As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently succumbed to the never-ending parade of pop-ups and prompts and took out an Amazon Prime membership. It was the week before Amazon released the first episode of their latest original online streaming television production The Grand Tour, and while that hadn’t been one of the factors that make me sign up in the first place, it was certainly one of those ‘value added extras’ that I was keen on looking at now that I had access.
Sometime in the future – if it’s not happening as we speak – someone will write a lengthy treatise into the Great Top Gear Schism and what it tells us about the media industry. You’ll recall that the show’s already-controversial presenter Jeremy Clarkson parted company with the BBC’s motoring show early in 2015 after a heated altercation with one of the production team, taking with him his co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May and the show’s producer Andy Wilman to start a new show called The Grand Tour, which is funded by the deep pockets of the world’s largest online retailer.
This split meant that the BBC retained all the rights to Top Gear – the internationally famous brand, the programme format that included the ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ and masked test driver The Stig – and all they had to do was find a new set of presenters to keep the show on the road. Clarkson and his team on the other hand had to start again from scratch and produce some sort of show that bore no (legally defined) similarity to Top Gear whatsoever if they were to prevent the lawsuits from flying in. It’s no wonder that when the first new shows of the two respective post-Schism series aired, one was rolling in verve, confidence and exuberance while the other was floundering and fumbling around, staggering like a new born foal trying to find its footing.
The twist (and no one reading this will be the slightest bit surprised, I’m sure) is that it’s The Grand Tour that has managed to hit the ground running and is instantly compelling and successful; and it’s Top Gear despite all its apparent advantages that came across like the nervous debutanté quaking in the corner at the prom. The BBC might have kept its winning format with only a few changes here and there (the ‘Star in a Reasonable Car’ became a rallycross competition, for example) but in trying not to evoke the Clarkson/Hammond/May era by sticking with a three-man permanent presenting team with new faces it nonetheless still hit serious problems by trying for a more fluid and flexible approach that killed any chance of a sense of chemistry and camaraderie between the various presenters who would flit in and out as required. While the production values were as good as they had ever been, the mechanics of how the format worked were exposed and looked rather creaky. Worst of all was the unexpectedly poor performance by the show’s new main presenter Chris Evans; I still find it hard to understand how such an experienced and talented broadcaster should prove so tone-deaf and pitch his performance so badly wrong. Still, as I concluded in a review at the time, there was still much to like about the show and there’s no reason not to think that Top Gear won’t regain its balance in the future, especially now that Evans himself has decided to move on to other projects.
Some six months further on from that first post-Clarkson series of Top Gear, we finally get to see what he and his cohorts can put together from scratch. And the truly remarkable thing is that within 15 minutes of the start of The Grand Tour it already feels more familiar and comfortable than the new Top Gear managed in a full six-episode run. We’ve come home again, only now everything is supersized and turbocharged beyond our wildest hopes and expectations. If anyone wants to know whether it’s the name, logo, location, theme tune and format that makes a show or whether it’s the people presenting and creating it behind the scenes, then this experiment definitively answers that question in the latter’s favour. It’s something that the BBC might be interested and encouraged to have confirmed, given their own current Great British Bake Off dilemma.
The Grand Tour starts with a sequence worthy of a box office film: a dejected-looking Clarkson exits an office building and hands in his security pass on the way out. He makes his way to the airport and soon the grey skies of England are replaced by the brilliant sunshine of California, and Clarkson’s spirits are revived as he slips behind the wheel of a blue, white-striped muscle car. He takes to the road where he’s joined by Hammond and May and then by hundreds of other drivers in both new and classic antique vehicles heading out into the desert where The Grand Tour has literally pitched its tent for the week. The music and the sequence builds from the subdued start to an absurdist, overblown triumphant climax so that by the time the three presenters step out to cheers from a huge crowd the whole thing had become wildly celebratory and a pitch-perfect riposte to the BBC for throwing Clarkson out (or merely not renewing his contract, as they point out is more technically correct.)
The trio strut out onto their new stage like Hollywood A-list stars, which is appropriate since they are very much the stars now, not the show. It’s a canny decision to film the first episode in the United States, since Americans know how to enthusiastically whoop and holler for the cameras like no one else on the planet, even if it does feel a little strange given that the original Top Gear was only ever a little-known niche success on BBC America. The fact that he’s in front of an American audience doesn’t faze Clarkson one bit and he’s as robustly bulldog British as ever, even getting into a mock fight with the audience in a row over whether the RAF or the US Air Force is the best air force in the world, having previously lectured them about the ‘correct’ car terminology for the American terms ‘hood’, ‘stick’ and ‘fender’.
