Meet the new Top Gear – unfortunately, same as the old Top Gear

Top Gear is still aimed at the middle-aged bore who likes to tell you which route they took to X and the traffic on the way to Y. Plus: Versailles.

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Toot, toot! In case you haven’t heard, the new Top Gear resembles the old Top Gear to the degree that it is pretty much a facsimile (Sundays, 9pm). OK, so the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” slot is now called “Star in a Rallycross Car”, and there may be a few more women in the studio audience. Otherwise, the formula has been tweaked not at all. It is still aimed almost solely at the kind of middle-aged bore who likes to tell you – or anyone – which route they took to X and how much traffic they encountered on the way to Y.

Such men despise speed limits, traffic lights and middle-lane hoggers almost as much as they adore Jeremy Clarkson and James May, who are funny in ways that they are not, and whose jeans and T-shirts reveal exactly where their priorities lie, which is to say not with stupid, girly stuff like fashion (the little one, Richard Hammond, they like rather less, but they put up with him in the way any good pal tolerates his mate’s mate, even if he is probably too good-looking to be much of a laugh).

And herein lies new Top Gear’s big problem. If these men are going to be honest – more honest than their male TV critic counterparts, at any rate – Top Gear 2.0 is probably just fine. Robin Rialto racing? Yeah, love it. Being chased in an off-roader by a drone? Bosh! Listening to Gordon Ramsay boast about his new Ferrari? Give it to me, with bells on and a squirt of Lynx Africa. But still, where are Clarkson, May and – oh go on, then – Hammond? Basically, it’s like booking to see the Stones, and Steps turning up.

Perhaps this was why Chris Evans, the show’s naughty new presenter, sounded so peculiar as the series kicked off. I took his shouting for nerves, but the blokes on Twitter all claimed he was desperately channelling Clarkson, a conviction that did at least explain his jeans. Then again, perhaps it’s his much-hyped sidekick, Matt LeBlanc (aka Joey in Friends), who’s really rattled him. In the studio, LeBlanc stands about rather awkwardly, an Easter Island statue that’s been given the finest spray tan Liverpool has to offer. However, once he’s, say, driving a car that looks like a children’s climbing frame on wheels across a desert, he seems to come stupidly, marvellously alive.

Neither he nor Evans is genuine, of course. This is just a whopping great gig for them both, and it’s scripted to all hell, just as it always was. Yet LeBlanc, being an actor, is better able to fake the necessary “authenticity” than Evans – and the more contrived Top Gear’s stunts become, the more obvious I think this will be. Can the stunts get any more contrived? Watching Evans and LeBlanc attempt to tow their Robin Rialtos to the top of a Lake District fell – Evans in a Land Rover and Le Blanc a jeep – I did wonder. It was like something out Werner Herzog, albeit minus the Wagnerian majesty. Oh, the pointless, besmirching ugliness of it all. This is the petrolhead equivalent of Rome, unutterably decadent and, minus its triumvirate of emperors, quite possibly in its death throes.

Meanwhile, in Versailles (Wednesdays, 9.30pm), a French series that comes with English dialogue so wooden it should be made into shelves, and a soundtrack comprising some of the worst Europop you’ve heard since you went on school exchange to Lille in 1986, Louis XIV (George Blagden) is doing his best to prove to various restive nobles that he is the boss. It’s not easy. He’s a charisma-free milksop who’s obsessed with his penis; his queen has just given birth to a baby by her black dwarf; and his camp brother, Philippe d’Orléans (Alexander Vlahos), keeps frittering the state’s dwindling resources on high-heeled shoes.

Still, never mind. Like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen with better jewellery and extra va-va-garlic, Louis has absolute faith in the power of mirrors and water features to transform lives: once his gob-smacked court sees his swoon-inducing upgrade of his father’s old hunting lodge (“Just look, Marie Thérèse, at this dual-control rainforest shower unit. Isn’t it the finest in all of France?”), it will no longer be capable of rebellion – at least, that’s the plan. Après lui, as it were, les scatter coussins et les walk-in armoires.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind

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