How you drivin’?

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TV’s master magician Chris Evans has pulled a Joey, rather than a rabbit, out of his hat. He managed to surprise TV pundits, show business hacks and even the bookies by unveiling Friends star Matt LeBlanc as his new Top Gear co-host. The ginger nut DJ has clearly got friends in high places.

I have my doubts about how regular LeBlanc’s appearances will be on the show. But that’s not important; his signing has put Top Gear back on the front pages for all the right reasons. It’s just what the misfiring relaunch of the BBC2 motoring show needed to get it back on the road.

It also proves, once again, Evans’ skill at showmanship and at marketing both himself and his shows. For all his on-air chatty bonhomie, Chris doesn’t suffer fools, bears grudges, and is a hard-task master to work for – who accepts no sob stories or excuses in the pursuit of telly excellence.

Yet, however hard he is on staff, Evans is much, much harder on himself. He would not have been pleased with the flow of negative stories about his new show, including doubts about whether he could drive and talk at the same time. And he will have been desperately working out ways of salvaging something and adding the WOW! factor to Top Gear.

Matt Le Blanc is that way. There are no worries about him being able to drive and talk at the same time; though American-Italian actor Joey Tribbiani had trouble walking and talking at the same time. What LeBlanc brings is a bit of Hollywood cool, some self-deprecating humour, an appeal to both young lads and female viewers – and much-needed credibility.

LeBlanc sent himself up brilliantly in the Hollywood-based sitcom Episodes, in which he co-starred with Brits Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan. He is also, most importantly for Top Gear, a big name in the key American market. He has won Golden Globes. The Yanks love Golden Globe winners.

As for Evans, he may be a big star in the UK, but there are car valets in Beverly Hills who are better known to the US movers and shakers.

Bean-counters at BBC Worldwide were suffering cold sweats when Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond departed to Amazon, for £165 million, last year. Top Gear is, after all, the Beeb commercial arm’s biggest money-spinner worldwide, generating £50 million a year profits. The personable LeBlanc is just what’s needed to help flog those DVDs and other merchandising.

But what will the 48-year-old multi-millionaire, award-winning LeBlanc actually bring to the show? Well, he loves cars; favouring Porsches to Ferraris, because, having owned both, he feels the Porsche is a more practical supercar to drive day-to-day. He has also made several appearances on Top Gear, and posted the fastest ever time in the Star in a Reasonably Price Car slot: 1 minute 42.1 seconds in the Kia cee’d.

Matt also loves Formula One. One of the first texts he got congratulating him was from French F1 racer Romain Grosjean.

He has joked that he was persuaded to take the job – for a reputed £300,000 – because Evans had promised him he could take his Ferrari GTO out for a spin.

More importantly, Joey was the one male member of the Friends gang who you’d actually feel like hanging out with in a bar or at ball game. Matt Perry’s Chandler Bing was much too buttoned-up, while David Schwimmer’s Ross Geller was far too neurotic and needy.

No, Joey – or Matt – is the sort of bloke you’d see as a mate, who you could shoot the breeze with, not unlike the appeal of Jezza, The Hamster and Captain Slow.

Even Matt’s dreadful middle-aged man in jeans, leather jacket and T-shirt style is perfectly suited for Top Gear. His wardrobe budget won’t break the bank.

LeBlanc’s arrival shows the world that Chris Evans is serious about re-booting Top Gear and putting his own stamp on the show. We await his next move – and Clarkson, May and Hammond’s response – with interest.

Guest blog by Nigel Pauley, a Fleet Street journalist.

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