Have BBC chiefs already quietly paid Freddie Flintoff millions for Top Gear horror crash?
As the f lagship show’s team is dismantled behind the scenes and insiders say it will never be on our screens again...
By ALISON BOSHOFF and PAUL REVOIR
dmg media (UK)
London Fashion Week
AGAIN and again, it has been the rubber ball of BBC programmes, always bouncing back. Top Gear has long survived turbulence which would have instantly killed off other, less lucrative shows. Richard Hammond’s 2006 car crash which left him in a coma for two weeks – and the subsequent Health and Safety Executive report which criticised the BBC for having a ‘gung ho’ attitude towards safety – if anything, only added to its blokey kudos. Even losing its mighty presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Hammond to Amazon after Clarkson had a fight with a BBC producer in 2015 didn’t spell its demise. The disastrous reboot – who can forget the awkward Chris Evans/Matt LeBlanc pairing – may have hit a ratings low, but it didn’t extinguish the BBC’s loyalty to its golden goose. That looks very different today, however. The Mail on Sunday has been told by multiple sources that the overwhelming likelihood is Top Gear will not – and cannot - come back for another series. We can also reveal its production team has been quietly dismantled. BBC sources confirm there is no development of a new series and no plans to broadcast any of series 34, which had been part-filmed. Why? This seemingly sudden turnaround is explained with just one glance at the pictures of Top Gear host and former England cricketer Freddie Flintoff, seen in public last week for the first time since December 13, 2022, when a car he was driving for one of the show’s stunts crashed, with disastrous consequences. At Dunsfold aerodrome in Surrey, home of the programme’s test track, and in icy conditions, Flintoff, 45, was driving a three-wheeled Morgan Super 3, a novelty miniature vehicle with no roof or airbag. It flipped over at speed, sliding across the track, dragging his face along the asphalt with it. Some reports suggest Flintoff wasn’t wearing a safety helmet but a co-driver was. One source said Flintoff’s final words before the smash were: ‘Do I need a helmet?’ Neither he nor the BBC will comment on this. It’s also been said that nobody at Dunsfold was able to find a stretcher for him. Flintoff suffered serious facial injuries and several broken ribs and waited 45 agonising minutes for an air ambulance. Some staff who witnessed the crash and its aftermath were said to have required counselling. He spent four hours on the operating table and his son Corey, 17, later said his father was ‘lucky to be alive’. His wife Rachael hurried to Surrey from the family’s Cheshire home to be at his side and was told to expect the worst. Nine months of silence followed until he emerged at Cardiff on September 8 to watch England’s opening one-day game against New Zealand. This week he took training sessions at The Oval and Lord’s before further one-dayers in the series, which insiders believe could herald his full-time return to the sport. The physical aftermath of the accident was sadly evident, with scarring from his nose to chin, suggesting multiple reconstructive surgeries, while the right side of his face suggests signs of nerve damage. Gauze covered his nose, grazes on his face were still fresh. As to the psychological toll, that’s also said to be great. Some formerly close friends of Flintoff – beloved across the world for his sense of humour and fun-loving nature – said they were kept at arm’s length for months after the crash as he concentrated on his recovery, supported by close family only. Neither his representatives nor his legal team will make any comment on his injuries and recovery. Relaunching a light entertainment show, then, which has so maimed a sporting hero would require an imperviousness to criticism, and personal callousness, both of which are alien to BBC boss Charlotte Moore. More significant, perhaps, is the liability of the BBC for the accident. BBC sources suggest there is no ongoing legal action from Flintoff’s side and there is nothing lodged from him or his companies at the High Court. Why? This could indicate that the BBC has already quietly paid Flintoff compensation. Relations between Flintoff and the BBC are said to be ‘cordial’ and there have been ‘constructive discussions’ – all pointing towards BBC bosses being keen to draw a line under the debacle, at whatever cost. The Mail on Sunday can also reveal Flintoff is understood to have co-operated with two separate reviews by the BBC, one having concluded and another ongoing. So how much have they paid him? Judicial college guidelines suggest ‘very serious facial fractures with permanent effects’ may attract compensation of up to £45,000. Damage to his broadcasting career, on which it seems he has now turned his back, would be a more substantial sum. He and copresenter Paddy McGuinness were on deals worth around £500,000 a year for Top Gear and he will have earned