BBC's Top Gear spins into more controversy with Whitehall stunt

LONDON (Reuters) - Chris Evans, the new host of BBC TV's popular Top Gear motoring show apologised on Monday for a stunt filmed near the Cenotaph war memorial in central London which was widely criticised for showing a lack of respect.

Images splashed across the pages of British newspapers showed the show's co-host, United States actor Matt LeBlanc, speeding and spinning a car with a professional driver along a deserted Whitehall, the road near Parliament which is home to government offices as well as the Cenotaph.

As the car performed 360-degree turns, clouds of smoke from burning tyre rubber dramatically obscured the 96-year-old memorial in one long-range TV camera shot. "It does not look good at all," Evans told listeners of his BBC Radio programme. "On behalf of the Top Gear team and Matt, I would like to apologise unreservedly for what these images seem to portray." Retired army officer Colonel Richard Kemp said the filming on Sunday was an error of judgement and that Westminster Council should never have allowed it to go ahead.

The council in turn said the BBC producers had gone beyond what was agreed and had never given approval for the car to carry out wheelspins down Whitehall.

The BBC later said it would not broadcast footage of the Cenotaph in the episode. "The Cenotaph was at no point intended to feature in the programme and therefore will not appear in the final film," it said in a statement. "We would like to make it absolutely clear that the Top Gear team has the utmost respect for the Cenotaph, what it stands for, and those heroic individuals whose memory it serves so fittingly."

The episode is the latest controversy to be generated by Top Gear which has offended Mexicans, Argentines, Germans, Indians, truck drivers, cyclists and environmentalists among others over the years.

Last year, the BBC decided not to renew the contract of former presenter Jeremy Clarkson, whose blunt banter and swagger helped the show become a global success but also generated controversy, after he punched a member of the production team, leading to the hiring of Evans and ex-Friends star LeBlanc.

Sunday's stunt also upset finance minister George Osborne who was working nearby on his annual budget statement to be delivered on Wednesday. "Trying to write my Budget, despite noisy episode of #BBC-TopGear being filmed outside on Horseguards Parade. Keep it down please," he said on Twitter.