In a way it’s amazing that Top Gear is still on telly at all. Richard Hammond ends up in a coma after a disastrous attempt at the world land speed record? Fine. Jeremy Clarkson punches a producer in the face? Change the presenters and, quite literally, keep on trucking. A show that can survive replacing its popular hosts with Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans can presumably survive anything.
When one of its current presenters, the former England cricket captain Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, was injured in a pretty brutal filming accident last December, the first thought was quite naturally “how horrible, I hope he’s okay”. The second thought was “wait, Top Gear is still on?”
It is. But you’d be forgiven for not noticing. We’ve come a long way since the show was watercooler-level cultural currency, discussed in pubs and classrooms across the country (and, indeed, across the world – Top Gear was one of the the BBCs biggest exports). The laddish buffoonery of the Clarkson/May/Hammond years was light on thorough car reviews, but big on daft stunts and high concepts and it was unarguably entertaining. The sheer dumb petrolheadishness might occasionally grate, but it’s hard to dislike a show with a feature called “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car”. Still, even then it was on thin ice. The infamous US special in which the trio drove through the American south with “Hillary for president”, “Nascar Sucks” and, genuinely, “I’m bi” spray-painted on the side of their cars to provoke people they assumed to be thick-as-mince Alabama rednecks felt tone-deaf even in 2007.
Still, at least the show knew what it was. In the post-Clarkson era Top Gear lost its identity, trying to find a happy midpoint between the cartoonish antics of the 2000s and the more focused TV motoring magazine of its first incarnation in the 80s and 90s. Viewers dripped away like oil from a leaky gasket, but Top Gear limped on. Ratings have rallied in recent series, despite the involvement of human charisma vacuum Paddy McGuiness, but they’re still barely half what they were at the show’s peak.
The latest stunt might, finally, be the blow that puts Top Gear out to pasture. Flintoff’s accident, in which the convertible he was driving flipped during a stunt at Dunsfold Aerodrome, was particularly horrible. The presenter and a member of the crew sustained broken ribs and “facial injuries”, their lives saved by their helmets. Filming on the show was immediately abandoned. Now the BBC has said it has no plans to resume filming.
While the official line is that this is an act of respect to the recovering Flintoff, it’s also likely that the incident has forced a re-evaluation of the show’s place. Top Gear feels odd in 2023’s TV landscape. Macho speed challenges are a format from a different time, the last vestiges of the Evel Knievel motorcycle stunts of the 1970s. They’re a manhood-swinging, ego-fuelling health and safety nightmare that few people were even watching. According to the BBC the crash was a genuine accident, and all safety procedures were followed to the letter. Motorsports are dangerous. Anything happening at those speeds is dangerous. Top Gear’s producers are presumably, finally, realising that it’s just not worth the risk for an audience that gets its car reviews from YouTube, daft stunts from TikTok and its Clarkson fix from the Sun. It’s a format that needs scrapping, or at the very least an extremely thorough MOT.
[See also: Why the left is wrong on Jeremy Clarkson]