Interview: Chris Harris on the brand new series of Top Gear.
Series 27 of the world’s biggest motoring show sees Chris Harris joined by comedian Paddy McGuinness and cricket legend Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, with a little help from the white-suited racing driver known to the authorities - and indeed the rest of us - as the Stig.
The new series sees Paddy, Freddie and Chris tackling the fastest, hottest, toughest Top Gear challenges to date: pushing their cars, and themselves, to the very limits of endurance. All because no one takes testing cars as seriously as Top Gear. And also because they really should have checked the small print of their contracts more closely before signing.
Chris Harris tells us more…
How did the chemistry between the three of you begin?
We had a little test late last summer. We secretly went to an airfield with a couple of cameras and just messed about. It was a really good idea. It wasn’t a chemistry-building exercise as much as a question of: “How’s this going to play?” We had only met for about an hour. I thought: “They’re my heroes, I can’t be that offensive.” But then this note came through from them saying: “Nothing is off-limits,” which was very refreshing. That’s when I knew we’d be fine. We hit it off immediately.
Tell us more.
It was quite clear from the start that the banter was pretty good and that we had a very similar puerile sense of humour - and the motorcar is a very good medium for that. It was immediately apparent that it was going to be quite light-hearted. If there is some geekery that needs to be done, I can cover that off. But Fred and Paddy know more about cars than they let on - they’re very modest about that. I knew then that it would work between us. We just clicked.
So you've become close?
Yes. They’ve both become massive mates of mine. This is quite strange for me, working with two people that I have admired from afar for a long time. Paddy was in Phoenix Nights, which is in my top three programmes ever. I still watch it religiously, and I’m always quoting bad lines at him. And I’m a complete cricket tragic. So I’m working with my heroes. But this is a comfortable place for me. I know a lot about cars. I can test drive a Lamborghini. I can plug the gaps in their knowledge. Meanwhile, they can be funny, and occasionally just kick the hell out of me. That’s fine!
Do Paddy and Freddie sometimes gang up on you?
Yes. There is a danger that with Paddy and Fred it’s going to become a northern show, with me as the southern idiot. Even though I’m the incumbent presenter, I do sometimes feel that the North has taken over. It’s a bit like Game Of Thrones! Paddy and Fred get into this northern bickering thing when they leave out the definite article, and I don’t understand what they’re on about. So sometimes you have to say: “Can you just leave it alone?” You should hear them try and speak to people in Ethiopia - it’s a struggle at times! Paddy always introduces himself by saying: “Hi, I’m Paddy from Bolton”, which doesn’t mean very much when you’re on the Eritrean border!
Did Freddie also struggle to fit in some cars?
Yes. Fred is not designed for cars. There is a Lotus he drives later in the series, and it was funny watching him getting strapped into that because his feet don’t fit into the pedal boxes. Most cars are comfortable until you are about 6'3" or 4. A lot of sports cars are just not designed for the larger gentleman. We drove a buggy in Iceland at the weekend, and I just didn’t know how Fred was going to fit. His knees were touching the steering wheel. I thought: “I’m not sure how that’s going to work.” But he always manages to do it, and he never complains about it.
You're also not averse to taking the mickey out of Paddy, are you?
No! I feel like a proud dad the way Paddy now talks about foreign countries. When we first worked with him, if we went near Dover, he’d start shaking!
How would you characterise the others’ driving styles?
I would describe Paddy’s driving style as squeaky, and I don’t mean the tyres. When he’s excited, he gets quite squeaky! But he and Fred are both good drivers. They wouldn’t be doing this unless they could drive. We’re a bit more rigorous about how we screen test people now. If someone turns up and they are absolutely mustard on camera, but they can’t really drive, they aren’t going to get the job. It’s just not possible. You can’t do that. It’s not safe. The practicalities of filming mean you have to have cameramen near you. You can’t be running people over. You need a level of skill behind the wheel. Both of these two have it. I won't say anything nicer than that, otherwise their egos will swell!
Is it important that the show also appeals to non-petrol heads?
Yes. With the changes in media, increasingly if you want to watch 40 minutes on the differential of a BMW, that’s online. It’s not eight o’clock on a Sunday night on BBC Two, is it? This has got to be a more general show. That means fun - and that’s what Fred and Paddy bring. Frankly, they just have to walk through the door in the morning, and I start laughing. It’s an entertainment show, and those guys really know how to entertain.
How does this series compare with previous ones that you have been involved with?
We are in a great place. We are very happy. There’s a sense that anything is possible. From the first time we knocked about, the three of us have got on very well. We have a really good laugh. Paddy and Fred are very giving. They don’t need to be as giving to me because they’re both super famous. But they’re both very willing to have the mickey ripped out of them, which is really important. We call chemistry the 'c' word on Top Gear, and you can’t fake that, can you?