When musician James Morrison got the invitation to be a host on Top Gear Australia, he says it didn’t require much thinking.
“Being the reserved kind of person that I am I said, ‘Let me get this straight, you want me to drive somebody else’s car really fast on a race track and then tell everyone about it?’
“They said, ‘Basically,’ so I said, ‘Oh alright then.’ It’s not the kind of thing, being the car fan that I am, that takes a whole lot of time to make a decision about.”
At least that’s the short version. The long version was a little bit more involved. Being a car enthusiast Morrison was aware the Australian adaptation of an iconic British show had met with considerable fan scrutiny -including from himself.
“I looked in from the outside like everyone else and went, ‘mmm that’s not as good as the UK show, or it’s not this it’s that, or it’s too much trying to be like it but never going to compete,’ all that sort of stuff,” he admits.
“Once I got involved they brought me in and talked to me about it and said ‘Here’s our plan.’ If they said ‘Yeah we’re going to do that again exactly,’ even for the chance to be on Top Gear I may have said no.
“But they said we’re going to ‘Australianise’ it and move it away from that model a little bit and basically redress all the issues and allow the hosts to be a bit more themselves and not try to emulate anybody else. And I don’t know if that will work, no-one knows. But I’m willing to give that a gamble because I as a punter would like to see an Australian Top Gear.”
Morrison says the argument that viewers already have a Top Gear, and no need for a second is completely spurious.
“I’d like there to be ten Top Gears because when one wasn’t on the other one could be! I’d like to watch Top Gear Germany, and Top Gear Russia. I think it would be interesting and funny. So give me an Australian one, absolutely. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to watch the English one. It means I want to watch this one as well.”
Replacing the departed Charlie Cox, Morrison arrives to the show better known as a musician. But he is also a former host of TEN’s Behind the Wheel circa 1994. Arguably bringing a little more elegance to the show at least he can’t be accused of trying to mimic Jeremy Clarkson. Morrison admits there are still some fine tuning to his presentation, alongside co-presenters Steve Pizzati and Warren Brown.
“Since the first episode we’ve decided I should be a little bit more of one of the guys. So I’ve lost the jacket. I wanted everyone else to put jackets on and lift the tone a little bit. But no, it’s been decided, Aussie guys talkin’ about cars do not put jackets on.
“Warren is this quirky witty kind of guy. He’s got a wit on him like a razor. He always comes up with the other way of thinking about things,” he said.
“Steve is as you see him. He’s enthusiastic, he loves the cars. I think he got criticised for saying ‘grouse’ on the first show for trying be too Aussie. I can tell you now, he’s not trying to be anything. That’s exactly how he is. He’s almost the archetypal bloke down the pub saying ‘what a grouse car.’”
Getting to race cars and participate in toys for big boys is undoubtedly ripping fan for this wheels-mad musician. One of the recent challenges saw him send to Warner Brothers’ Movie World to train as a stunt driver.
“Unbeknownst to me they applied me for an audition, with a professional stunt driver, driving on two wheels and all that,” he laughed. “I had to go for the audition for real and see if I can put my skills to the test. All I will say is it didn’t start out well. I cocked up the first few things really badly, and they threw up their hands and were actually going to throw me out. But you’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.”
The show is also mindful of its role in the local motoring landscape, conscious that a bad review for a car could translate into major consequences for local manufacturers. At least European manufacturers have a much bigger market to ride out any dud reviews. With viewers wanting independent editorial, it leaves the show, and the hosts, in a precarious position.
“Steve and Warren and I talked about that and said, ‘You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’ If we just started giving glowing reviews to everything we’d lose all credibility with the audience.
“Our guy who talks to all the manufacturers makes it clear to them that the only way we can ever be of any use to them is if we’ve got credibility and we call it as we see it. If we don’t like it we say so and if we do like it we say so. If they’ve got a car we like great, and if we don’t, what’s the alternative? Have nobody talking about cars? Quite frankly that would kill the show quicker than anything.”
Morrison says one agreed ground is to not trash the cars, or make use of one flippantly simply as the butt of a joke.
“But you’ll see a few times throughout the series one of us says ‘Well, I hate this thing,’” he said. “I have to say not many, because we don’t choose cars to review that we hate. There are things that have come up where somebody has said, ‘Why don’t you review this?’ and we said, ‘Nup, not interested.’ If I don’t want to drive it why would I review it?
“So we do tend to pick things we’re gonna love.”
Top Gear Australia airs 7:30pm Mondays on SBS