A week of spin can’t save Top Gear from ratings slip

The spin and backtracking that have characterised Chris Evans’s steering of Top Gear have been more Downing Street press office than racing track.

Last year it was “100% not true” that he was in line to fill Clarkson’s shoes; months later the BBC announced that they had signed him up for a three year stint. If the presenter’s people ever advised him against loose talk in the wake of this U-turn their caution wasn’t heeded. When pushed on ratings Evans stated that anything less than 5 million would be “disappointing”. Sunday night’s opening episode drew 4.4 million viewers. This still made the BBC Two show the most watched television of the evening- but this figure was a long way off the Clarkson-May-Hammond finale. Nevertheless Evans went on to hail the ratings as proving the show “a hit” and produced a figure of 5.6 million based on consolidated ratings that hadn’t been officially released. These are the “ACTUAL FACTS” Evans tweeted, channelling his inner Donald Trump. With that kind of statistical trickery it’s a surprise Evans hasn’t been recruited by either side of the EU referendum.

It is understandable why Evans went on the defensive. Top Gear is by far the BBC’s biggest global money spinner. Much to Tony ‘Wolf’ Hall’s chagrin, it is an hour of motorhead crassness that bankrolls Auntie’s prestige productions and documentaries about canals. Woe betide he who cocks it up. Given what Top Gear has come to mean Evans &Co lack the room to fail that the show’s predecessors had. Remember the first series of Clarkson-May-and-(not)Hammond? No, and nor does anyone else.

On top of this, Evans comes with baggage. He is one of the nation’s great DJs and a worthy heir to Sir Terry’s breakfast slot. He has always had, however, a vocal cohort of haters –especially among writers of a certain red top- who are keen to see the flashboy fail. By going on the defensive Evans was fuelling the backlash rather than calming the fires. The chances that Top Gear will increase its audience in the second week are slim. In recent memory only The Night Manager has managed this feat through riding high on excellent reviews and a relentless PR campaign that made the most of all the talent- in front and behind the camera. The Evans-LeBlanc Top Gear lacks this word of mouth momentum. The fluctuating figures during the show’s broadcast suggests that viewers were –as it sneaking a peek at a roadside accident- slowing down to have a look before speeding off elsewhere.

TV critic Kevin O’Sullivan remarked on the new Top Gear frontman that Evan wasn’t just channelling Clarkson in his opening delivery to camera, he was consciously doing a (poor) impression of the sacked presenter. Evans is a professional but with such formulaic scripts that beg comparison with his predecessor he simply isn’t able to break free of the shadow.

The other issue is chemistry. Specialist in media and advertising Ivan Clark –whose predictions for next week’s audience are particularly bleak- points out that in contrast to the laddish camaraderie of the old front-men Evans and LeBlanc barely seem to know each other. This is hardly surprising; with Evans busy with his Radio Two show and LeBlanc off filming a new series of Episodes their opportunities to shoot the breeze together are encumbered by several layers of possessive diary managers.

It would be ironic if it turned out that in their haste to revive Top Gear the BBC ended up killing off their major cash cow. Had the corporation simply waited longer and opened up a more extensive search talent –perhaps engaging the public in their selection- the outcome could have been different. The old team were plucked out of relative obscurity: Clarkson was a hack for regional and trade press, James May was a sub-editor for Autocar magazine and Richard Hammond worked in BBC local radio. Their egos are bigger now, of course, but they were never above their own show. Consequently, when Amazon bought one they bought all three. For Evans and LeBlanc Top Gear still looks like it’s just another cheque for two established stars.