CHRIS EVANS is not the first presenter to fail to fill the shoes of Top Gear’s Clarkson, Hammond and May trio: I presented an Australian version of the worldwide hit TV show which eventually crashed and burned after a journey dogged by scrapes and scratches.
Replacing the familiar faces of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May can rapidly turn toxic . Rest assured, Chris Evans, I know the feeling: I, too, have driven down that rutted track.
I was one of three original crash-test dummies involved in an experiment conducted on the other side of the world; covered in yellow and black stickers, strapped into a Volvo station wagon and driven head-on into a concrete wall, little realising at the time that the chances of survival were, at best, grim.
Top Gear UK was something of an aberration when the Clarkson version debuted on Australian television. Dismissed and discarded by voracious, short-sighted commercial networks as a quirky Pommie car show, it was glumly picked up by the comparatively little-watched government-run network SBS, the last place you’d expect to see Top Gear.
Described as ‘multilingual and multicultural’, SBS – the Special Broadcasting Service – was renowned as a broadcaster of obscure, sometimes racy continental films and European football, its acronym often accurately corrupted to ‘Sex Before Soccer’. But, with Top Gear on the schedule, the network suddenly had an unexpected smash hit on its hands. It was as though SBS had been flung a well picked-over box of hand-me-downs from some deceased aunt, where among the Irish linen tea towels nestled a Claude Monet.
To the dismay of the other TV networks Top Gear soared, taking SBS’s ratings with it and made Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May household names Down Under.
In 2008, given this phenomenal success, BBC Worldwide encouraged international, franchised versions of the program complete with home-grown presenters produced by the networks which held the broadcasting rights.
The first cab off the rank was Top Gear Australia (TGA) and SBS, having just renewed its contract, set off on the strange, unexplored path of trying to find three presenters to host the antipodean version of the show.
In that typically egalitarian Australian way, a national contest called for hopeful future presenters to produce their own short films showing why they should be an Aussie Top Gear host. The TV production company charged with producing TGA viewed and catalogued a staggering 4,500 seven-minute films, whittling down the wannabe presenters to the thousands, then the hundreds and then the final ‘dirty dozen’.
The twelve of us were whisked away to a secret weekend boot camp to test combinations on screen, to come up with ideas on the spot, testing our driving skills on a go-kart track and seeing how we bonded and interacted. I survived, emerging as one of the three hosts for the world’s first Top Gear franchise.
Although I had never before the try-outs met co-hosts Charlie Cox, an Aussie-born BBC MotoGP commentator, and Steve Pizzati, an Audi driving instructor, we hit it off terrifically. Worryingly, however, we soon learned that despite months of auditions and interviews nobody had the foggiest idea what would happen when we eventually appeared on screen.
Australian viewers were extremely excited to see what our own version of Top Gear would be like. The first episode won SBS its highest-ever ratings, yet the public’s excitement turned to confusion and then frustration when it dawned on them that we weren’t, in fact, Clarkson, Hammond and May.
The audience immediately pigeon-holed us in their favourites’ roles: Charlie Cox automatically defaulted to the Clarkson mould, Steve Pizzati as a Hammond and me as a kind of James May. This was never the intention, but it was always inevitable when we were lined up alongside the UK originals.
This was the conundrum: try to keep some of the cornerstone components of the British show or start from ground zero with an entirely different landscape, perhaps five hosts instead of three? Or female presenters?
There was no definitive answer to stop Australia’s armchair critics taking to the internet to vent their well-informed opinions about what was ‘wrong’ with Top Gear Australia. Actually, what was wrong in their opinion was that there was no Clarkson, Hammond and May. . . “It’s the chemistry, it’s organic,”’ according to one viewer who accosted me in the street in Sydney.
In an age only months after the invention of the iPhone and two years before the advent of the iPad we were caught totally unprepared for the explosion of online outrage launched, seemingly, from nowhere. Top Gear fan sites were rife with the most toxic tirades, ranging from criticism of the clothes we wore to how much they wanted to kill one of us!
One particularly venomous individual who sheltered under the online avatar and monicker ‘Snakepoison’ was relentless in his vindictive online attacks until one night during filming Steve Pizzati led a nervous, pimply-faced sixteen-year-old through the crowd. “This is ‘Snakepoison’,” said Steve. “He wants your autograph. . .” After that, I never worried about online comments again.
But after two seasons of having a ball with Top Gear Australia, a cash-strapped SBS let the BBC Worldwide contract lapse and it was immediately picked up by a major commercial network which then set about making Top Gear Australia all over again.
Once more the identical viewer issues – critical comparisons with the UK presenters – ensued until, mid-way through the fourth season, the show was cancelled.
But one thing stays with me. Over dinner with Richard Hammond in Sydney one evening, I asked him for the key reason, the ‘secret ingredient’ that made the the UK Top Gear’s triumvirate work so well.
“I have no idea,” he replied, smiling. “It’s just luck.”
Not even Chris Evans could replicate that. . .
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