Ahead of Top Gear's 30th series, its hosts discuss James Bond cars, mid-life crises, and why the show might travel abroad less often in future.
Unlike many TV shows, Top Gear actively thrived in 2020.
While other programmes lost their live audience, and therefore any kind of atmosphere, Top Gear's last season moved its crowd outdoors and filmed the series as a drive-in. It was perfect: a TV show about cars with an audience who were all, appropriately, in their cars.
Unfortunately, the further tightening of restrictions over winter has meant even the drive-in has had to go. Instead, Top Gear's top trio have been filming their links in a courtyard in west London, with residents able to watch from their windows.
"If Paddy McGuinness was performing in my garden, I'd shut my curtains," jokes Freddie Flintoff, highlighting one of the possible issues with the new set-up. "You can imagine some old lady opening her window, remonstrating, shouting, 'Shut up!'" adds Chris Harris.
But it's largely proved to be a good solution for the show, and the location feels particularly fitting. The residential complex where they've been filming used to be part of the BBC's Television Centre headquarters, before the area began to be converted into luxury flats in 2013.
The show has regained some previously lost ground recently, thanks to a combination of factors, including a move to BBC One and an improved chemistry between the three hosts.
McGuinness in particular has become the BBC's golden boy in the past year or two. In addition to Top Gear, he is fronting Saturday night game shows Catchpoint and the forthcoming I Can See Your Voice. He has also hosted coronavirus fundraisers and New Year's Eve coverage for the corporation.
We're only a few words into making this point when he interrupts with glee.
"You hear that lads?! The BBC's golden boy!" he shouts, laughing. "And I get to be associated with him, I'm blessed," Harris picks up, with a hint of sarcasm. "Sometimes, you just have to accept the fact that you're in the presence of greatness."
That greatness is confined to the UK this series due to travel restrictions, which is uncharacteristic for a show that usually ventures around the world. But the team certainly weren't stuck for ideas or locations for the new episodes.
"What's been surprising is how the UK has given us enough visual material to make the show," says Harris. "It's reminded us that a large part of the show is about how interesting the cars are, and the chemistry between us and the fun we're having."
He adds: "Always having to go further and further away to Timbuktu or wherever you want to go, maybe we got a bit too carried away with that in the past. Top Gear is a show that people expect to be filmed abroad at times, but I think in the new world, after Covid, maybe we won't go abroad as much as we did before. That's not a bad thing, because we all hate airports."
McGuinness particularly enjoyed the episode they shot in Scotland, with its "absolutely stunning scenery", while Flintoff highlights the Lake District in the north west. "It's only an hour-and-a-half from where I'm from," he says, "but it seems a lot of people don't know how beautiful it is, so it's just a chance to show off all these places in the UK. But I think we're all ready for a trip abroad at some point as well."
Also this series is what the trio refer to as the "mid-life crisis" episode, where they decide to embrace their middle-aged tastes.
"That's just a documentary piece that follows us around for a day living our normal lives," jokes Harris, pre-empting what viewers' reactions will be. "There was no plan for it. They said, 'Just be yourself, lads,'" adds Flintoff.
"The key thing is, we've taken the idea of the mid-life crisis, which all of us could stand accused of being in the middle of, and have said, 'It's not a crisis, it's an opportunity, don't be ashamed of the fact you want to buy a TVR, or a fake Ferrari, or a Holden Monaro,'" explains Harris.
"Celebrate the fact that this is the time in life when you are simply buying the things that you wanted to own when you were younger, which you can now because you've either got the money, or the children have left home. And let's face it, if we were to look at the Top Gear audience, there are probably quite a few men in that position."
The episode will feature the team taking part in a triathlon, including being kitted out in lycra for the cycling. "That's going to be a treat, watching that in 4K," McGuinness remarks.
For him, the highlight of the new series was undeniably the James Bond-themed episode. "They gave us all the Bond cars, and as a Bond fan, that was dream-come-true time," McGuinness recalls.
"It was unbelievable. We all get dressed up, I was Bond, these two were the bad guys. Flintoff was Jaws, Harris was Oddjob. It was just so much fun, and it will be one of those episodes which is slightly different to what we normally do, but I think people will really enjoy it when it's on."
Flintoff agrees. "I'm not a big Bond fan, but I saw the cars, got a chance to drive the Lotus, I was dressed as Jaws chasing Paddy as James Bond, and you couldn't not enjoy yourself. I just laughed at the ridiculousness of it."
The new Bond film, No Time To Die, has been delayed so many times now that Top Gear's tribute to the franchise has leapfrogged its release.
"They might throw the film out when they see this!" jokes McGuinness, suggesting they might want to swap him for Daniel Craig. "It's no accident they've put it back, they've seen this episode and gone, 'He's our man.'"
The new series will be the second to air on BBC One. Its move from BBC Two might not sound particularly important in an era where the power of terrestrial television is diminishing, but it has led to a leap in viewing figures to more than 5.5 million per episode (including catch-up).
McGuinness says they know from data that the show now has more younger and female viewers. "Not that that's what we were aiming for," he says. "But I always thought it would be nice to broaden the audience a little bit so you don't have to be a petrol head to watch the show."
Flintoff adds: "I think we're getting better as well, the more time we spend with each other, we know how each other works, from a production side as well, they know what it's like to work with us and know what makes us tick, so hopefully we can stick at it for a bit longer yet, because I think there's still room for improvement."
The 30th series of Top Gear begins on Sunday 14 March at 20:00 GMT on BBC One.