Any suggestion that his controversial and fractious break-up with the BBC might lead Clarkson to tone his style down in future are firmly put to bed when he says that now he’s on an internet show he could get away with ‘pleasuring a horse’ if he wanted to. It does indeed seem to be the case that Amazon are taking a very laissez-faire attitude to the show: in the second episode filmed in South Africa, Clarkson makes fun of both the South African and British heads of state in a way that would have had BBC lawyers of old having a nervous breakdown.
The current crop of BBC lawyers are probably too busy blowing a gasket at how the new show is able to feel so much like Top Gear at its peak without ever crossing the line into copyright infringement. Every component of the old show has been taken out, examined, recrafted and machine-tooled into something sparkling new before the whole thing is put back together again: the end result unmistakably retains the spirit of the old Top Gear despite actually sharing only four middle-aged men in its production DNA. Everything else has been comprehensively updated and each part hugely improved thanks to a budget ten times what the BBC could ever have dreamed of affording. It makes Chris Evans’ post-Clarkson Top Gear’s revamp look tepid and half-hearted, quite literally the least the BBC could have done to try and reinvigorate what should still be one of their flagship programmes.
So how do the shows compare? For one thing, the cinematography is fantastic and even better than Top Gear managed, thanks to its superior budget. The ‘Star in a reasonably priced car’ section is gone; indeed there are no star guests in the first two episodes because the The Grand Tour adopts a running gag of ‘killing off’ their guests at a distance in staged accidents. There’s no news section (which wouldn’t make much sense in an internationally streamed show in any case) and what we get is a bit of banter under the cheesy banner of ‘Conversation Street’ complete with its own knowingly twee title sting; the old airfield test track is also a thing of the past with the show having built a new facility called the Eboladrome containing interesting features like an electrical substation and an unexploded bomb to navigate around; and the Stig has been left in the custody of the BBC with The Grand Tour picking up ‘the American’, a.k.a. former NASCAR driver Mike Skinner, who delivers bad-tempered verdicts on the cars he’s given to drive.
All of this breathes new life into the old format, which even in Clarkson and co’s final season had started to feel a little stale and repetitive. At the time there had been complaints to the BBC that Top Gear was no longer a motoring show at all, and arguably the strangest thing about The Grand Tour is that it does still self-identify itself as a car show when the easiest thing of all to avoid the copyright hawks would have been to make it more of a general magazine programme. Instead, the first show is defiantly car-heavy throughout, as though Clarkson is making the point that he will not be forced off his home turf. The second episode is more varied but still gives the feeling that cars are where its heart is no matter what else is also going on: in this case the main feature is one in which Clarkson, Hammond and May get to indulge their boyhood fantasies of being action and war heroes as they take part in an Edge of Tomorrow-themed training exercise with Jordanian special forces. It’s all very silly but I have to confess it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year, and the moment when Clarkson has to descend down a rope from a hovering helicopter made me laugh so much that I dropped the tablet that I was watching it on. It is, I have to admit, pure comedy gold.
Of course, Clarkson is very much one of those love-it-or-hate-it acquired tastes (insert Marmite analogy here.) A lot of people can’t stand him and won’t find anything here to change their minds. Ironically the reason a lot of people fired up by the Daily Mail’ anti-Clarkson, anti-BBC campaign disliked him is because they felt that he had become bigger than the programme – and what the Great Top Gear Schism proves is this was not only the case, but that Clarkson was entirely correct in the assumption. Personally I’ve always liked Clarkson and regard him as a very talented broadcaster and an occasionally inspired car journalist with no equal in the business; that’s not to say that sometimes he doesn’t go too far and didn’t deserve to be let go by the BBC for his altercation with a producer, or that I agree with his pantomime political opinions. (As outrageous as those are, he’s still somewhat more sensible than the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson after all.)
But on his home ground, in front of an audience and clowning around with his best mates, Jeremy Clarkson’s broadcasting magic is undimmed. Richard Hammond seems rejuvenated by the change and enjoying himself tremendously poking fun at Clarkson and scoring points wherever possible. Only James May seems a little down about the new set-up he finds himself, and even that has to be taken with a pinch of salt as what you see on screen is a carefully constructed and skilfully scripted production rather than the freewheeling ad lib affair that it likes to pretend to be.
The Top Gear magic is still a remarkably potent success; it’s just that the name has changed. The real thing is now called The Grand Tour you should not accept any pale imitations even if they have the temerity to use the old familiar brand name. It only remains to be seen whether the quality will remain as high over the remaining ten episodes of its first season.
New episodes of The Grand Tour are released around the world on Fridays on subscription streaming service Amazon Prime.