With Top Gear’s future in doubt, there’s something to be said for looking back at the first episode of a show that conquered the world.
There’s a good chance you are a bit tired of all the Jeremy Clarkson news, but for many petrolheads these are sad times as Richard Hammond and James May will probably leave the show for good now that Clarkson is gone.
That means Top Gear will have new presenters and a slightly different format when it returns in 2016. It will be minus three likable buffoons who have entertained one twentieth of the planet’s population and – quite honestly – worse for it.
But the revamped Top Gear show, which started out in 2002, was a very different beast in the early days. Clarkson had fewer wrinkles, there was a man called James Dawe giving buying advice on cars, James May was, sadly, no where to be seen and the Stig wore black instead of white.
Yet even then you can see Clarkson and executive producer Andy Wilman’s vision for Top Gear shine through. The Berlingo review was needlessly detailed but Clarkson’s humour kept you glued to the screen.
Meanwhile the Pagani Zonda section is a precursor to one of the show’s biggest complaints, that it only focusses on cars most of us can only dream of owning, but then the Top Gear team knew Sunday viewers wanted escapism, not practical advice.
Top Gear actually began life in on the 22nd of April, 1977, having been created by a BBC executive producer called Derek Smith. It featured Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne talking about fuel economy, car insurance and other boring topics.
In case you’re wondering who Dawe is (seen during the Berlingo section of the first episode), the motoring journalist and presenter was brought on to find automotive bargains, but was dropped after the first season in favour of Captain Slow.
Speaking of the show’s early presenters, many left to create the then Channel 5 show Fifth Gear, including Quentin Wilson. Clarkson joined in 1988 but when he left in 1999 to broaden his television horizons, he took with him a sizable portion of its audience.
The first episode of the revamped Top Gear show is still utterly watchable. But what really stands out is the sheer lack of an audience. Honestly, it’s laughably empty and the show feels emptier with just two presenters.
Who would have ever predicted Top Gear would peak at 350 million viewers worldwide and there would be an 18-year waiting list just to see the show being made at its Dunsfold Park studio in Surrey? Probably not even Clarkson.