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From lads’ humour to mental wellbeing: Is Top Gear reversing its bad-boy image?

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Published on 13 June 2019

Top Gear
Top Gear

It made its reputation on controversial behaviour and non-politically correct jokes.

But in the days of post toxic masculinity could it be that the new series of the BBC’s Top Gear is finally shifting with the times?

The indication seems to be that the new line-up of Freddie Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness is aiming to move away from controversy and more into the caring realm.

With this third line-up in as many years, the BBC is hoping the new, more sensitive trio can turn around a fall in ratings since Jeremy Clarkson’s departure in 2015.

Top Gear is one of the BBC’s most successful programmes with a global audience of 350million, making millions of pounds in merchandise and sales.

Here Angela Smith, Professor of Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland, discusses how the new series may show a significant shift from what has gone before.

But will it be enough to return the show to previous peak audience figures?

Professor Smith said: “Top Gear returns to our screens on Sunday with its third post-Clarkson line-up. 

"When Clarkson, May and Hammond left under a cloud of controversy in 2015, the future of the franchise seemed in doubt. 

“The anti-liberal discourses that typified that line-up used banter and laddish humour to disguise underlying misogyny, racism, xenophobia and anti-environmentalism. 


“Whilst Clarkson et al returned to our screens on Amazon's The Grand Tour with a knowing heightening of these anti-pc discourses, the BBC chose a new presenting ensemble that included a female host - Sabine Schmitz -  two BAME presenters Chris Harris and Rory Reid, and an American - Matt LeBlanc - alongside Chris Evans, the main presenter, and Eddie Jordan.

“Such a large ensemble presenting cast was ditched after Evans' departure at the end of the first series, and something closer to the triumvirate of the Clarkson era fronted the show for the next two series with LeBlanc as main presenter alongside Reid and Harris. 

“The show continued to be a tempered version of the old show, but with a seemingly conscious effort to avoid the more anti-pc discourses that had characterised it. 

“There was also a stronger sense of a genuine friendship building between the three presenters, particularly LeBlanc and Harris, whose set-piece foreign trips lacked the jocular hostility of the Clarkson-era trips and instead presented a greater sense of masculine friendship. 

"With LeBlanc's departure back to life in the States at the end of the third series, the producers of Top Gear seem to have re-assessed the show.  They have decided to revamp it with two new presenters, rather than drawing on the bank of four remaining potential hosts from the ensemble that had continued to make occasional appearances throughout these series. 

“It seems the choice of Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness, both men who are already well known for their quick wit and laddish humour, might mean a return to the more familiar laddishness of the Clarkson-era.  With Chris Harris being the only remaining regular from the post-Clarkson re-vamp, it remains to be seen if McGuinness and Flintoff's familiar anti-pc humour is allowed to translate back into the Top Gear studio. 

“There is, perhaps, less of an underlying animosity between the presenters, as there is already an out-of-studio bonding between Flintoff and McGuinness that draws on a shared sense of 'northern' identity. In fact, as Flintoff has previously spoken openly about mental health issues, the underlying friendship that comes with on-screen banter may now be bolstered with genuine awareness of the emotional well-being of others that was so lacking in the Clarkson-era.”

Top Gear returns to BBC2 this Sunday at 8pm