a similar amount from his regular appearances on panel show A League Of Their Own. Flintoff’s company has around £7million in its accounts, earned from his ventures into TV thus far. One thing is certain: the amount paid will be substantial – millions of pounds – and the BBC will hope to make a claim against insurance to cover it; hence their first, rapid, investigation, which seems to have cleared them of negligence. The Health and Safety Executive also made initial inquiries but decided that it did not meet the threshold for further investigation. After their first investigation ended, the BBC said: ‘BBC Studios has concluded its investigation into the accident which regrettably injured Freddie. We have sincerely apologised and will continue to support him with his recovery.’ The BBC never released the results of that investigation, and seem unlikely to do so. Their second investigation, then, could be seen as a helpful tool to quietly explain killing off the show, officially closing this painful chapter. This investigation is said to be more far-reaching, a ‘wider review’ sponsored by the BBC and conducted by an external third party which the BBC decline to name. Sources say the reviewer is talking to a ‘broad group of people who have been involved in making Top Gear over the last several years’. Clearly, it is not just looking at that day last December but at the culture, scope and format of the show, which was officially put ‘on hold’ in March. Whether it can, or should, continue is the ostensible question it ‘seeks’ to answer. It’s possible it will recommend that only professional racing drivers and not amateur presenters take part in the dangerous stunts if – and that’s a very big if – the BBC wanted to bring Top Gear back. Many think such a recommendation would effectively smother the show, providing a helpful ‘box tick’ against any possibility of its return, which would no doubt relieve a concerned BBC management. Regardless of what the report says, the days of Flintoff’s debut Top Gear series in 2019 are unrepeatable. Back then he bungee-jumped off a 540ft dam in a Metro car, crashed a Subaru, flipped and rolled a rally car in which his co-hosts were passengers, and came off the track while riding a bespoke trike at 124mph. These kinds of dangerous stunts were dreamed up by an executive layer which was well used to prangs and smashes, some say fuelled by a macho one-upmanship. As executive producer Alex Renton mused in 2021: ‘The challenge now is how to top a car bungee jump in how to scare Freddie.’ Today, though, such challenges would be verboten. The team which had recently moved production down to BBC Bristol is quietly being dismantled. Top Gear’s editorial director Clare Pizey – in charge of reinventing the show after Clarkson, Hammond and May departed – quit her job at BBC studios three weeks ago while the investigation rumbled on. Paddy McGuinness, 50, said: ‘This lady kept all us naughty boys in check on @topgear. Gutted you’re leaving us @clarepizey.’ A few weeks previously, Chris Payne, the development producer in charge of all the show’s big ‘challenge films’, also quit to take up a job with Gordon Ramsay’s outfit Studio Ramsay. As well as this, McGuinness apparently feels it wrong to return to the show without Flintoff. Richard Hammond’s take on the show’s future earlier this year was that viewers tune in for the jeopardy, which is a part of the entertainment. ‘Pratfalls and somebody else hurting themselves, hopefully not too badly, is one of the oldest forms of humour, isn’t it?’ he said. He added: ‘If you’re taking risks, you have to mitigate everywhere against those risks. But also we’ve all got to remember, just because we’re on TV doesn’t mean we’re in some sort of magic protected bubble. Real world things still apply.’ Former England bowler Steve Harmison, one of Flintoff’s closest friends, said last week: ‘The first time I saw him after the accident, I was in tears. But there was also a lump in my throat when I saw the big fella back at The Oval. ‘He went off and did something else after cricket and I could understand that but the problem cricket had is what [Freddie] went into next paid him a hell of a lot of money and it was hard to get him back. But if you think about the knowledge he has, he will be a great addition to anything England want to involve him in.’ It was announced last week that Flintoff will make one more show for the BBC this year (a second series of Field Of Dreams, in which he mentors under-privileged Lancashire youngsters to turn them into cricketers), but his TV days are effectively done. Field Of Dreams is a passion project, more about sport than showbusiness. Flintoff’s fans will be pleased to note one bright spot. Back at The Oval this week, onlookers noted Flintoff was smiling. Fit enough to cope with the fast bowling of current England stars, he greeted them warmly, embracing some, that smile never leaving his face. Cricket, then, his old friend, could be the comfort he so sorely needs as he adjusts to a new life ahead.