Top Gear Series Six | Interview with Chris Harris

What are the highlights of the new series for you?

The fact that we got to mess around in America was lovely. The US is still the best canvas on which to paint a show like Top Gear because it has an enduring relationship with the motorcar. That means it has more stupid motorsports than anywhere else on the planet. So being there was wonderful.

What did you get up to in the US?

We did a race in Florida with old police cars. We used Lincoln Town cars, which are the staple for all police forces in America. We took part in a race called the Dirty Thirty around a short, banked oval. It was 30 laps and no holds barred. All I’ll say is you’d expect on a grid of 20 cars driven by Americans, all of whom probably had a problem with Limeys and wanted to take us out, that they would be my main obstacle. But there is an old adage in motorsport: “your rival teams aren’t your biggest problem. Your teammates are.” I’ll leave it at that!

Did you also race swamp buggies in Florida?

Yes. Was it fun? I’ll leave it at “er”. It was actually pretty bad. The swamp water was minging. Because I’m vertically challenged, I was given the lowest buggy of the lot. Fred took one look at it and said, “I’m not driving that. You can drive it, Harris.” My eye line was right in the water. So I had swamp water pouring into my mouth for an hour when we were filming and – surprise, surprise – I got a massive dose of the runs that night. You would never have connected the two, would you?

What other moments stood out for you?

I loved messing around in police cars in a disused power station. I always think it’s a privilege to go to places where as a child you thought, “This would be a great place to ride around in a car.” But of course, unless you work on a show like Top Gear, you never get the chance. The fact that we had clearance to do that was amazing. We were trying out cop cars. It was a terrific location because The Sweeney and Dempsey and Makepeace would always end up somewhere like that chasing baddies around.

Why does the relationship between the three of you come across so well on screen?

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We hit it off immediately, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a very sensible blend of totally disparate backgrounds and lives, but we all like sharing a beverage together and get on very well. We’ve arrived at very similar values and senses of humour, but from very different places. It’s two working-class Northerners and one totally overprivileged softy from the south, but it works.

Tell us more.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t go near someone like McGuinness. I would lock my car door! Even now I feel like doing it when he comes out wearing his fashion tracksuits and trainers made for an 18-year-old. He looks absurd? But we get on like a house on fire. He is wonderful. You don’t realise how lucky you are doing this job until you are in your dotage and sitting there thinking, “I watched Paddy try to talk to someone in Ethiopia when previously he’d only been to Portugal. These are cultural milestones that I witnessed!”

The mickey taking between you works very well, doesn’t it?

Yes. I’m just a figure of fun for the other two, and I thoroughly enjoy that. If you have got two arms as a Top Gear presenter, you should be giving a rabbit punch to the kidneys with one arm and be putting your arm around them with the other. We need that Ying and Yang, and the more we work together, the more we get it. We know where the funny bone is and where the not so funny bone is. It’s not for me to judge, but if the audience like it, then I’m happy with that.

Is the secret of the show’s success the fact that it also appeals to people who aren’t interested in cars?

Yes. At its best, Top Gear should attract people who don’t like cars, and I think we’ve done a reasonable job of that. We have a lot of adventures, but we also have slightly more serious sections where we test cars. Top Gear has to earn the right to mess about. There has to be a bit of rigour. So in this series there are films about alternative fuels, electric vehicles and ultimately where we feel things might be going. We do a road test of a Lotus and a Maserati. I think we do those as well as anyone. It’s hard-core testing, and we deliver the truth as we see about the vehicles. Once you have that core sorted, then you can go to Florida, dress up in vests and race swamp buggies. You can’t do the latter unless you’re doing the former properly.

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Why do you think the show continues to be so widely loved after 32 seasons?

People talk a lot these days about the politics of waste and necessity, and the car has become this pariah. The motorcar is guilty of everything. But despite that, people love them, people adore them and people engage with them in a way that they don’t with any other object. It’s telling that we do a show about cars. We don’t do a show about food blenders or washing machines. For quite a few years now, life has been tricky, so if you want to sit back on a Sunday evening and watch a lot of fun about cars, then Top Gear is very appealing. It’s a gentle comedy seems to work.

Why else does it strike such a chord?

Never underestimate the fact that there aren’t that many TV shows that the whole family can watch together. On Top Gear, Dad will like Paddy because he’s funny and myself because I can drive a bit. Mum will like Freddie because he is a load of eye candy, and kids will like the supercars and the fact that we mess about. It’s not a complicated recipe, but it works – at least until I get told to find another job! I have made a couple of pals for life, which I’m very grateful for. I just turn up and mess around. What could be more fun?

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.