Chris Evans has announced that he’s quitting the newly revamped Top Gear after just one series, amid falling ratings, unrelenting newspaper criticism and the rumoured breakdown of his relationship with co-host Matt LeBlanc. The BBC is understood to be negotiating with former Friends star LeBlanc – thought to be keen to remain on the show – for a second series. Last month, it was reported LeBlanc threatened to quit if Evans did not go.
The BBC confirmed that it had “no plans to replace Chris” and that it did not expect to make any changes to the presenting line-up. However, it described rumours that LeBlanc had made an ultimatum as “categorically untrue”.
In a surprise tweet announcing his departure, Evans said: “Gave it my best shot but sometimes that’s not enough.”
The audience for the Sunday night show has more than halved since Evans took over in May with Sunday’s night’s closing episode watched by just 1.9m viewers, down from 4.3m for the opening show. Before its relaunch, Evans told the Guardian he would be disappointed if the show had fewer than 5 million viewers. When it was presented by Jeremy Clarkson, the programme attracted 8m viewers at its height – notably in the wake of co-presenter Richard Hammond’s near-fatal highspeed crash – and always reached more than 2m.
BBC management was concerned about falling ratings for its most valuable show, which was worth an estimated £50m in worldwide sales before Clarkson left last year after assaulting a member of staff.
The decision to leave was made by Evans, but one television executive said that Evans had “jumped before he was pushed”. With other broadcast commitments including hosting the Radio 2 breakfast show, Evans struggled with a barrage of newspaper stories alleging poor behaviour, most recently one alleging sexual harassment in the 1990s.
The presenter could be questioned by officers from London’s Metropolitan police in the next few days. Evans has denied the claims and previously said the reports were a “witch-hunt” and that allegations of bullying were ridiculous. But Evans is understood to have buckled under the relentless onslaught of negative coverage. “Chris isn’t Jeremy Corbyn. He knows when it’s time to go,” said someone close to the show. “He now feels a real weight off his shoulders.”
LeBlanc, who, in contrast to Evans, has been widely praised for his onscreen performance, is understood to have told BBC bosses during negotiations over his contract that the partnership was not working. One source said LeBlanc disliked his co-host’s behaviour on set, though the BBC would not confirm this.
Reports that LeBlanc had vowed to leave the show unless Evans was sacked emerged eight days ago in the Sun, an almost constant critic of Evans over the past year. Describing Top Gear – which has been hit by a string of staff departures – as “crisis-hit”, the newspaper reported that LeBlanc had “grown increasingly frustrated with his co-star’s rudeness and frosty attitude towards the team”.
Evans met Mark Linsey, the director of the BBC’s in-house production team, BBC Studios, last week to discuss the future. In a statement on Monday, Linsey pointed out that the show had been sold to 130 territories worldwide and said: “Chris firmly believes that the right people remain, on both the production team and presenting team, to take the show forward and make it the hit we want it to be.”
Evans is expected to receive just one third of his three-year fee to produce Top Gear, estimated at almost £6m for three years once all his other BBC commitments are included. He will not receive any payoff.
Evans said: “I have never worked with a more committed and driven team than the team I have worked with over the last 12 months. I feel like my standing aside is the single best thing I can now do to help the cause. I remain a huge fan of the show, always have been, always will be. I will continue to focus on my radio show and the allied events that it encompasses.”
Linsey said: “Chris is stepping down from his duties on Top Gear. He says he gave it his best shot doing everything he could to make the show a success. He firmly believes that the right people remain, on both the production team and presenting team, to take the show forward and make it the hit we want it to be. The new series has so far notched up over 30m views in the UK alone and has already been sold to 130 territories worldwide.”
The next series is already in pre-production with filming set to start in September, without Evans.