Finding second Gear
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.