Support for LGBT rights has come from a surprising quarter after Top Gear sprayed two cars used in filming in Brunei in rainbow colours in opposition to the country’s threat to make homosexuality punishable by stoning to death.
Thought to be the first time the BBC Two motoring programme has shown solidarity with the LGBT community, the move appears to back the claim made by the new lineup of Freddie Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris that they would bring a “different vibe” to the revamped show – which returned on Sunday night.
Flintoff told the Guardian he and his colleagues were horrified after hearing the announcement about the imposition of the death penalty by the south-east Asian country just after they filmed a segment there at the end of March.
“We would never have filmed in Brunei had the law been announced beforehand. Like millions of other people around the world, I utterly condemn Brunei’s actions. No one deserves to be stoned to death, whoever they love. Love is love,” said Flintoff.
In the segment he and McGuinness drive two rare cars across Borneo with the aid of Gurkha soldiers to the palace of the Sultan of Brunei, a car collector, where guards give them a lukewarm reception.
As the Top Gear team landed in the UK after the filming they heard Brunei had just announced it planned to impose death by stoning as a punishment for gay sex and adultery, as part of the country’s implementation of sharia law.
Following international outcry led by celebrities including George Clooney and Elton John, last month Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah extended a moratorium on the death penalty, saying that it would not be enforced.
However, writing in the Guardian, Flintoff said: “Even though it has since been claimed that the laws will not be enforced, the threat still stands, and even the threat is an appalling abuse of human rights.”
The Top Gear team considered dropping the segment but, instead, in an unusual move for the show – which has a history of culturally insensitive jokes under former presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – they decided to spray the cars used in the film in the colours of the rainbow flag and display them on air later in the series.
“In the last couple of months we have thought very hard about dropping the film entirely but we shot it before the change in the law, and both the Gurkhas and other Bruneians worked incredibly hard to make it happen. We don’t want all their efforts to be for nothing. So we’ve decided to go ahead and show it [and] we’ve given the cars a little makeover,” explained Flintoff.
The message of tolerance contrasts with Amazon’s car show The Grand Tour, presented by Clarkson, May and Hammond, which the singer Will Young criticised in January for its “shaming homophobic narratives”.
Top Gear’s new presenting team is aiming to modernise the BBC’s multimillion-pound brand by showing “emotional depth”, with hugs amid the competitive physicality, car reviews and boyish banter.
With the third new lineup in as many years – after Clarkson was sacked for punching a producer – BBC Studios is gambling that the chemistry of the new trio can halt a ratings decline and get its series back on track.
As Harris, who was in the two previous iterations of Top Gear, explained: “We live in a different world. The new Top Gear will embrace all sorts of emotions.”