It was taking so long that you almost feared it would never happen. Jeremy Clarkson’s bust-up with a producer – and with the BBC – happened in March 2015. His deal with Amazon was announced in June 2015. The title of the new show was revealed in May 2016. And now, finally, Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are on our screens once again, in The Grand Tour.
The Grand Tour is different from their former Top Gear gig in one crucial respect: it is being made available, one weekly episode at a time, to those who subscribe to Amazon’s Prime service. We’re only a few episodes in so far, and already the online retailer’s huge $250 million investment appears to be paying off. Apparently, more people signed up for Prime on the day of the first episode’s debut than on any other previous day, with the exception of the promotional Prime Day. ‘Millions’ then went on watch it.
But what is the show actually like? The very first scene of that first episode provides an answer. Clarkson is shown exiting a building that either is or looks like the BBC headquarters in central London. It’s grey and miserable outside. He forlornly boards a plane, which deposits him somewhere across the world where a hire car is waiting for him. Except this is no normal hire car – it’s a souped-up version of the Ford Mustang.
Suddenly, the sun is shining and a cover version of Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ is picking up speed in the background. Clarkson is joined on the road by Hammond and May in their own Mustangs, and they all tear off into the Californian desert, weaving through dust and dozens of other wonderful cars, to arrive at a crowd of hundreds of people all cheering and whooping at the sight. The trio have come back in style.
So much of The Grand Tour is contained within that opening scene: it’s mischievous, it’s joyous, it’s spectacular – and it wants to make the most of its three hosts’ great and global popularity.
In fact, the global popularity of Clarkson, Hammond and May is even written into the show’s structure. Each episode has a roving marquee-like studio pitched in a different location. In the first, it was California. In the second, South Africa. And then on to Britain’s very own Whitby for the third. The show then cuts between segments filmed with an audience in the studio and segments recorded beforehand out in the field. This setup manages to replicate the feel of the old Top Gear, whilst also ensuing that The Grand Tour is fresh each week.
It’s difficult to avoid comparisons to Top Gear when discussing The Grand Tour – and Clarkson & Co. appear to welcome them. There’s a running joke in each episode by which a celebrity turns up to participate in the show’s ‘Celebrity Brain Crash’ game, except they end up ‘dying’ before they ever reach the hot seat. Jeremy Renner, Armie Hammer and Carol Vorderman were offed in this way in the first episode alone. It is, surely, a dig at Top Gear’s ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ segment.
Elsewhere, there are similarities: the timed laps around a track, the new Stig surrogate, the banter at James May’s expense, and so on. But there are also differences: The Grand Tour has so far concentrated on sports cars even more than Top Gear did. The first couple of episodes were a parade of McLarens, Ferraris, Porsches, Aston Martins and BMWs. It’s a petrolhead’s dream.
It should be said that The Grand Tour doesn’t always work. The second episode was generally weaker than the first, and especially its main segment in which our heroes romped through a special forces training base in Jordan. This tongue-in-cheek action movie was attractively and ambitiously shot, but it also felt rather too much like a tongue-in-cheek action movie. It was heavily scripted and lacked the surreptitiously incisive motoring journalism that the trio normally deliver.
Still, what else it to be expected? The Grand Tour is a young show that is finding its feet. There were always going to be some parts that work better than others. And yet, even now, the good far outweighs the bad. This has been a promising new beginning from Clarkson, Hammond, May and all the other creators behind the series. We’ll certainly be tuning into the rest.
Image: Amazon Prime