So this is it. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. Amazon picked up the wayward Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond and threw a considerable sum of money at The Grand Tour aka Top Gear on the road. Episode one starts with Jeremy leaving the BBC and rainy grey old England behind in a made-up back story to romanticise the end of the old show. No he wasn’t sacked!, they’re desperate to remind us, it was just his contract wasn’t renewed! Haha! Because Jeremy Clarkson hit someone who worked for him. He got wound up for an incredibly pathetic reason and took it out on an underling. Haha! Because bullying in the workplace is fine. Hahaha he’s such a lad! Top bantz.
Anyway, with the past glossed over, his co-presenters appearing from nowhere and an insipid version of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ playing in the background we arrive in the Californian high desert at Burning Man Festival. They then spend a few minutes making the whole festival look and sound utterly boring. It seems to be chock full of podgy pasty white people, who no doubt leave a violent shade of lobster red. On stage we can swiftly tell that these guys are many things, but they are not rock stars or even stand-up comics. They’re at great pains to introduce each other as motoring journalists. So why do they have to do it so awkwardly on a big stage?
After the 10 minute advert for the programme you’re already watching (you’ve committed actual cash money to a subscription service for the privilege) the programme begins. We go inside the giant grey/ green tent at last.
Fans will be pleased to note that the good parts remain intact. They’re happy to clown around and pantomime it up for the American audience. “That’s a truck!” they shout, identifying car parts with different American words. “No, it’s stupid” shouts Jeremy, delighted to annoy a nation en masse with live feedback. He sounds like a very old man when he explains that now they’re “on the internet” he can make horse fellatio and drug references with impunity. This makes him very happy indeed.
The natural history quality of the camera work remains too. The car races look like a glossy music video combined with the latest sci-fi blockbuster. This was the case on Top Gear, so must be maintained on a show where no expense has been spared.
The main body of this first episode was the threesome playing in Portugal with new hybrid sports cars. Top Gear was often criticised for being stuck in the past. Is this The Grand Tour embracing the modern world, environmental concerns and all? McLaren, Porsche and Ferrari supercars were lined up to do battle, with laughter all round as James May’s Ferrari wasn’t actually allowed to do anything. All these beasts can drive around at over 200 mph and because of the cutting edge electronics under the bonnet (or the hood – tomayto, tomahto) give off fewer harmful emissions than the average sedan.
We are introduced to a supremely ugly track back in the UK with animal obstacles, an electricity substation and apparently an unexploded WWII bomb under it. Jeremy dubs it “the most dangerous track in the world” and the “Ebola-dome” as it looks just like an Ebola virus. To me it just looks kinda shitty. Mike Skinner is their new driver borrowed from NASCAR to replace The Stig. He is allowed to speak and is pretty damn funny. “This isn’t a car” he drawls, “this is a cry for help”.
While it seems they want to distance themselves from Top Gear, they can’t help calling back to it – killing off celebrity guests in various accidents and then cutting that the ‘Celebrity Brain Crash’ part of the show altogether makes the audience in the tent laugh. Hopefully by episode two they’ll feel a bit more confident and be able to loosen their death grip on the past.
Disappointingly, especially given how the new Top Gear hosts were compared unfavourably to the old, the chat between the presenters was stilted and there was little evidence of the mythical camaraderie inside the tent. And when they’re scripted they’re just plain terrible. The little asides where they tease and annoy each other while filming the glossy sections are the funniest parts. Also for a show about fast cars it’s all a bit slow; each section needed a much stricter editor and the comedy timing is completely off.
If you’re a dedicated fan I guess these grumbles are minor. The team are the same, the studio audience are happy to be there, and the locations promise to be more fabulous than ever before. And if you bought your Amazon Fire Stick with this show in mind, then it’s Christmas come early. But all I can see is we now have two car shows, and both have lost their spark after being taken apart and rebuilt. And I don’t have the Haynes manual to put them back together.
A word on the name; I guess The Grand Tour is fine, but twitter had a much better suggestion back in May, which was sadly ignored. Democracy really is broken.