Top Gear’s cancellation is not just the death of machismo – it’s a major headache for the BBC

L-R: Chris Harris, Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff with a McLaren 600LT on the Top Gear test track
L-R: Chris Harris, Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff with a McLaren 600LT on the Top Gear test track - Ian West/PA Wire

So Top Gear has been axed, or at least “cancelled for the foreseeable future” as the Corporation would have it. This comes as no surprise, given that the motoring show which was once the jewel in the BBC’s crown, a seemingly perfect partnership between public service broadcasting and commercial enterprise, has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years.

The mood music has made Top Gear an anachronism in more ways than one. The catalyst, it seems, is the crash featuring presenter and former cricketer Freddie Flintoff which left him with “life-altering injuries”. In a week when on-set safety has come under scrutiny (with the actor Rory Kinnear – whose father, Roy, died in an accident while filming 35 years ago calling for health and safety improvements), a gung-ho approach would have felt sorely out of step. Indeed, the programme has dealt with serious accidents before, notably Richard Hammond’s dragster crash in 2006 which left the presenter with serious brain injuries. This occurred in the midst of a golden era when Hammond, as part of a triumvirate featuring Jeremy Clarkson and James May purveyed a unique laddish populism which reached beyond mere petrolheads and seemed to strike a chord with the whole of Middle England.

But more than 15 years later, things have changed. Clarkson et al decamped to Amazon to make The Grand Tour (following an altercation at Top Gear in which Clarkson allegedly assaulted a producer) and the original show lost its lustre, despite high-profile signings such as Matt Le Blanc. Now in 2023, safety fears aside, there is no doubt that the brazen chutzpah, the machismo which the show once traded on, feels out of step.

The big question is where the BBC will go from here: the Corporation is in pursuit of youth, and there is no doubt that Top Gear, in some ways, is a relic from another age, an irrelevance to a savvy generation who can find out about all the latest cars by Googling them and witness crazy stunts on YouTube. It begs the question as to whether the BBC really needs a motoring show.

Except that Top Gear has held onto many of its core audience. While Top Gear’s ratings have been in decline since the 2016 relaunch (post-Clarkson), the decline is only in keeping with a ratings slide for linear TV as a whole. The BBC may not care to admit that a lot of its overall audience are “gammons”, the unfashionable non-elite who it would rather not cater for, thank you very much.

Roaring success: Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May
Roaring success: Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May - Justin Leighton

Yet, if the Corporation is really for the people it should serve them, at least in part. Take note that Amazon and other streaming services have hooked onto this particular audience with not only The Grand Tour, and Clarkson’s side-project Clarkson’s Farm, but a range of shows you could best describe as “Dad TV”. These include dramas such as Reacher (based on the bestselling novels by Lee Child) and Gangs of London which, to my eyes, just seem to be full of East End hardmen beating seven shades of crud out of each other.

The streamers never release viewing figures, but the fact that these series keep getting recommissioned suggests they are getting bums on seats. The BBC, with an ever-increasing need to compete in a crowded marketplace, must not forget this crucial part of its audience, even if it chooses to hold its nose while commissioning Shirtless Dads versus American XLs Xtreme (a programme title I have just invented).

Another headache for the Corporation is the fact that Top Gear is lucrative, and is still a brand to be reckoned with worldwide. BBC Studios, the commercial arm which makes the show has sold it to 150 territories, while 11 countries (including France and Japan) make their own versions. Furthermore, Top Gear magazine is the world’s most popular motoring magazine with 30 licensed local editions. The magazines and the bespoke versions of the programme will continue to money spin for a while but the lack of income from the 139 territories that broadcast the original English-language version will surely bite. I suspect that high-level talks at this very moment will be concentrating on how they can come up with another winning formula with global appeal and potential licensing options.

Stunt on set
Stunt on set - Lee Brimble/ BBC Studios

Of course, there is the possibility that Top Gear may one day return. The fact that it is a 46-year-old show puts it on a par with other TV institutions such as Doctor Who which has very successfully managed to adapt to changing times and tastes (and which, if you remember, went on hiatus for a whopping 16 years – one lacklustre TV movie aside). I remember Top Gear in the early 1990s, watching it with my poor old dad for whom cars were a source of constant anxiety rather than a symbol of potency, and how he loved its gentle runaround attitude to what he referred to as motoring. It was a very different show then to the one launched in 1977 and a world away from the show in 2023.

Ultimately Top Gear has always evolved, but like all evolutions, it can sometimes overreach itself, which is exactly what happened during the Clarkson years when it felt as if it had started to believe its own hype and, in the end, became a victim of its own success. The dismissal of Clarkson felt like a validation for an elite who had always found his unapologetic Alphaness a problem.

A reboot would be hard to get right – make it too low-fi, or too yoof-oriented, and you alienate its main demographic. I suspect that, for the time being, the BBC will lie low, while thinking of other shows (not necessarily car-oriented) that can yield the same monetary rewards.

When a long-running programme like this ends, there is usually a sense of mourning. Yet for Top Gear which has struggled to remain relevant, or more crucially, entertaining, this feels unlikely.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.