Find­ing sec­ond Gear

Herald Sun - Switched On - - News - COLIN VICK­ERY

SCOTT Young was given a very sim­ple in­struc­tion when he was cho­sen as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of Top Gear Aus­tralia: ‘‘Don’t stuff it up’’.

The eight-episode se­ries, with a bud­get of about $1 mil­lion an episode, is a huge gam­ble for SBS.

The award-winning BBC orig­i­nal, fea­tur­ing Jeremy Clark­son, Richard Ham­mond and James May, is a phe­nom­e­non es­ti­mated to have nearly 400 mil­lion fans world­wide.

The Aussie ver­sion faced the daunt­ing task of find­ing hosts who would com­pare well with them as well as match­ing the UK ver­sion’s slick pro­duc­tion val­ues.

Fans of the im­ported show might won­der why you’d bother mak­ing a lo­cal ver­sion. There have also been rum­blings from in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­ers crit­i­cal of the amount of SBS money be­ing soaked up by what is es­sen­tially fran­chise tele­vi­sion (US and Chi­nese Top Gear ver­sions are also planned).

SBS has a good rea­son — rat­ings. Top Gear is its high­es­trat­ing pro­gram, av­er­ag­ing more than a mil­lion view­ers na­tion­ally. It’s also the broad­caster’s most pop­u­lar pro­gram with women, mak­ing it very at­trac­tive to ad­ver­tis­ers.

The broad­caster re­ceived 4000 applications from wannabe hosts. That was whit­tled down to 200, then 35, then 12, and the fi­nal three — Char­lie Cox, War­ren Brown, and Steve Piz­zati.

They’re rel­a­tive un­knowns and not ob­vi­ous choices — Cox is a Lon­don-based broad­cast jour­nal­ist who com­men­tates on Moto GP, Brown a car­toon­ist with Syd­ney’s Daily Tele­graph and Piz­zati a race driver for Porsche Aus­tralia and oc­ca­sional stunt driver.

The three had never met be­fore Top Gear Aus­tralia but formed an im­me­di­ate bond. They were cho­sen be­cause they have a shared ‘‘lar­rikin out­look’’.

‘‘None of us is Jeremy Clark­son, none of us is James May and none of us is Richard Ham­mond, and none of us is try­ing to be,’’ Brown says.

‘‘There’s a lot of an­tic­i­pa­tion be­cause it’s such a loved pro­gram, but we’re not re­plac­ing those guys. You’ll still get your UK Top Gear and you’ll get this Aus­tralian one as well.’’

Catch­ing up with the Top Gear Aus­tralia trio dur­ing film­ing on Queens­land’s Hamil­ton Is­land it is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that se­ri­ous money is be­ing thrown at the project.

Cox is test-driv­ing the lat­est $275,000 Audi R8 on the lo­cal airstrip, the crew film­ing from a he­li­copter. A later chal­lenge ( Top Gear is fa­mous for ou­tra­geous chal­lenges) is to turn an old Audi 90 Sport into a float­ing sail­ing boat, rem­i­nis­cent of one done re­cently by Top Gear Aus­tralia SBS, Mon­day, 7.30pm Lo­cal motoring show Du­ra­tion: 1 hour the UK Top Gear team — Clark­son, Ham­mond and May try­ing to sail con­verted cars across the English Chan­nel.

Cox, Brown and Piz­zati are clearly ex­cited to have been cho­sen as hosts of such a high­pro­file show, but there is an un­der­ly­ing sense of trep­i­da­tion.

‘‘I think peo­ple will be con­fused (watch­ing) the first episode be­cause it will look like Top Gear, feel like Top Gear, but it has three dif­fer­ent blokes,’’ Brown says.

Piz­zati adds: ‘‘It’s ex­cit­ing and when­ever I tell any­one they say ‘that is the most amaz­ing job you could ever have’, but it’s also one where there is that weight of ex­pec­ta­tion.’’

Every­one in­volved with Top Gear Aus­tralia is keen to point out the Top Gear con­cept had hum­ble be­gin­nings. The show be­gan in 1977 in a 30-minute for­mat, but it wasn’t un­til the opin­ion­ated Clark­son came on board in 1988 that it climbed in the rat­ings. A re­vamped one-hour for­mat, also headed by Clark­son, was launched in 2002.

‘‘SBS has started to run some of the early se­ries and it’s been a real eye-opener,’’ Piz­zati says.

‘‘A lot of peo­ple have started watch­ing it in the past cou­ple of years when it is this amaz­ing show at the height of its power, but when you look at the ear­lier ones it’s nowhere near as pol­ished. Even with th­ese bril­liant guys, it’s taken years to get there.’’

THE suc­cess of the Top Gear fran­chise has been built on the large num­ber of fe­male view­ers it at­tracts (women make up 40 per cent of its au­di­ence here in Aus­tralia).

That is some­thing the mak­ers of the lo­cal ver­sion have to take into ac­count. To work it must be fun, en­ter­tain­ing and not sex­ist.

‘‘It’s Aus­tralian, but we won’t be go­ing down the ocker path,’’ Brown says. ‘‘There’s no slouch hats with corks hang­ing off them.’’

Volk­swa­gen sign­ing as the pro­gram’s ma­jor spon­sor has raised ques­tions over the show’s ed­i­to­rial in­de­pen­dence but Brown in­sists they won’t be play­ing favourites.

‘‘If we like a car, we’ll bang on about it,’’ he says. ‘‘But if we don’t like it . . . we’ve s---canned some cars.’’

Cars and ef­fect: Top Gear Aus­tralia’s (rear) Char­lie Cox, (mid­dle) War­ren Brown and Steve Piz­zati with (inset) the Audi chal­lenge.

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