February 17, 2016

Horse 2075 - Top Gear Mk3: We Don't Know What It Is Yet

Amidst a flurry of fanfare and hype, the great and powerful BBC launched their new lineup of hosts for what will be Top Gear Mk.3. Some say... that the new show will be vastly different as at sails off towards a new horizon and that it will chart its own direction, still others say that the BBC has launched a ship of fools which is destined to snag a reef and disappear under the surface of the sea; all we know is, that what ever direction it sails off in, it will live and die on the strength of the writing, as it always has done.

Top Gear Mark 1 had a series of rolling presenters and survived on television from 1979 until 2001. It was presented as a magazine style program and eventually failed because the sharpness of the writing grew dull. One of the common criticisms that I've heard was that it tended to focus too much on showing gadgets and widgets, rather than cars themselves.

Top Gear Mark 2 was retooled less as a gadgetry show and after a few seasons, quickly found its rhythm as a show of three blokes mucking about. Mark 2's biggest strength was that Clarkson, Hammond and May were all firstly journalists and when they presented pieces to camera, they knew what they were saying because they were the ones who had written the pieces. They also wrote in the voice of caricatures of themselves; which meant that when it came to delivering that material to camera, they were well equipped to do so.

For Top Gear Mark 3, of the seven presenters, Rory Ried is already a motoring journalist and so in theory should be able to write well; Queen of the Nürburgring, Sabine Schmitz is an accomplished television presenter and should also be able to present well; Eddie Jordan is also quite skilled at writing and as a former owner of a Formula One team has proven that he has the personality to defend his viewpoint; Chris Evans worked on radio and has previously hosted BBC's The One Show on television and so is already quite accomplished at doing the job of ringmaster; Matt Le Blanc as an actor can already project his personality on screen effectively; Chris Harris is already something of a star on YouTube which means that he can write and perform to camera, and Stigs are specifically bred for the purpose of driving motor cars and the faulty ones are quietly released into the wild.

I imagine that Top Gear Mark 3 will return to something more like a magazine format, with interstitials between the segments and or with throws back to the central studio. Again, how well the show works will depend on the strength of the writing but that's true for any scripted television show.
I think that one of the biggest mistakes that particularly the media is making at the moment when writing about something that they haven't even seen yet, is that Top Gear Mark 3 doesn't look like or hasn't been set up like Top Gear Mark 2. It's one thing to take the format of a television show and retool it for another country but when that happens, the new show often takes on a new life of its own.
In the case of Top Gear where Mark 2 was such an iconic thing, a simple retool is impossible. If the BBC had merely decided to plug in three new presenters to functionally fill the same roles as Clarkson, Hammond and May, they would forever be directly compared to Clarkson, Hammond and May; since those three were writing for themselves, that direct 1:1 switch would have failed. By deliberately setting out from the outset by being markedly different, Mark 3 will very much be obviously different.

It's also worth remembering that Mark 2, had an initial period where it wasn't James May who appeared on the show but Jason Dawe, who took on more of a consumer review role and looked at used cars. This was eventually tweaked and dropped. If Mark 3 is to survive, then it will also need time to be allowed to breathe and find its own voice.
If I'd been in charge of Mark 3 and been given an open slate, I would have had former test cricketer Andrew Flintoff, BTCC driver Paul O'Neill, ex Formula One driver Jensen Button and comedy blogger the delusional Rollo (because you have to back yourself) to host the show and then it would have been rebranded again. It would be a show of four blokes mucking about but it would be different.

As it is, nobody yet knows what Top Gear Mark 3 even is; to comment about things you have not seen is like driving down a road in the dark with no headlights. It can be done but if you're doing 80 miles an hour in a Holden Opinion and you hit a wombat of truth, then you can expect your suspension to collapse and repairing the façade of bodywork might be difficult. All we can really do at this stage is look at the cover and try to guess what is under there based on the shape of the cover. It might be dull, or hideous but it also might be a thing of joy and beauty. It might also be a sleeper that looks kind of boring on the outside but goes like the wind and puts a smile on our faces.

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