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Top Gear: Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness on joining the trio

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Chris Harris, Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff

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The new Top Trio: Chris Harris, Paddy McGuinness and Freddie Flintoff

In recent years, the motoring elements of Top Gear have taken a back seat to the drama surrounding the presenters.

Things have been turbulent since the 2015 departure of Clarkson, Hammond and May, with relatively short-lived stints for the likes of Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc.

But producers are hoping they’ve struck gold with the show’s latest signings.

Top Gear’s newest recruits are Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness – a pairing which took viewers by surprise when it was announced last October.

“When people saw the names, they probably went, ‘hang on, a cricketer and a comedian?'” acknowledges Chris Harris, the show’s professional racing driver and self-proclaimed car geek.

“But why not? If you had three people like me, people would fall asleep. I think we’re a good, broad team, we cover lots of bases.”

By the sounds of it, Take Me Out host McGuinness had good reason to believe he was getting the Top Gear job.

“I actually slept with the commissioner of BBC Two,” he says – immediately proving he has the right sense of humour for the show.

“And that saved me a lot of trouble, a lot of hassle, got it out the way, you’re in.”

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One race under the blazing Ethiopian sun sees the loser forced to wear a heavy jumper

Flintoff takes the question slightly more seriously. “I had a screen test,” he explains, “and I was a bit competitive with it, I really wanted it. And the feeling of finding out [I’d got it], I’ve not had that for a long time.”

The show’s core fanbase may feel the new presenter combo doesn’t better the Clarkson era, but judging by the new footage, it’s easily the best since then.

The chemistry between the three is instant. There is a friendly and jovial tone, which cleverly balances the show’s trademark childish humour with serious motoring knowledge.

“There is plenty to build on here,” writes Stuart Heritage in The Guardian. “Finally, after years of flailing about, this new line-up feels right.

“They appear to rely a lot less on scripted material in the field, too, so they feel like actual human beings… Top Gear is fine now, which is a huge improvement on the last five or six years.”

The new trio are working so well that they have already signed up to a second series together. They’ve also been going down well with the live studio audiences – something that clearly means a lot to McGuinness.

“Hearing the cheer when we walked in the room was quite a nice, almost emotional moment really, because you know that everyone’s been talking about it and you feel accepted,” he says.

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Paddy McGuinness says he was on “cloud nine” after the success of the first studio taping

“And then when the show finished, and then you get an even bigger cheer. For literally two or three days after the first recording I was on cloud nine. Because even though I said I didn’t feel any pressure, I must have done somewhere deep inside because I felt elated and like there was a weight off my shoulders.”

Flintoff agrees: “There’s this responsibility, but I found in my career playing cricket that if I put pressure on myself I can’t do my job.”

To be a Top Gear presenter, points out Harris, “you need some basic skills”.

“You need to be able to talk and drive at the same time – we’ve had presenters in the past that couldn’t do that, it’s a bit of a problem.”

(We hope you’ve got a damp cloth nearby for that burn.)

“Presenters have to come with a base level of car knowledge and car love you can’t fake that. And these two love their cars, they’re modest about their car knowledge but they know a lot more than they let on.”

Top Gear’s viewing figures might not make it a BBC hit on the same level as something like Strictly – but it still ranks as one of BBC Two’s most popular shows. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the corporation’s biggest hits overseas.

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Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc have both presented Top Gear in recent years

The show has an estimated global audience of 350 million and it makes millions of pounds in merchandise, which helps fund other areas of the BBC.

Top Gear turns its hosts into A-list celebrities in territories they may never have visited before – something which surprised McGuinness.

“It was interesting in Ethiopia seeing some of the locals asking Chris Harris for his autograph – that amused me,” he recalls.

The show certainly made international stars of its previous trio, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, who now front The Grand Tour for Amazon.

“I bumped into Richard Hammond at the Pride of Britain Awards,” McGuinness recalls. “And, he was like ‘good luck with [Top Gear], I think you’ll do an amazing job’. And, I thought, fair play to him, that’s nice to hear.”

Given that two northerners are now fronting the show, however, there’s a further potential difficulty when selling the show internationally – the accents.

Cheryl was famously axed from the US X factor in part because American fans reportedly struggled to decipher her Geordie accent. Could McGuinness and Flintoff be in trouble for the same reason?

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Top Gear returns to BBC Two on Sunday evening

“Well, I know they’ll struggle a little bit,” McGuinness says. “When Fox took Take Me Out to America, the exec of the show said she was in this office in LA with all the execs from Fox TV, watching me on the telly – subtitled!

“So she thought, ‘well, they’re obviously not going to ask him’ [to present the US version]. So yeah, there is that.”

But, Flintoff interjects to tell McGuinness, “Your accent is strong, but it’s clear.

“I’ve worked in Australia for five years presenting stuff from current affairs shows to Ninja Warrior,” Flintoff continues. “And they did subtitle me to begin with, but only as a joke.”

