Rory Reid is a hard man to pin down. Filming the new series of the BBC’s motoring juggernaut Top Gear means he’s been jetting off all around the world.
“There’s a stretch of time from mid-November where I’ll be away for weeks at a time” he says.
I am meeting Rory in the upstairs bar of a pub just around the corner from the BBC in central London.
As I arrive Reid is just polishing off his lunch in the otherwise empty bar. He’s friendly, relaxed, and nothing at all like his famously starving predecessor Jeremy Clarkson.
Reid is one of the main presenters of the BBC’s new and improved Top Gear line up, joining Friends star Matt le Blanc and motoring journalist Chris Harris.
In an otherwise mixed first series (or 23rd depending on when you start counting), Reid and Harris were the break out stars.
With a background in digital journalism, Reid is the only member of the Top Gear presenting team to have been found through the public audition process.
Nearly 15,000 people responded to the BBC’s public call for presenters, and initially no one got the job. “I got an email from them saying we don’t want you,” Reid recalls.
For the self-confessed Top Gear fanatic, this was disastrous news.
Speaking about the upcoming Series 24, Reid reveals that the show will be very different from the most recent series. “It’s very difficult to explain without giving away secrets, but it’s going to look different. It’s going to have a different vibe. It’ll have different faces in the studio.”
“We’re going back to what Top Gear is known for: wacky ideas, big ambitious projects, things that are scary to look at and dangerous to take part in” he promises. “I don’t know if we had so much of that last season.”
Naturally, the presenter is tight lipped about what we can expect to see in the upcoming series, however he was keen to address Top Gear fans who felt that the show should be more about the cars, and less about the escapades.
“There’s lots of very car-y content in this series coming out,” he began, before changing tack. “You can go anywhere for car reviews. YouTube is full of people doing really mundane videos about cars, but if you add the Top Gear razzmatazz and lunacy to that and still get across some of the facts, then why not [do that]?”
“The office at White City is always a hive of activity. People running around making phone calls, seeing whether it’s possible to do weird and wonderful things. It’s quite entertaining just walking around the office [and] catching the tail end of a conversation about something really bizarre like are there wild marmosets in this location? Oh right, well we can’t film there”
Many of those nutty ideas came from Reid himself. “There is flexibility to throw in random ideas so that if something strikes you first thing in the morning you phone them up like: ’Right! We need to do this!’” he says.
"The car is almost secondary really. In order to make compelling TV the idea has to come first."
In the Top Gear office there is a large chart with which car is going to be featured where. I ask him which comes first, the car or the mad idea.
“Definitely not the car. The car is almost secondary really” he replies. “In order to make compelling TV the idea has to come first. Where the car is valuable is if it has a particular feature, if it has one stand-out element.”
For Reid, the show is all-important. “I don’t think anyone is bigger than the show” he insists, when I ask about the departure of Chris Evans after only one series.
He stands by the radio DJ, angry about how he was presented in the media. “I didn’t want to see him admit defeat, because some of the comments on social media were horrible really. I‘m sorry he had to go through that.”
He’s much more forthcoming about his motor-mad co-stars. “He’s the Teflon don, Matt!” he exclaims of the Friends star, apropos of nothing. “Matt is a bit of a geek when it comes to the nitty gritty of engines and gears and compression.”
The biggest car nut on the show though, according to Reid, is Chris Harris. “He’s got dozens of cars. He hires sheds to keep cars in. He’s a car hoarder. He only thinks about cars. Which is fine,” he says, adding mischievously, “Quite boring to have a conversation with…”
Reid has been a long-time fan of the show, since the days of Clarkson, Hammond and May.
Speaking ahead of the launch of Amazon’s turbo-charged car show The Grand Tour, Reid is keen to see what the gang bring to their new programme. ““I’m a massive fan of those guys and I think that they’ll have something to prove – not necessarily to the BBC but to themselves and to the fans that they are still ‘the guys’ when it comes to this this.”
Reid’s view is that the three presenters had done all they could do with Top Gear. “I don’t know if I’m the only person who would say this, but there were times when it almost felt like you’d seen it all before.”
The change, he says, will do them good. “I think they’re going to go up a level and create something that’s better than they have done for the past few series.”
As a Top Gear presenter, is that enough to worry him? The viewing figures for the most recent series were not as strong as they had been with Clarkson and co and many criticised the new direction the show seemed to have taken under the guidance of Chris Evans.
Reid is unconcerned. “I am really confident in the stuff that we have got coming up. I think that people will be pleasantly surprised by what we have. It will be a better series than the last series – and with a bit of luck, a better series than many of the series that have come before as well!” he adds.
When the news broke of Clarkson’s unceremonious departure from the programme in 2015, Reid saw his chance to get his foot in the door at the BBC.
He began emailing senior BBC executives, “people you would never email,” he says, to introduce himself and put him case forward.
“I remember when they announced Chris Evans; I put together my showreel and I used to wait outside the BBC so I could so show him it on an iPad,” he admits, abashed.
When the time came, Reid submitted his 30 second audition and waited. He made it through the screen test (presenting a piece about a Volkswagen Golf GTI, and power sliding a Mercedes C63 AMG around the Top Gear test track) and down to the final ten.
“All types of people applied. You had people with no experience whatsoever to people who were celebrities” he says. “There were people who would fly in on helicopters to do their screen test at the track.”
But the top ten is as far as he got.
“They turned me down over email.” The experience plainly still rankles him.
Reid went back to the drawing board and put together something that would show the BBC what they had missed out on.
“I called up Rolls Royce and said ‘Can you send me a Ghost?’ because in the back of my mind I wanted to do two things: one was to prove to myself that I was able to do something really creative and really unusual. And the other aim … was to send [the video to the BBC], for them to have a good long think about what they had done!” Reid laughs.
The video sees Reid alone in a field with the Ghost, rapping moodily about the styling and engineering of the luxury car. The vehicle review is entirely in lyrical poetry form, with cool, languorous shots of the Ghost’s more outstanding qualities.
“I was like screw these guys! I’m going to show the world how good I am. In my eyes, no one else could do what I did with that video.”
The new series launches in Spring 2017, however there is more to look forward to than just the main show. Extra Gear, the behind the scenes look at the programme is making a return, with Reid again in the driving seat.
The Top Gear team are also working on new formats. Before we meet he has been filming a new pilot “that will appear in the Top Gear universe somehow.”
This new creation has come about, he says, thanks to the large presenting team, which means “we have the opportunity to do more than we ever did before and embrace the online world a little bit more.”
“There’s a definite need for us to reach out to our old audiences and do something more agile, a bit more adaptable than just waiting to do a TV show every year which only runs for two months.”
It sounds like we will be seeing a lot more of Rory Reid when Top Gear returns in the new year.