For many Top Gear fans, Jeremy Clarkson’s seemingly never-ending quest to outrage the inhabitants of every single nation in the world constituted an hilarious assault on the strictures of modern political correctness.
To others, he and his fellow presenters’ descriptions of Asians as “slopes”, and Mexicans as “feckless and flatulent”, were unjustifiably offensive and breached broadcasting rules.
Now Top Gear’s new host, Chris Evans, has promised the “naughty schoolboy” slurs will be banished from the motoring show, pledging that the programme would become “less blokey” and more “inclusive” under his stewardship. The first episode of Top Gear under Evans’ tenure shows on Prime at 7.30pm on Sunday.
Thrust into the role a year ago, after Clarkson was drummed out of the corporation in disgrace, Evans has inherited a programme with a diehard, international fanbase; one that brings in £50 million ($109 million) a year for the BBC.
As a result, the 50-year-old has not had the luxury of reworking the show away from the media glare, and has instead been menaced by a negative press campaign, spearheaded by The Sun, whose star columnist is one J. Clarkson, in which Evans has been cast as a bullying megalomaniac, and the show a chaotic mess, with claims that the presenter has variously described as “insane”, “facile” and “fictitious”.
Aside from small cosmetic changes, Evans has resisted the temptation to rip the show up and start again, with the production following the familiar blend of films shot on location, and celebrity guests in the studio.
“I came to the conclusion that if you change the presenters of a show like this, all of them, that’s a ... massive change,” he said. “That’s like a revolution.” Other than new faces, the most prominent change is that the “star in a reasonably priced car” segment has mutated into “star in a rallycross car”, with celebrities driving a modified Mini both off-road and round the Dunsfold track.
The verbal cues that herald the Stig’s appearance are still there, and Clarkson’s “and on that bombshell” sign-off is back, but uttered by a different presenter each week, with Evans reacting each time with mock horror.
There is, inevitably, a change in tone. Production staff talk of hoping that Evans can reach out beyond the show’s heavily male demographic, and bring back viewers put off by the laddish antics of Clarkson et al.
It will be more politically correct. Evans is clear there will be no repeat of the racial slurs that slipped into the show.
And though Clarkson is a long-time friend, Evans says his relationship with the former host has changed since he took the Top Gear job. “I think subconsciously we’re just all keeping our distance until their first show’s done and my first show’s done,” he says.