  • McGuinness and Flintoff join Top Gear
  • 25 things to know about Top Gear’s 25th series

The only previous guest presenter to be rejoining the trio this series is Sabine Schmitz – the German racing driver and long-time friend of the show.

But despite the rest of the series mostly being fronted by three men, they’re keen to stress they want it to appeal to all viewers, and say it won’t be too blokey.

“I think people have that opinion just because it’s about cars,” McGuinness says. “If three of us were doing any other show, I don’t think there’d be that much of a fuss to be honest.

Harris jumps in: “We’ve got Fred as well, he’s eye candy, the ladies love him!”

McGuinness continues: “With the other shows, especially that me and Fred do, the demographic is so broad, and you’ve seen how we are, it’s not all ‘let’s pull each of his pants down on camera’, it’s a bit more than that.”

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The new series of Top Gear will be the show’s 27th

Sometimes, of course, the trio do revert back to just childish fun – something that will delight long-term fans of the show.

“Paddy caused a pile-on yesterday, I don’t know what he was thinking of, so I had 20 total strangers lying on my head, and I felt a sharp pain in my buttocks and Fred was biting my bum.

“So you know we’re in a good place where it should just be a laugh.”



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Naturalist and presenter David Bellamy dies at 86

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David Bellamy at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2009Image copyright
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Botanist and broadcaster David Bellamy has died aged 86, the Conservation Foundation he formed has said.

London-born Bellamy, who became a household name as a TV personality, scientist and conservationist, died on Wednesday, according to the foundation.

His colleague, David Shreeve, described him as a “larger-than-life character” who “inspired a whole generation”.

In later life Bellamy, who lived in County Durham, attracted criticism for dismissing global warming.

In 2004 he described it as “poppycock” – a stance which he later said cost him his TV career.

Bellamy worked in a sweet factory and as a plumber before embarking on his broadcasting career.

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Reuters

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Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan said Bellamy was a “brilliant naturalist, broadcaster & character”

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Media captionDavid Bellamy on the interview that started his career

His scientific career began when he got a job in the biology department of a technical college in Surrey, he told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme in 1978.

It was there that he met his future wife, Rosemary.

But it was on a trip to Scotland where he discovered his love for plants, he told the programme.

“I got really turned on by plants and I found out that if somebody told me what a plant was, I just couldn’t forget it,” he said.

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PA Media

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David Bellamy takes a walk with his granddaughter Tilly, then aged four, around the Scottish Seabird Centre after unveiling a new remote wildlife camera in North Berwick in 2007

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PA Media

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The broadcaster stood, unsuccessfully, against the then prime minister John Major for the eurosceptic Referendum Party during the 1997 general election

He gained public recognition for his work as an environmental consultant over the Torrey Canyon oil spill, when a tanker was shipwrecked off the coast of Cornwall in 1967.

He went on to present programmes such as Don’t Ask Me, Bellamy On Botany, Bellamy’s Britain, Bellamy’s Europe and Bellamy’s Backyard Safari.

And in 1979 he won Bafta’s Richard Dimbleby Award, for best presenter of factual programmes.

His distinctive voice also inspired comedian Sir Lenny Henry’s catchphrase “grapple me grapenuts”.

BBC arts correspondent David Sillito described Bellamy as “the enthusiastic face of botany on television” for more than 30 years.

In 2003, he told BBC News that he was sceptical about mankind being responsible for rising temperatures and suggested that they might be part of the Earth’s natural cycles.

He said: “We have got to get this thing argued out in public properly and not just take one opinion.”

Ten years later, he told the Independent newspaper: “It (global warming) is not happening at all, but if you get the idea that people’s children will die because of CO2 they fall for it.”

‘Canny broadcaster”.

Well-known figures have paid tribute to Bellamy, including fellow naturalist and broadcaster Bill Oddie who described him as a “first-class naturalist, with boundless skills to convey his enthusiasm”.

Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan said Bellamy was a “brilliant naturalist, broadcaster and character”, in a tribute posted on Twitter.

Comedy writer and broadcaster Danny Baker, who described him as a “truly brilliant and canny broadcaster”.

The Walking Dead actor David Morrissey tweeted that Bellamy “cared about nature and our environment deeply.”

And former England footballer Stan Collymore called him a “childhood icon”, adding that he “learnt about botany and shrubs and trees as a kid because of this man’s love and infectious enthusiasm.”

Bellamy’s wife Rosemary died last year.



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Portrait of a Lady: Stolen Klimt mystery ‘solved’ by gardener in Italy

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Media captionThe recovered artwork was put on display by police

Nothing was heard of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady after it was stolen nearly 23 years ago from a modern art gallery in Piacenza, northern Italy.

There seemed little prospect of the masterpiece, valued at €60m (£50m; $66m), ever being found.

That was until a worker clearing ivy from the wall of the gallery where it was stolen stumbled on a metal panel.

Behind it lay a recess, within which was a black bag containing what appeared to be the missing painting.

