Features

‘We’re not taking a crappy version, we’re starting with something that was already good’: The heat is on for LaPaglia’s Top Gear Australia

“When I got the opportunity to do the show, a dream came true – until I actually stopped and thought about it.”

Jonathan LaPaglia is recalling the moment he went from being a religious Top Gear fan to being courted as one of the hosts of the new Australian version of the show, which debuts on Paramount Plus on Friday.

LaPaglia, best known in Australia as the host of Survivor, steers the latest iteration of the wildly successful franchise, alongside Beau Ryan, host of The Amazing Race Australia, and Blair ‘Moog’ Joscelyne, co-creator of the popular indie auto YouTube series Mighty Car Mods, which boasts 3.8 million subscribers.

The Survivor host is by his own account “a massive fan of the original show, kind of addicted to it, watched it religiously all the way through”, which he admits gave him pause when asked to be involved.

“The original version was so good, it was so well done,” he enthuses. “It’s not like we’re taking a crappy version and aiming to make a better version, we’re starting with something that was already really good.

“So if I’m perfectly honest, I did feel the pressure and the weight of that, because I know those comparisons are going to be inevitable. So that did give me pause initially – as it does hinge on the relationship between the three of us, and we didn’t know each other.

“You kind of have to take a leap of faith at the start: I’m going to jump into it, I’m hoping it works, but I don’t know for sure, right?”

Ryan admits to similar trepidation when he was initially asked to do The Amazing Race, back in 2019. He watched the previous Australian season, as well as the US version, and couldn’t see it working.

“I said, you’ve got the wrong guy, I can’t do this show,” he recalls.

“Obviously Phil Keoghan is the man, and then we had the Australian guy before me, and I said, ‘This isn’t me’. They said, ‘We don’t want you to be like Phil, we want you to be you’ – and I think that was the message for this show, because no one’s going to be the original guys; they’re on another level, and we’re not going to try and be them. The audience will smell a rat early, if that happens anyway.

“We stay true to ourselves, and we stay true to the audience.”

Luckily, his experience forging his own unique groove into The Amazing Race format made him agree to join the Top Gear cast quickly.

“I sort of rushed into it,” he admits, “because of the challenge of it, because of the pressure that would come with it, and being compared. I wanted to take that head on, I thought I was at a point in my career, I really wanted that test.”

While LaPaglia and Ryan are old hat when it comes to the rigours of producing a network television show, this is Joscelyne’s first rodeo. He admits to feeling “like a bit of an imposter, like maybe I didn’t deserve to do this” when shooting started.

“I didn’t have any hesitation in wanting to do the show,” he explains. “I did have hesitation in my ability. I kind of felt like I’ve been playing around on a driveway and making videos, and it didn’t feel like there was this progression between YouTube and that.”

After the initial doubts, he realised “what I’ve done for the last 16 years on YouTube is actually the perfect training ground for doing Top Gear, because you’re travelling, you’re driving, you’re drifting, you’re driving performance cars – you also have an understanding as an editor how to make a show, and so once I kind of saw that, and met these guys…”

Joscelyne says that LaPaglia gave him lots of practical advice about making big-production television, while Ryan helped with “lots of life advice that I had to listen to”.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he admits, “and I’m really proud of what we made, but what really opened my eyes is, when you’re working on a production like this, how much access there is, and how many resources are put into doing a shoot. Because doing YouTube, I’m used to having one camera person, or maybe editing it myself.”

Suddenly he found himself “in a little cafe somewhere in Switzerland” surrounded by 55 production crew, which he correctly notes is “a huge amount of people to have travelling around the world together.”

Ryan, who is used to shooting The Amazing Race, admits he “considered the crew quite light, considering I moved around with 100-150 people.”

The hosts weren’t alone in their concerns regarding the hallowed nature of Top Gear. Executive producer Ciaran Flannery explains that a lot of the conversations in pre-production were about striking that balance: staying true to what people love about the franchise, without making a carbon copy.

“What we said from the very beginning is you can’t look at any particular iteration of hosts from the UK, and say we’re going to recast Clarkson or May, we can’t do that,” Flannery says, “because it just wouldn’t work. So, what you do is you find your own chemistry. You find a group of people who can create their own personality for the show, but within the structure of a format that we know is hugely successful, and works.

“And then the other element to it is making sure that you achieve the scale and the production value of the best versions of that show. It’s going out on Paramount Plus in a whole host of different countries around the world – and what you can’t do is make a half version of the show – you’ve got to commit fully, and having the scale of Paramount Plus allowed us to do that.”

Or, as Joscelyne puts it: “You can’t fake the chemistry.”

“You might be able to kind of audition and try and fake certain aspects of your personality,” he explains, “but when you’re on the road for that long, and you’re tired, and you’ve got to keep going, what comes across on screen is actually what’s happening.”

Luckily, as is clearly evident within the first few minutes of the first episode, the trio are a natural fit, with easy chemistry, and more than a bit of friendly ribbing along the way. When asked what the secret of the franchise’s long-running success, the three answer in unison.

“Mateship.”

“Yeah, the chemistry of the three hosts, going on an adventure together every episode, I think that’s the key,” LaPaglia elaborates. “I mean, there’s definitely the car element, but it’s really the journey of the three mates.”

Flannery says that same question — what makes the show such an enduring success? — was batted around a lot in pre-production.

“And the answer was, if you’ll excuse the bad pun, that cars are just a vehicle,” he said, to audible groans from the hosts.

“You’ve got to acknowledge that cars bring a certain part of the audience there,” Flannery continues, “but they’re actually a fantastic mode for telling a story, because it can take you to different places every day, and that’s the key.”

“We all love cars, we always have, always will,” Ryan adds, “but it’s the fun we have together. We’re good mates. There was hard times, there was ups and downs – like with everything.”

One particularly hairy incident saw the three hosts bogged in the Swiss Alps overnight while driving between countries. Although the debacle wasn’t captured for the cameras — save for some phone footage that will make its way onto social media — it proved to be a perfect bonding experience as they attempt to tie snow cables to the car in below zero temperature.

“Luckily we shared a Mars Bar and survived the night,” Joscelyne recalls.

As anyone who’s listened to bad morning radio can attest to, you cannot fake chemistry, even if all the other production elements are in place.

“We genuinely like each other,” Ryan says. “Look, you know, there’s quite a few shows people work together and don’t like each other, and you can see it on screen.

“But we spent so much time together and, you know, we’re away overseas. We’re all missing our family, we’re all missing loved ones, and we’re all confiding in each other, and we grew a lot – and you can see that in the show.

“You can see it come across on screen.”

Top Gear Australia premieres tomorrow on Paramount Plus.

ADVERTISEMENT

Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.

 

SUBSCRIBE

Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.