What is going on? Cameron, Hodgson, Farage; and now Evans; yes, it’s true – Chris Evans has followed those other esteemed public figures through the exit door by quitting as host of ‘Top Gear’. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure how I’ll ever get over it. Okay, sarcasm aside, has so much money ever been spent on so few for the entertainment of so
many few? The ridiculous hype surrounding the re-launch of what was once the BBC’s most bankable show seemed destined to condemn it to failure; to imagine the factors that had made it so bankable – all three of them – could somehow be replaced in one fell swoop was a rather overambitious aim; but the Beeb had no real option as it desperately sought to prove the series could survive without the three-way dynamic that had turned it from a motoring magazine programme into a slapstick sitcom based around a trio of overgrown schoolboys and their expensive toys.
Recruiting another overgrown schoolboy with a penchant for expensive toys of the four-wheeled variety could be viewed both as an attempt to maintain the established traditions of the show and an effort to reduce the average age of the audience. If Clarkson and May appealed to survivors of the 70s, Chris Evans and Matt le Blanc are very much 90s men, at one time sharing the prime-time Friday night schedule on Channel 4 – with ‘TFI Friday’ and ‘Friends’ respectively. The choice of an untested double act plucked from the laddish zeitgeist of 20 years ago appeared to be a desperate gamble that has evidently crashed and burned.
That zeitgeist would seem to be coming back to haunt Chris Evans in the least desirable way at the moment, with police interest in the legacy of hedonistic years on the piss with Baker and Gazza piqued by stories of the ginger magician’s most unappetising magic trick – that of pulling a snake from his trousers. Back in ‘the day’, as they say, this would have been regarded as a hallmark of his cutting edge credentials; when David Baddiel and Frank Skinner presented ‘Fantasy Football League’ around the same time as ‘TFI Friday’, the former once confessed a photo shoot with the World Cup ended with the latter ‘wiping his knob’ on the trophy. This was the era of ‘Loaded’ and Liam Gallagher, don’t forget; and Evans is man defined by his times as much as Dave Lee Travis is defined by his; that both times are not especially compatible with the mores of the present day isn’t necessarily their fault.
Evans has never gone out of his way to make friends; surrounding himself with stooges paid to respond to his every utterance with side-splitting hysteria, his ego is the stuff of legend, and it is true that he’s a man it is very hard to like. Despite being well aware of the risks, former Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister turned to Evans as the saviour of the station in the middle of the 1990s, a time when the Smashie and Nicey image of Radio 1 DJs had turned a radio station allegedly aimed at a teenage audience into a laughing-stock peppered with has-beens and leftovers from another era, playing MOR Pop for listeners in their early 30s. Evans was signed-up along with several other younger recruits, although the rebranding of Radio 1 was initially a disaster, one that saw listening figures plummet and the man who had been led to believe he was ‘the guv’nor’ quickly making unreasonable demands of a kind Bannister had dreaded.
The love affair between Chris Evans and Radio 1 was short-lived, but as pop culture moved on and TV work dried up in the new century, Evans eventually returned to the national airwaves via Radio 1’s cardigan–clad uncle, Radio 2, as that station underwent one of its own periodical age-shedding exercises. Enough distance between now and the 90s had instilled the requisite nostalgia in forty-somethings to provoke an ill-advised revival of ‘TFI Friday’, putting Evans back on the small screen and persuading a distraught BBC he might be the man to step into the gargantuan shoes vacated by Jeremy Clarkson. If one colossal ego could take what had originally been a programme about as entertaining as ‘Gardeners’ World’ on wheels and transform it into a global money-spinner by making the motors secondary to the comedy routine of the presenters, maybe another colossal ego could maintain the momentum and ease the corporation through the trauma of losing one of its most popular (if divisive) stars.
For all his faults, however, Clarkson is a journalist who had spent years on ‘Top Gear’ in its previous incarnation, injecting some much-needed wit into a straitlaced show by bringing a sardonic eye to the reviewing of cars of all shapes and sizes. However far the series moved away from its original remit when he, May and ‘The Hamster’ rebranded it, Clarkson’s trainspotter-like knowledge of the internal combustion engine at least rooted it in a degree of anal know-how. Chris Evans has no such background to boast of; he was able to continue the adolescent fantasy of speeding around deserted airfields in sports cars because he’s essentially been doing that ever since he made his first million. A celebrity collector of such vehicles, Evans was selected by the Beeb for this reason alone; and it would seem the CV of a motoring dilettante hasn’t been enough to save the show from ratings oblivion.
Announcing his resignation from the programme, Evans has done so in a week when his off-air activities have attracted some unseemly headlines; and it’s hard not to join the dots between the two. The bonfire of the seventies has all-but burnt itself out now, and it was inevitable Inspector Knacker, having acquired an appetite for time-travelling, would turn his attention to more recent decades – if only to avoid the less exciting job of investigating genuine crime in the here and now. The many enemies Evans has made over the years are hardly bound to express much in the way of sympathy for the man; but he’s an easy target to aim at, and those eager to cut him down a peg or two know it.
© The Editor