Checks are still being carried out on the recovered work, which has been handed to police.

But gallery director Massimo Ferrari is confident the original has been found, because it has the same stamps and sealing wax on the back of the painting.

Police are investigating whether the thieves had left the painting hidden with the aim of removing it when worldwide media attention moved away from one of the most notorious art thefts in years.

Black bag of rubbish

The painting was stolen on 22 February 1997 from the Ricci-Oddi modern art gallery amid preparations for a special exhibition in Piacenza aimed at showing off Portrait of a Lady.

The frame of the painting was discarded on the roof of the building in an apparent attempt to show that thieves had broken in through the skylight. That was not the case as the skylight was too small for the painting to fit through.

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RAI TV

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The painting was found inside this recess in a wall at the gallery

The worker who found the painting said initially he thought the black bag was just rubbish.

Gen Roberto Riccardi, head of the carabinieri unit for protecting cultural heritage, called for caution before the work is authenticated.

A group of experts will now use scientific and artistic analysis to work out if the painting is genuine and if it is has really spent the past 22 years in a hole in the wall.

Art critic Vittorio Sgarbi is already convinced. “Recovering the Portrait, an intense and lifelike work, is the best Christmas present,” he told Corriere della Sera.

An important painting

Portrait of a Lady was painted in 1916-17 by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt towards the end of his life.

  • Read more from Max Paradiso’s story: The mystery of the stolen Klimt

Klimt was part of a radical group of artists called the Secession and many of his works featured expressive and sexually evocative paintings of women.

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Media captionClaudia Maga describes her discovery

What was extraordinary about Portrait of a Lady was that, 10 months before it was stolen, art student Claudia Maga spotted that it had been painted over another Klimt painting, Portrait of a Young Lady, which had not been seen since 1912.

She managed to prove her theory by persuading the Piacenza gallery’s former director to have it X-rayed.

The original painting was of a young girl from Vienna who had died. Klimt had painted over the portrait when the girl died suddenly, to forget the pain of her death.



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Ed Sheeran named ‘artist of the decade’

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Ed SheeranImage copyright
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Ed Sheeran’s Shape Of You was the UK’s biggest single of the 2010s

Ed Sheeran has been named the UK’s artist of the decade by the Official Charts Company.

Sheeran achieved the milestone after a combined run of 12 number one singles and albums between 2010 and 2019 – more than any other artist.

He’s also had the most weeks (79) at number one in both the album and singles charts in this period.

Shape Of You was the biggest hit of the 2010s, spending 14 weeks at number one and selling more than 4.5m copies.

Sheeran thanked his followers for his success.

“Thank you to everyone who’s supported me over the past 10 years, especially my amazing fans. Here’s to the next 10!”

  • Spotify reveals decade’s most-streamed songs
  • YouTube reveals 2019’s most-watched music videos

Shape Of You is one of three Sheeran singles in the top five end-of-the-decade list. Thinking Out Loud is at number three while Perfect is at number five.

Overall, Sheeran has spent 38 weeks at number one in the singles chart and sold 53.8m tracks. His songs have also been streamed 4.6 billion times in the UK alone.

In the albums chart, X is at number three followed by Divide at number four.

Top 10 singles of the decade

Martin Talbot, chief executive of the Official Charts Company, said Sheeran had “truly dominated” the decade.

“At the start of the decade, he was a little known, albeit highly-rated, young 18-year-old lad from Suffolk – but his catalogue of achievements since then are genuinely remarkable. Today, he is firmly established among the highest level of global music superstars,” Talbot added.

The star’s latest accolade comes a week after Spotify named him the UK’s most-streamed artist of the 2010s. Globally, only Drake achieved more plays.

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Getty Images

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Adele has the top two albums of the decade

The remainder of the top 10 biggest singles is dominated by male artists. They include Mark Ronson ft Bruno Mars at number two for Uptown Funk and Justin Bieber at number nine for Sorry.

Female singers only appear as featured artists – with Kyla cited for her collaboration with Drake on the track One Dance, and Jess Glynne for singing Clean Bandit’s Rather Be.

In the album charts, however, it’s Adele who comes out top, holding both the first and second positions with 21 and 25 respectively.

Top 10 albums of the decade

Her second album 21, released in 2011, has sold 5.17 million copies. It debuted at number one and spent 23 weeks at the top of the albums chart.

Her follow up 25 spent 13 weeks at the top and became the UK’s fastest-selling album to date, selling 800,307 copies in its first chart week in November 2015. And Adele’s debut album 19 from 2008 is the UK’s 13th biggest record of the 2010s.

The only other woman in the top 10 albums is Emeli Sande who comes in at eight for Our Version Of Events.

With the chart company’s data spanning an entire decade of sales, older releases tend to dominate the countdown.

The most recent album in the top 100 is the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman, which was released in December 2017.

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Atlantic Records

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Sheeran received a plaque in recognition of his chart domination


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