.
When it launched on Amazon Prime in November last year, The Grand Tour became the streaming site’s most-watched show.
By December, it was named the world’s most illegally-downloaded television programme, according to Muso, data analysts for the piracy market, and beat dramas such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
Importantly, The Grand Tour, whose premise involves test-driving luxury cars as well as doing inexplicable things such as building coral reefs in Barbados, has stayed faithful to their original Top Gear format.
Car reviews, track laps, the news, celebrity appearances, crazy stunt specials – they are all there, because, why mess with a good thing?
Of course, each segment has been rebranded to avoid copyright issues with the BBC.
So The News, in Top Gear for example, has been named Conversation Street in The Grand Tour, during which the trio indulge their pet peeves, from chocolate to speeding fines. In Celebrity Braincrash, the stars supposed to appear on the show are killed off in unfortunate accidents.
Over the years, the personalities of the hosts have taken on caricature-like dimensions, brought into sharper focus by their escapades.
So, Clarkson is a “shaved ape in a shirt”, May is a by-the-book slowpoke who would make an excellent history professor, while Hammond is an impulsive dandy. Their friendship is their winning formula. It is what made their stint with Top Gear special, and it is why The Grand Tour – despite the three presenters’ abhorrently non-politically correct stance – is a hit.
Until the new Top Gear comes up with a chemistry of its own, it will continue to be dwarfed by The Grand Tour.
• Watch the final episode of The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime on Friday. For details, visit www.primevideo.com