Top Gear series 28 premieres on BBC America this Sunday, meaning we get to see Chris Harris on another set of crazy, automotive-based adventures. Not only has Chris done a lot of incredible things in front of the camera, but making the international hit series has been an adventure in itself.
Before the season premiere, he joined me to look ahead to series 28, which kicks off with him and co-hosts Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness visiting Nepal for another Top Gear road trip. But Chris also opened up about what the show means to him, and how he has worked hard to keep the show fresh and entertaining for fans around the world.
Brittany Frederick: This series is your second with Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness. What is it about them that works so well for you?
Chris Harris: The three of us have the ability to laugh at each other, and quite a similar sense of humor and sense of being quite puerile and juvenile, which I think is necessary for a Top Gear presenter. But we’re very different in our skillset.
I can drive to a standard they can’t. Paddy has a comedy timing that I could never imagine. Fred has a fearlessness and a sort of grit and determination that [has] both myself and Paddy frankly scared for his sanity half the time. And when you put those together, it gives you a positive friction.
I use that phrase deliberately. I think in television, you can have positive or negative friction. Positive frictions lead to fun, good disagreement, interesting discussions and great chemistry. The negative frictions just lead to mayhem and terrible TV shows. The producers of Top Gear, Alex Renton and Clare Pizey, have done a great job of giving us a positive friction that we can really work with.
BF: The success of the brand is its absurdity. You know when you go to work, you’re going to do something you can’t or wouldn’t do anywhere else. What was the wildest thing that happened in series 28?
CH: Well, they didn’t even ask me if I wanted to bungee jump off the dam [in Episode 1] because I wouldn’t do it, and nor Patty, but they know us well enough to not even bother asking us. (laughs) That was a you’re doing that, Fred, and Fred’s like yeah, whatever. He’s brilliant at that.
There was a moment when we raced an F-35 Lightning with the new McLaren Speedtail [in Episode 2], and we had to do quite a bit of work beforehand to make that happen. A lot of planning went into it, because when you’re messing around with a jet of that complexity and cost, you can’t take risks. You don’t get a second go.
I was told that if I was within 50 meters at the back of the jet as it took off…[the McLaren] could flip over because of the thrust coming off the back of the plane. And our calculations were wrong because the car was much quicker off the line than we thought [and] the plane was a bit slower to respond from the start. So when he took off, I was 30 meters behind him and I thought Do I back out of it? But the shot’s going to look so good, so I stuck with it.
The whole front of the car started to come off the ground, so I’m thinking bloody hell, this could be awful. So that was a bit of a hard moment. And I don’t like heights much, so the whole of Nepal and a lot of Peru were me with my eyes closed, just screaming like a baby.
BF: That degree of difficulty, though, ultimately is worth it in the end because we see it on TV – not just the challenge but your ability to work through it, too.
CH: Top Gear is a bit about risk management. A lot of what we do is sketchy, but it’s rigorously researched, it’s recce’d and I’m not going to do anything that I think really endagers my life. I’ve got three children and I quite like them. (laughs) But there are elements to it when you are in the middle of nowhere and you think Hang on. There were some of those roads in Nepal, were horrendous. I mean, genuinely horrendous.
You’ve got some big vertiginous areas in your country, whereas in the UK we don’t have anything that high. A big cliff is 250 feet in this country, maybe 300 feet. But there were drops in Nepal that were a mile down into a gully. When someone says a mile, I don’t view that as a measurement of height; for me, it’s a measurement of distance. It’s a different thing. They go, “That’s a mile.” I just go, “No, I don’t want to acknowledge that. It’s horrible.”
BF: You had an impressive resume before you got to the show, but because so much of Top Gear is outside of the box, have you picked up any skills that you didn’t have before you started?
CH: I’ve done a lot of motor racing over the years – just sort of middling standards and sometimes I used to do all right. And I learnt early on that the most important thing a human being can do in any situation is to center themselves, and the best way to do that is to breathe slowly. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, and do that four or five times. You will alter your pulse and you’ll bring yourself back to where you need to be. if you’re in a racing car and you’re sitting on the start-finish line and everything around you is mad and you’re frantic and you’re worried, just breathe in through the nose, breathe out through your mouth.
And the number of times I find myself doing that on Top Gear…Well, I don’t want to share it with you, because I’m always deploying that. I’m always there going, breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. It’ll just get you settled and you can go ahead and do it. Now I’d like to say it’s normally because I’m about to drive a Renault 4 across some little gully in Nepal where there’s a drop by the side, but normally it’s just because I’m pissed off with the producers. (laughs)
It’s still the best job in the world for me. It doesn’t help with salary negotiations, but I pinch myself. I’m going on an amazing adventure in Nepal with two guys I really like. Someone’s paying me to do it. I didn’t think my life would be like this and I’m hugely grateful and I love doing it.
BF: You’ve been with Top Gear for several years now and seen the show through a few changes and growing pains. What has the journey so far been like for you, to take on this massive brand and try to keep it moving forward?
CH: It’s been a bit of a roller coaster. It is a big brand over here and globally it’s a big brand. And I think it’s unprecedented in modern TV history, that something that was established as that suddenly had new hosts thrown at it, but with the same logo and the assumption that you try and carry on business as usual.
It turns out that it was a struggle. Can you imagine if Friends carried on with different actors? Which is ironic, given who I ended up working with, but that’s what they were kind of doing. I knew it was going to be difficult but I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be. But four years later, I think we’re in a great place now. I think we’ve successfully turned it around and the British public are really enjoying it, the viewing figures have shot up, so I want to ride the wave now. But I’d be lying if I said it’s been an easy ride.
I took quite a lot of abuse after the reboot with Chris Evans, and it wasn’t a good time, but the BBC persevered; we stuck with it. I then ended up shooting a lot of stuff with Matt LeBlanc and I really enjoyed working with Matt. He’s remained a good frien and he’s just a fantastic professional who knows an awful lot about cars and drives really well. It’s a shame when he had to stop.
But I look back on the films I did with Matt and I’m actually really proud of them. I think they were really good but sadly, we were suffering the negativity of being in the wake of that reboot with Chris Evans. I think it takes a while for that negativity to just be lanced and taken out. And now it has been; we’re flying again.
BF: So is there anything you wish Top Gear viewers knew that maybe they don’t? Or anything else you want to say to the audience as we dive into series 28?
CH: Top Gear, in itself, is and should be quite an uncomplicated beast. It’s old fashioned entertainment. It’s destination television, as we call it over here. The idea that you sit down and we take you to a place where you can escape. You can watch some exotic cars, you can watch some silly cars and expensive cars and cheap cars. You can watch three dudes going on adventures that you might like to do, or you might pity the poor sod who’s been forced to do it. I think old-fashioned TV like that is a tonic for me at the moment, because it’s put together with a love and a passion that is missing on YouTube and a lot of the other formats.
I just want people to appreciate it for what it is, which is good, old-fashioned television. There’s still a place for that. I love YouTube. YouTube gave me my career, don’t get me wrong, and I embrace all new forms of media, but there’s something a bit glorious about good, old fashioned telly. And so I want people to enjoy it. Don’t worry about whether the review of the whatever isn’t as long or as in depth as the young bloke on the Internet that spent an hour talking about the dashboard buttons, because you can still watch that on the internet. But what we do I still think is quite special and I’m very proud of the product.
Top Gear premieres Sunday, August 30 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.