With Top Gear returning to our screens, Danielle de Wolfe chats to presenters Freddie Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris to find out more.
“It’s grown legs a little bit, this” remarks comedian Paddy McGuinness of his now infamous Top Gear crash involving a borrowed Lamborghini Diablo.
“I went from a Lamborghini to a Scoda in the same episode, so yeah, it was painful,” he chuckles.
After losing control of the car in North Yorkshire during filming for series 29 of the hit automotive show, the 47-year-old Take Me Out turned Top Gear presenter made national headlines by “ripping off” the underside of the £250,000 machine.
“We were driving, it was torrential rain and there was oil on the road,” he explains.
“We weren’t going very fast, but the back end spun out and it went onto the grass and the trouble with the Diablo is it’s so low down, it’s fibreglass, and so the bottom was ripped off…I was thinking how did this happen? We’re facing the wrong way –”
“And then the lion from Narnia came out!” interjects co-host, Chris Harris.
The accident has become something of a long-running joke for the Top Gear presenting trio, as McGuinness’ co-hosts, ex-England cricketer Freddie Flintoff, 42, and automotive journalist Harris, 45, proceed to point out.
“The story changes every single time; it’s an amazing work of fiction worthy of C.S.Lewis,” says Harris.
“Honestly, Paddy is committed to this show and he took one for the team. That morning he said, ‘look, I’m going to have a really low speed, amateur looking shunt in this Lamborghini to get us on the front page of the papers – and look, it worked beautifully.”
It’s precisely the kind of tomfoolery you’d expect given the BBC car show’s track record.
Following the departure of veteran hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May back in 2015, the show underwent a period of upheaval, with a string of household names – including Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc and Eddie Jordan – trying their hand at presenting.
Yet, it’s the combined jovial chemistry of McGuinness, Flintoff and Harris that has captured the imaginations of automotive enthusiasts and entertainment fans alike.
Understandably, there’s something about a car show line-up involving an ex-England cricketer, a comedian and an automotive journalist that sounds more like the set-up to a joke than a successful presenting trio.
However, it’s a formula that clearly works, given “the response to the last season was so strong” says Harris.
So much so, the forthcoming series is set to move from its current home on BBC Two to a new prime time slot on BBC One after last year’s opening episode attracted an impressive 3.5 million viewers.
“There’s a graph that all the clever people over at the BBC have…The shape of the graph is that normally the first episode does really well and then you just tail off but it just grew during the series and that was an unexpected delight,” Harris explains.
Enjoyed by fans the world over, nearly everything about Top Gear defies convention – including the need for the BBC World Service to add English subtitles to the show’s two northern presenters.
“I’m the only one that when we broadcast in America doesn’t have subtitles, which is something I’m very happy with. [Flintoff/McGuinness] have to have subtitles because they obviously speak a mangled version of the language that you and I speak,” Harris goes on to declare with a smirk.
“You’re saying this Chris but we’ve not seen any evidence,” pipes up Flintoff. “I must admit though, when I first started working in Australia, they did subtitle me to begin with.”
Considering that much of the forthcoming Top Gear series is set north of the Watford Gap, it’s a somewhat comical issue that suddenly becomes all the more prevalent.
“For the next series we’ve spent a lot of time in the north,” says Harris. “I seem to be getting in my car and driving four hours north the whole time – it has been a joy, I do love the people that come from the north.”
Combining picturesque landscapes with adrenaline-fuelled stunts aplenty, fans have Covid-19 to thank for the latest series becoming a UK-centric one.
“The first day back was at Alton Towers which I suppose was one of the benefits,” says Flintoff.
“There was nobody there, so we could race electric cars around Alton Towers which was amazing. I think with lockdown, we’ve managed alright, haven’t we?”
McGuinness, however, begs to differ.
“What will be interesting when the viewers see this series is that [there is] one particular episode where we all get in a car, and then when we get out the other end, I’ve got bleached hair, Fred’s hair has grown six inches and Chris has lost two stone – and that’s within the same episode!”
“The continuity people have had an absolute nightmare with us,“ laughs McGuinness.
“Yeah, we haven’t really travelled,” continues Harris in an altogether more serious tone.
“I’ve been abroad once to do a power test in a Ferrari SF90 but that had to be cleared by the big bosses at the BBC. It’s all been done in the UK and it feels like the right thing to do.”
It’s a change of direction for a show that thrives of the drama imposed by the extremes of the natural world.
“We’ve been going abroad doing increasingly outrageous things in crazy places for a long time. I think it’s a good thing to reset – it’s a British car show after all,” notes Harris.
“The fundamentals of the show are the cars, the relationship between the three of us and then we did a bit of travel on the back of it and I think that balance had been upset a bit in the last few years.”
“To re-centre, come back to the UK, demonstrate how beautiful this country is and what variety of places and locations we’ve got is a good thing.”
Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the Top Gear team appear undeterred, swapping the confines of the studio for a brand new drive-in setup complete with a socially distanced studio audience.
“Chris was loving it because he got a chance to go out there, even before we started turning the cameras on, and just looking at the cars,” says McGuinness.
“Because Chris is obviously an oracle when it comes to cars, people were actually loving him saying nice things about their cars – but also trolling the cars a little bit as well.”
“They kind of took a bit of pride in that, so it was lovely to see.”
Top Gear airs BBC One tonight, Sunday 4th October.