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Millennial Top Gear? Don't be fooled – it's still more bloke than woke

The new line-up: Paddy McGuinness (left), Chris Harris (centre) and Freddie Flintoff
The new line-up: Paddy McGuinness (left), Chris Harris (centre) and Freddie Flintoff Credit: PA

In the latest Top Gear three middle-aged blokes with iffy dress-sense and even iffier stubble blundered their way across an exotic landscape. “Banter” was exchanged (as required by Act of Parliament), engines sputtered, mishaps unfolded with mildly chortlesome results. Business as usual on Planet Petrolhead, then. 

The big difference – and you may have heard about this – was the arrival of the two new presenters: likely lad cricketer Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff and comedian Paddy McGuinness. As Top Gear debuts go, theirs’ was widely acclaimed. Judging by the coverage, one might conclude they had in fact reinvented the wheel. 

More than that, actually. The consensus is that they have actually whisked the wheel off to a touchy-feely nirvana where man-pats are obligatory, male pedicures complementary and there’s a miniature pride flag under everyone’s seat. Millennial Top Gear is now a thing – and we’re told Flintoff and McGuinness (and the returning Chris Harris) are the face of it. 

It’s a compelling line and you can see why the BBC might wish to push it (the new team started it off with an interview last week promising “hugs and nice bits”). Yet the reality doesn’t quite live up to the billing. First of all, the most recent incarnation of Top Gear – the one fronted by Matt LeBlanc – was not exactly a knuckle-draggers’ paradise. 

Perhaps I missed the episode where Joey from Friends ranted about women drivers or shared his repertoire of mother-in-law jokes. Or maybe this new super-sensitive Top Gear is merely a continuation of the tone the show has struck ever since Jeremy Clarkson punched a producer and received his marching orders in 2015 (the poor sod marched right over to Amazon Prime and a £160 million production deal). 

Banter: the presenters in Sunday night's episode Credit: BBC

If anything, the supposedly hug-riffic Top Gear that’s just touched down is a good deal crueler than the LeBlanc era. Consider how Flintoff and McGuinness started on Harris about his height early on and then didn’t let up. We’ve all been in one of those group situations where good-natured ribbing turns that little bit darker. And you could see in the edges of Harris’s smile that he’d just about had enough of the joke. Not that he didn’t give as good as he got, taking the two new boys to task about their “northern accents”. 

This was fine and arguably faithful to the Top Gear brand. But it was also an example of the new Top Gear being exactly the same as the old Top Gear. One of the reasons the Clarkson-Hammond-May dynamic worked, lest we forget, was because they were clearly enormously fond of one another, and had the figurative bruises to show it. That was absent from LeBlanc’s stint. Largely, you suspect, because as an American he wasn’t fluent in the friends-who-insult-one-another lingo of classic TG (though by the end he and Harris had struck up a decent chemistry). 

It has also been claimed that the new Top Gear immediately distanced itself from Clarkson and co by sending the new presenters to Ethiopia, where they spent the next 40 minutes not insulting anyone. Instead they basked in the otherworldly beauty and interacted thoughtfully with locals. 

But again that was generally the modus of Clarkson too. The idea that “classic” Top Gear consisted of Jezza and the gang driving around parts foreign being racist is revisionist and seems to have been pushed as part of the redemption narrative around Flintoff and McGuinness. 

That isn’t to say Clarkson, in particular, always conducted himself appropriately. Diatribes about Americans, Scottish people, cyclists etc gave you a glimpse of an inner ugliness beneath the chap-of-the-people mask. And he obviously crossed the line on many occasions – before finally letting his fists talk him out of a job. Yet each of these outrages – singing the "n word" off air, "slope-gate" etc – created a mini-scandal and certainly didn’t form part of the weekly Top Gear viewing experience. 

Which is why it seems a bit ridiculous to hail Flintoff and the gang for giving the brand a millennial makeover. The new team are all in their 40s. Paddy McGuinness is just four years younger than Richard Hammond. So it isn’t as if the BBC has parachuted in a load of Billie Eilish fans or extras from Skins.

And while the new Top Gear was off to an agreeable start – and the crew are to be commended for speaking out about the crackdown against gay people in Brunei, where they filmed a forthcoming segment – gushing over them for not being Clarkson at his most indefensible feels like faint praise with go-faster stripes. The more prosaic truth is that the series rumbles on much as before. The faces have changed. Under the bonnet, however, Top Gear remains far more “bloke” than “woke” and that is on balance surely a good thing.