On 22nd February I had the privilege to attend the filming day for the first episode of TopGear series 24.
The email came through not long after registering with the information that every petrolhead’s dreams are made of: I had secured tickets to the first episode of the new – heavily revamped – series of TopGear. Swiftly, travel plans were put into place that would see myself and a friend (henceforth Ollie) make the trek down to the infamous Dunsfold Aerodrome.
Blustery grey skies were met with an aroma of excitement as the soon-to-be audience members congregated around the holding area where shuttle busses marked with BBC TopGear were in position to take us on the brand new set of series 24.
In the distance, actor James McAvoy (best know for his role as Professor X in X-Men, as well as Mr Tumnus in the 2005 C.S Lewis adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) was circulating the test track in preparation for his fastest lap. Even from a distance, the car was a noticeable handful, with wet and windy conditions making it far from optimal.
When we were finally allowed to wander inside the new studio, what in reality was a few small steps felt like a plunge into another dimension – the agonising wait of two hours due to assumed teething problems was all worth it.
Filming got underway, and an energetic chill ran up through me as the famous theme tune sounded, followed by inharmonious noise of applause and cheer; it all felt very surreal…
The vibe is far removed from that of the Clarkson/Hammond/May era, which was a criticism of last series under Chris Evans’ watch. In its place is a fresh, sharp, exciting (much-needed) change. TopGear now enters a new era after spending a season experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.
“We’re now getting to a point where we’re really starting to click. We’re having so much fun together”, said lead Matt LeBlanc of the new series, the second time he will join forces with fellow petrol-heads Rory Reid and Chris Harris.
Now, little is recognisable from the old format, with only the music and style of the feature films remaining. They haven’t gone as far as to reinvent the wheel, but should be applauded for going in an ostensibly risky direction and making it work. Feature films are still very TopGear, but the trio have managed to encapsulate a certain uniqueness that comes across well on TV.
Including exclusive viewing of features, the studio filming took over three hours. But the meticulous filming a multiple takes – which became tedious towards the filming day’s conclusion – seemed to yield not only an added appreciation of what goes into making a high-budget prime-time show, but also the correct balance between factual viewing (courtesy of Chris Harris’ trip to Daytona to test the ridiculous Ferrari FXXK) and a extended comedic sketch courtesy of the trio’s trip across wintry Kazakhstan with three cars having each travelled the equivalent to the moon and back – or 400,000 miles.
LeBlanc fits the role as lead presenter well, and his acting past gives him a screen presence few can match. What’s more, there is increased input from relatively unknown figures in Reid and Harris, whom both take a more active role in episodes than the previous series would allow. Last series had no less than six presenters and as a result the end product felt somewhat diluted.
In contrast, this first episode felt like a focus on the strengths of the lineup from both the armchair and as an audience member. Some genuinely funny moments developed on set, like Rory making a fourth attempt at a Rimac Concept One electric hyper-car scene with McAvoy, only to find the car had somehow become locked. Expletives quickly followed, proceeded by a raucous of laughter from everyone present.
Unfortunately, the sketch got cut from the episode, because as only 8 will be made there was questionable value of featuring it anyway, even though it’s a sign of what to expect in the future.
There was an overriding sense of confidence in the studio that the TopGear can be a match for Amazon’s new GrandTour. Ollie and I spotted one of the camera crew sporting a Grand Tour tee-shirt. Satirical maybe, but the activities of Clarkson and co are seemingly far from taboo in the TopGear dressing room. Adding to that, the new trailer is a confidence-oozing, pulse raising bombshell:
BBC have a major advantage in having sole rights to much of what the old team built. Having celebrities being part of the show proved to be a real coup for the first episode, as McAvoy added an extra layer of flavor to the proceedings, participating in the show far more than past celebrities have been enabled.
Currently, TopGear is unlikely to ever have the amount of rapport that became old-TG/GrandTour unique selling point, but LeBlanc and co are well on their way to establishing themselves as unique and, from what Ollie and I experienced on set, they are well on their way to doing just that.
There were some question marks over the short-term survival of TopGear after the last series’ underwhelmingly critical response, but all indications point towards the brand getting on track.
And so concluded our day at Dunsfold Aerodrome. A wet wait for busses awaited between the show’s conclusion and getting back to the car to start a four-hour journey back up to the Midlands, and I’m happy to report that TopGear, finally, is in safe hands…