Sanitised, bland and painfully right-on: why Chris Evans' watered-down Top Gear drives me up the wall
The relaunched motoring show is nothing less than a travesty, writes Fionola Meredith, who misses the defiantly politically incorrect version hosted by Jeremy Clarkson.
Something vital is missing from the new Top Gear. Sure, they have all the basic constituent parts - smoke, skids, revving, switchbacks with impossible drops. Dodge Vipers and Reliant Robins. Crazy competitions. Studio audience cheering (if not laughing) on cue. The Stig is in residence, of course: presumably he comes with the format. There's even the same instantly recognisable theme tune.
But a noisy, hyperactive ginger-haired man has taken the place of Jeremy Clarkson. James May and Richard Hammond have been replaced by a grinning American bloke, pretending he enjoys an easy, bantering relationship with the ginge, plus a coterie of celebrity randomers.
And you know what? It's wrong. It's Top Gear by numbers. Safe, and bland and inclusive - and deeply, tediously boring.
I'm not a bit surprised that fans are enraged and the viewing figures are in free-fall. Even the fusty-dusty Antiques Roadshow is now pulling in more people.
Having snatched away a show that was really loved around the world, the BBC presents this patronising offering that implicitly seeks to school viewers in appropriate behaviour.
Did you notice? There were no offensive jokes, no sniggering at rude things, no merciless mickey-taking between the presenters - nothing that sounded genuine, anyway.
Top Gear has been officially sanitised, cleaned up and corrected for the faux tolerant 21st century. Apparently, Chris Evans (below) himself has said there will be none of the silly, puerile humour that characterised the show in its previous incarnation.
But the silly, puerile, free-wheeling humour was what we loved. The cars themselves? Not so much. Well, a bit. I mean, you're not fully human if your heart doesn't soar when you see an Alfa Romeo Disco Volante burning through an Italian city at dusk.
It was "an hour a week where three badly dressed middle-aged men bicker, fall over and catch fire," as the former producer Andy Wilman put it.
Yes: that spirit of hapless, childish lunacy. Defiantly, unfashionably male. Saying unsayable things, winding each other up, with the barest hint of real affection underneath, though you could always tell that it was there.
And now we have the preeningly right-on Chris Evans instead, all scrawny swagger, doing a desperately bad impression of Jeremy Clarkson. That comes dangerously close to blasphemy in my book.
My teenage daughter, also a fan of the old show, said: "It's like if your mum divorces your amazing dad, and you get a new step-dad who tries to make you call him dad, but he's really pathetic and boring."
Exactly. Chris Evans getting custody of our Top Gear? It's a travesty.
Not that we're under any illusions about Clarkson, of course. He could be the biggest, smuggest, most insufferably arrogant loudmouth on the planet. But that - along with his lesser-known talent for mocking self-deprecation - was precisely what made us laugh.
One of the best nights out I had last year was at Clarkson, Hammond and May Live, the touring Top Gear show, hastily re-named after Clarkson decked a producer and was chucked out of the BBC. Honestly, I felt joy.
From the moment that Clarkson roared into the arena on a souped-up hovercraft, to a burst of pink fireworks, the boxing anthem Eye of the Tiger ringing out triumphantly, I was in heaven.
Me and my girl can't be the only feminists who loved Top Gear, can we? Modern identity politics, in which everyone cleaves obediently to their own tribe - gay, female, working-class, atheist, Christian, black, non-binary or whatever - comes with its own set of rules, to be rigidly followed at all times, and they suck the life out of people. Clarkson makes sexist jokes, for example, therefore it is not permissible for a feminist to laugh at Clarkson. Yet each one of us is an individual, not a category, and we experience the world in complex, often contradictory ways.
I prefer to embrace the "drunkenness of things being various", rather than forcibly repress that curious complexity. I'd rather be on the side of Clarkson, and his daft, subversive humour, than huddling with the puritan tut-tutters, prissily policing the boundaries of what you can and can't say.
Top Gear is just a television programme, of course. It doesn't really matter. But the purge it has undergone says something quite profound about the dull, joyless, risk-averse society we're in danger of becoming.
That's why I'm glad to see this wave of popular resistance against the new regime and the enraged calls for Chris Evans' head. It shows that we're alive, thinking for ourselves and not tamed - yet.