It seems like an eternity since we first heard that the world’s biggest car show would be recreated on Amazon Prime after Clarkson’s unceremonious sacking from the BBC. The Grand Tour, having been in production for over a year, stayed shrouded in secrecy while rumours swirled online, with the presenters staying uncharacteristically tight lipped about their shiny new show. Now, finally, GQ‘s bagged an interview with the former Top Gear hosts.
As you’d expect, they’re putting an incredibly positive spin on the move from the BBC to Amazon’s premium service, Prime; the word “reinvention” cropped up a lot. As Clarkson summarises, imagine “you’ve had 12 years of eating cottage pie on a Sunday night and now you’re getting shepherd’s pie. So it’s still meat and potato comfort food, but it’s different.”
But what about the format? Clarkson says that it’s “the same as before really, about 30 minutes of film and 30 minutes of studio stuff” but this time, there’s a tent – Clarkson’s idea, admits Hammond – that sets the series apart from its predecessor.
That’s not to say that people necessarily want something new. Former Top Gear fans want the trio, and luckily for Clarkson, given what happened at the BBC, that’s what he can deliver with The Grand Tour. After that fateful day in March 2015, it seemed like the whole planet went into meltdown. In the weeks that followed, a “bring back Jeremy Clarkson” petition was signed by over a million people as the internet went into speculation overdrive. However, the public needn’t have feared; May says that a move with all three presenters “was on the cards after 15 minutes. Tragically, I don’t think we ever separated.” Hammond and May knew that they had to follow Clarkson, the former insists that “[although] we don’t get on, we don’t have a bloody choice… We’re bigger when we’re all together, the four of us [including producer Andy Wilman].”
Despite the familiarity, May says that he thinks “anybody who likes us is pretty much bound to like The Grand Tour”. After more than a decade at the BBC, the men were still a little bit apprehensive at the start. Clarkson says that at first, he felt a “bit like a rabbit stuck in the headlights”, while May talked about the “nerve-wracking” nature of doing in case fans said “have they lost it, have they sold out?”. Clearly, the weight of expectation bore heavily on them. Hammond was aware that “if we didn’t put the effort in, if we cut corners, financially, creatively, in terms of effort, I would expect us to be hunted down and dragged through the streets. It’s like Land Rover reinventing the Defender. Get it wrong and you’re going to be in trouble.”
Fan’s expectations are sky-high, but the presenters say Amazon has yet to pile on the pressure. While the online giant pays for it, the show is produced by “Champ and Sons”, the presenter’s own production company, based, rather fittingly, on Power Road. For Clarkson, being your own boss can be both a blessing and a curse. To illustrate this point he recalls how “one of the kids was riding around the office on a pair of electric wheeled slippers and I just thought ‘oh god, if he goes through the window he’s going to cut his head off and that’s just going to be so many forms and I’m going to have to fill them out.’ At the BBC if you’d said someone had cut their head off, you’d just tell someone “oh he’s cut his head off, you deal with that.
“Honestly, the BBC, up until the arrival of Mr Cohen, was brilliant to work for” says Clarkson. Where you’d expect there could be a little hard feeling, amusingly, the presenters pitch their dramatic exit from the BBC as a convenient process of reinvention. This time around, they got to pick their own name – “Top Gear’s “a shit name for a car show” declared Hammond – and they decided the locations for themselves, with Whitby coming in top for Clarkson and May, who were very keen to enjoy the town’s fish and chips. Aside from this, the presenters all seem agreeably certain that, as put by Clarkson, “the days of scheduled television are drawing to an end”, hardly surprising given that their pay cheques are coming from a streaming service.
Hammond is adamant “that I wish the BBC all the best, I didn’t fall out with the BBC or anybody”, but has stayed pretty quiet on the new Top Gear front. “There’s nothing good to come out of that conversation with me really…[my view] is completely skewed.” May on the other hand said he liked it and thinks that “Matt Le Blanc is pretty good”, despite the fact that “he was very rude about me once with a signed photograph that he had.”
Le Blanc may be relatively popular, but there’s little doubt that the original “three gear heads”, as Hammond calls them, are the Kings of the car show model. Top Gear ratings have plummeted while excitement for The Grand Tour continues to accelerate. If the cacophony of the internet is anything to go by, people are more excited about seeing the guys back together than they are about the cars and the new set up, the astronomical costs of which have been well documented. This is probably just as well, as Clarkson says that the people who tune in for the cars are “going to be tragically disappointed in week two because there aren’t any. And there’s a lot of bickering.” However, May points out that the grand opening sequence, shot in the California desert, is sure to appease the “hardcore petrolheads”, as it’s “one of the most hardcore top shelf car films we’ve ever made.”
The new track, which May warns “isn’t really a racetrack in the accepted sense,” is also sure to excite all the “hardcore petrolheads”. He maintains that, while this mysterious track wasn’t intended for cars to drive around, it looks fantastic and is unlike any other racetrack you’ll see on TV. Clarkson dropped a few slightly heavier hints, saying that the track is on the roads around The Science Museum at Wraughton. The series also features a well-known “great” racing driver who “can set lap times on our track” according to Clarkson. Their identity is yet to be revealed.
Ultimately, it’s clear that, despite the inclusion of a couple of ballsy, expensive and crowd-pleasing new features, the presenting trio’s “panto” (as May calls it) will pander to the same audience that they have always attracted. There’s still no swearing, all three men were clear that they wanted the show to be as family-friendly as possible, despite Clarkson’s admission that his “youngest daughter is the most potty-mouthed person I’ve ever met.” Hammond’s explanatory point that “middle-aged men trying not to swear or say something rude is funnier than just saying it” seems a fair enough justification when you consider the trio’s dynamic. At it’s core, Top Gear and now in all likelihood The Grand Tour , are not shows about cars in and of themselves, but about what Hammond describes as “three middle aged men driving about getting things wrong and sometimes catching fire and falling over.”
When probed about the longevity of such a formula, Clarkson’s quick to point out that the life span will be three years – the same length as their contract. He jokes that “at the end of the third year we’ll just have a massive knife fight and kill each other, which is what we’ve always wanted to do.” May took a more serious approach to the question by casting a shadow of doubt over the potential for a second contract. “Not indefinitely…I’m surprised it’s lasted as long as it has” he said, “even Morecambe and Wise didn’t go on forever…[and] Bake Off fell apart.”
The BBC’s The Great British Bake Off may have fallen apart, and the new Top Gear remains in murky waters, but by shipping most of the old Top Gear talent to Prime, Clarkson’s more or less guaranteed that The Grand Tour will deliver on its promise of more of the same. Expect more at your peril.