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01-Jan-2015 11:57

His young children love these "black-and-white, tabloid characters"; Wilman jokes that Top Gear's audience is all schoolboys and prisoners.Hammond, who grew up as one of three brothers, points out that a trio works well: one of them always gets in trouble, or gets picked on.Wilman, a burly, sweary 47-year-old who, when we meet is frantically stitching together the new series in an edit suite in Soho, was actually sacked from the old model Top Gear in 1999.The show looked "fucking old-fashioned" next to new formats such as Changing Rooms, he says now, and after it was finally axed in 2001, he and Clarkson got together over a pub lunch to draw up a manifesto for a brand new Top Gear.Or, as a Top Gear editor said recently: "Thick people doing thick things is not funny. But clever people doing thick things really is funny." Their onscreen chemistry and cartoon characters took shape over several series."Jeremy is walk through a door rather than open it, Richard's massively accident prone and cheeky chappie, and James is a pedantic nerd," says Wilman.And it's political: it kicks against what it sees as New Labour's nanny state (a Downing Street website poll demanding Clarkson become prime minister attracted nearly 50,000 signatures) and does everything in its power to provoke the politically correct sensibilities of the BBC.Barely a month passes without the show crashing into controversy, with Ofcom rulings on its jokes about prostitutes and suicide, and accusations that it is sexist, environmentally reckless and glamorises speeding.

"I love setting off with deliberately childish and innocent and wide-eyed hopefulness, and I think people enjoy that." May, a donnish, genteel man nicknamed Captain Slow by his colleagues for his championing of comfort over speed in cars, thinks Top Gear gives viewers vicarious pleasure.

Clarkson suggested an anonymous masked driver who never spoke, like the Gimp in Pulp Fiction. The bolshy, rebranded Top Gear – a blend of TFI Friday, Tiswas and That's Life, according to Wilman – was relaunched in 2002, but it was not an immediate success.

Wilman approached racing drivers: "We'd ask, do you want to be this secret racing driver on Top Gear? "It was just a car show on BBC2 so we were afforded the time without having to force it," explains Richard "the Hamster" Hammond when we talk.

Like any gang, they mercilessly take the piss and have even started to speak the same: Hammond now seems to echo May's distinctive way of saying "I wuz" and "becuz".

As audiences grew and Top Gear attracted A-list guests from Joanna Lumley to Usain Bolt to race in its "reasonably priced car" each week, its stunts became more outlandish and its films more exotic.

"I love setting off with deliberately childish and innocent and wide-eyed hopefulness, and I think people enjoy that." May, a donnish, genteel man nicknamed Captain Slow by his colleagues for his championing of comfort over speed in cars, thinks Top Gear gives viewers vicarious pleasure.Clarkson suggested an anonymous masked driver who never spoke, like the Gimp in Pulp Fiction. The bolshy, rebranded Top Gear – a blend of TFI Friday, Tiswas and That's Life, according to Wilman – was relaunched in 2002, but it was not an immediate success.Wilman approached racing drivers: "We'd ask, do you want to be this secret racing driver on Top Gear? "It was just a car show on BBC2 so we were afforded the time without having to force it," explains Richard "the Hamster" Hammond when we talk.Like any gang, they mercilessly take the piss and have even started to speak the same: Hammond now seems to echo May's distinctive way of saying "I wuz" and "becuz".As audiences grew and Top Gear attracted A-list guests from Joanna Lumley to Usain Bolt to race in its "reasonably priced car" each week, its stunts became more outlandish and its films more exotic.Schoolboys and teenage girls flock to public appearances by its presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.