Politics

How Top Gear switched off the insults, turned on the tears, and drove to petrolhead paradise

With Jeremy Clarkson behind the wheel, Top Gear (BBC One, 8pm) was a bantering bacchanalia of bulldog boorishness. Now, six years after Clarkson was sacked for punching his Irish producer in a row over a cold meat platter, the series has been reborn as a celebration of tears, man-hugs and getting in touch with your feelings while taking the first corner at Silverstone.

Initially, Top Gear’s strategy of moving on from jokes about cyclists and the American auto industry was perceived as commercial self-destruction. But the presenting team of Paddy McGuinness, Andrew Flintoff and Chris Harris have grown into the gig (since taking over in 2019 from Clarkson’s replacement Matt LeBlanc). And as the latest season begins, TG steers confidently towards the chequered flag even as it wears its emotions on its bonnet.

The heart and soul of the instalment is a 30-minute tribute by McGuinness to his childhood hero, Eddie Kidd. The stunt cyclist was Europe’s answer to Evel Knievel and toured Ireland in the early 1980s, where he jumped over a line of buses at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. This, it should be noted, was part of the routine rather than a case of Kidd getting stuck in traffic on the South Link (which didn’t exists at the time in any event).

Kidd, alas, suffered life-changing brain injuries after a jump went amiss in 1996. Yet he still cuts a charismatic dash as McGuinness pays a worshipful house visit and then takes the biking icon to a stunt show staged especially in his honour.

Surrounded by friends and family, Kidd is delighted with the homage. As bikes flip and jump through flames, everyone is cheering. Soon they’re crying too. Among those swatting away the tears is McGuinness, in a display that would have been forbidden during the Clarkson-Hammond-May era. “Fair play Paddy, that was absolute class,” says Flintoff back at the outdoor studio at London Television Centre. “A proper tribute to a proper hero”.

McGuinness’s love letter to Kidd follows a more conventional segment where the trio go head-to-head on a test track and then participate in a time trial involving Formula One drivers Lando Norris, Sebastian Vettel and Antonio Giovinazz.

This is production-line Top Gear, albeit free of Clarkson’s bloke-down-the-pub flourishes. But it’s a perfect appetite whetter for the goosebumps to follow with Eddie Kidd.

It’s also proof that those who say Top Gear is just for dinosaurs are wrong. The episode is a charm-filled trip to petrolhead paradise – with absolutely nobody’s feelings hurt along the way.

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