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Stiggy in the middle [Guest blog]

Written by | Posted on 18.08.2015
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Racing drivers face to face

Top Gear fans aren’t sure if they are seeing double – or merely suffering from a severe case of Stig-matism.

As the future of telly’s favourite car show becomes ever more blurred and distorted, we’ve all turned into the notoriously myopic cartoon character Mr Magoo. At this stage it is impossible to see the Stig from the trees – or the new Top Gear from the old Top Gear.

What we do know is that at some stage next year we will all become afflicted by Diplopia – or double vision – as rival shows hit the screens.

Chris Evans will be at the helm of the new-look BBC 2 version. Possibly with Jodie Kidd, Guy Martin… and, of course, the Stig.

Meanwhile, over at Amazon Prime, the former Top Gear favourites – Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – will be hosting their new, as yet untitled, Stig-less show. It has cost the Californian-based TV streaming service a reputed £160 million to land the three amigos in a deal which even Amazon boss Jeff Bezos – with just a hint of warning – confesses is ‘expensive’.

It used to be all so simple – three middle-aged blokes in jeans and awful shirts acting like very over-grown schoolboys as they caused havoc on highways across the globe under the pretence of ‘testing’ high-performance motors.

Despite its appearance of being spontaneous mayhem, it was actually brilliantly-scripted, well-rehearsed and cleverly edited. Predictable, yes. But millions across the globe – including 7 million here in the UK – loved it. It spawned a spin-off magazine, live shows, merchandise and DVDs. Overseas sales raked in over £50 million a year for BBC Worldwide, the Beeb’s commercial arm.

Everything was good. But then came N-word-gate, Slope-gate and finally Steak-gate, which spelled the end for Clarkson’s time with Top Gear. In March, 55-year-old Jezza was out, followed by James May, Richard Hammond and – more significantly – executive producer Andy Wilman, the man who held all the madness together.

That left The Stig – the tame racing driver who doesn’t speak a word but drives like the wind – and a big headache for BBC2 boss Kim Shillinglaw on how to continue with her channel’s top rated show. She persuaded Chris Evans, who’d insisted “100 per cent that he wouldn’t be tempted,” to take the role he secretly coveted.

So, we currently have The Stig and Evans versus Clarkson, May and Hammond. However, things haven’t quite panned out as the trio first wanted. A move to ITV was scuppered by a non-compete clause (stopping them making a car related show for two years). Netflix, home of the brilliant House of Cards, was the next favoured option.

But then, surprisingly, it was Amazon Prime that won out. Despite the hype and boasts, it cannot be disguised that this is a huge gamble for all involved. Most fans have already got access to Netflix and ITV – but Amazon Prime is an extra £79 a year. How many loyal fans will take that option up?

Or will the move prove to be, as Clarkson’s bitter enemy Piers Morgan put it, ‘Amazon past your prime’?

Boasts of blowing Evans’ Top Gear out of the water seem hollow, given that they will now not get on air until at least six months after his new-look show.

Also, let us not forget that the whole in-joke about Top Gear was three un-PC heroes taking the mick out of the very-PC BBC. Some of us rather liked our licence fee being spent on daft challenges and blowing up caravans. Now Jezza & Co. are rebels with fat wallets without a cause to mock – Californian TV executives are not noted for their sense of humour.

So, is the Jeans Genie out of the bottle for the denim-clad threesome? And what will they do about the elephant in the room, or rather the tame racing driver no longer in the studio?

Andy Wilman told me that, though the trio are competent behind the wheel, they would need a fast driver ‘character’ to replace The Stig. And, while he ruled out former Stigs such as Ben Collins and Perry McCarthy, he didn’t dismiss hiring a new racing driver. That puts the likes of Jenson Button, Mark Webber, Paul di Resta and female F1 test driver Susie Wolf in the frame.

In a wonderful irony, Clarkson and Wilman had called the racing driver The Stig after the name given to new boys at their public school. Now The Stig has new boy Evans as his paymaster and no one knows how that is going to pan out.

The DJ has already hinted that he’d like to see a female Stig on his show. Evans is also keen on Button being involved – others linked include German Top Gear favourite Sabine Schmitz, Susie Wolf and touring car champ Jason Plato.

Meanwhile, the Stig is branching out. He has landed his own TV show, The Getaway Car, along with X-Factor fall-guy Dermot O’Leary. But this is nothing much more than a walk-on – or, rather, drive-on – part for Saturday night telly fodder. Top Gear it ain’t!

The Stig-matism looks set to continue for increasingly confused fans.

Guest blog by Nigel Pauley, a Fleet Street journalist and fan of Top Gear on the TV and Chris Evans on the radio.

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