Veteran British radio and TV personality Chris Evans has one of the toughest jobs in TV this year: Taking over the “Top Gear” franchise from the trio of hosts who helped make the automotive-centric series a global sensation.
Evans was relaxed and even self-deprecating as he talked up plans for the new season Friday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif. He gave the crowd of mostly American journalists a quick rundown of his resume, including the five-year period from 2000 to 2005 where he “went mad” as he struggled with his own success.
“I had to leave for about five years,” Evans said. “I bought a farm.” But in time, “I came back and begged for a job on radio.”
Evans was enlisted for “Top Gear” last year after the show nearly imploded. Host Jeremy Clarkson was sacked last March by the BBC for striking and berating a producer during a location shoot. His fellow hosts James May and Richard Hammond ultimately decided to leave, as all three were at the end of their contracts.
Clarkson, Hammond and May have since signed a big-bucks deal to host a show for Amazon.
Evans acknowledged that when he first started to work on the show there was a feeling of “armageddon” and an “apocalyptic” atmosphere in the office. Most of the staff had left in the uproar over the three hosts leaving.
But Evans and the “lone warrior” producer who stayed, Alex Renton, got down to work on a new batch of episodes that bow in May in the U.K. and on BBC America in the U.S. Evans emphasized that “Top Gear” has had many hosts during its long run, which began in 1978.
More importantly, he said, “the car is definitely the star.” He said the show trades on the affection that virtually everyone has for their wheels. “They are the unofficial diary to our lives,” he said. “They’re aspirational. They help us escape.” (Evans’ current ride: 1976 convertible Rolls-Royce.)
Under the Clarkson, Hammond May regime, which came together in 2002, the show clicked in large part because of the camaraderie among the hosts. “Top Gear” became as much about crazy stunts, treks to exotic locations and competitions among the trio than it was about cars and racing.
Evans acknowledged the challenge of following the trio. He’s been friendly with them for years. At one point he believed that Hammond and May would remain on the show with a new third host.
“I like the old show. It was brilliant there’s no denying it,” he said. “If the old show had never been taken off I’d still be watching it,” he said.
Evans will have co-hosts but he has no illusions that he’ll be able to generate the kind of on-screen chemistry that Clarkson, Hammond and May had. But he noted that the trio didn’t develop the kind of zaniness that came to define “Top Gear” until they had been on the air for a few seasons.
“If people came to the show for that, I can’t give them that right away,” Evans said. “I can only give them the best show that I can produce about cars. I hope that (camaraderie) will develop but I’d be crazy to think it will happen right away.”
Evans said “Top Gear’s” famous mystery character, the helmet-wearing race car driver the Stig, will remain a feature of the show. So will the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment that challenges a celebrity to drive several laps on the “Top Gear” track in an off-the-rack economy car against the clock. And the show will continue to travel the world.
Evans likened “Top Gear’s” durability to that of “Star Wars” where “different stars can pass through it.” In his view, the cast of the show “changes every week” as it focuses on the latest and greatest for gearheads.
Evans’ trek to the U.S. for TCA is coinciding with filming for several episodes including a segment in Pebble Beach. Evans joked about having to pivot on the fly when sunny California turned out to be rainy California earlier this week. Just as they rewrote the segment script to account for rain, the sun came out.
“It’s a baptism by fire to say the least,” he said.