Interview extra

Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James MayNovember 4, 2016

The Grand Tour

A much-publicised ‘fracas’ saw the departure of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May from Top Gear. While that show relaunched with a new presenting team, its former frontmen set up their own production company and signed a three-year deal with on-demand service Amazon Prime Video to produce The Grand Tour.

Each episode of the new series comes from a different location around the world – the first from California and the second (which, confusingly, was filmed first!) from Johannesburg. They've been recording in a travelling pop-up tent with celebrity guests, a new track, a new racing driver, specially-shot films and, of course, cars. Here, the trio tell TV Choice what we can expect…

What was it like filming together again?
Jeremy Clarkson It’s me, James and Richard, same crew, same director, same producers, same everything. I was a bit like a rabbit stuck in headlights. The first one was filmed in Johannesburg, and it was nerve-racking. But we’re into the swing of it now, so it’s just bloody good fun.

Did you have any reservations?
Jeremy No, because if we just stayed doing the old programme, I know exactly what would have happened. We were on series 22 and it was still climbing, and every year we’d say, ‘Oh, nobody will watch it this year, it will start to go downhill now.’ And it never did.

Richard Hammond It was very, very exciting and an opportunity for reinvention, ’cos we’re lazy.

James May It’s reinvigorated us and caused us to reinvent what we do. But we’re still the same people, and viewers would be shocked if we changed radically, even if we could.

The outcry for another show from the three of you must have been very flattering…
Richard It’s lovely that there’s an appetite for our new show, and that’s the only pressure. It’s good that people want it and therefore we have delivered. We have to make it good, because they will find us and beat us up if it isn’t. It would be unforgivable if we just simply phoned it in.

What changes will viewers notice?
Richard Well, it’s got three middle-aged men driving about in cars, getting things wrong and sometimes catching fire or falling over, so it’s completely different in every way! But we know it’s still comfort food, I hope. The whole process will have benefited from the reinvention. So it’s us, but fizzier.

Jeremy It’s the same, but subtly different. When we filmed in Holland, we talked at the beginning about Dutch things and Dutch motoring. When we go to Finland, we’ll be asking why they crash all the time. So we’ll be trying to find out why the Finns can’t drive and yet all the world’s racing drivers are Finnish. Even if you’re watching in Idaho, you can still go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, that the Finns do that, the Germans do that and the British do that.’ It’s a grand tour, so it just moves around the world, which is very exciting.

James And the audience is quite close. They can see the whole thing all the time and it does make a difference to the way it comes out on the TV.

Whose idea was it to do a ‘grand tour’ around the world?
Richard I honestly think the travelling idea was Jeremy’s. It does give it something special, but it is colossally expensive. But do you know what? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us all. The first time we did it, we thought, ‘What the hell are we doing? We don’t need to do it on this scale!’ But how wonderful that we are, and it’s great fun.

Did the three of you pick the locations?
Jeremy We wanted to go to Johannesburg as a sort of thank you for their unswerving loyalty over the years. Then we wanted to do one in California, then we wanted to get home. And when everyone was saying, ‘Whereabouts in London shall we put the tent?’, the three of us just kept going, ‘Whitby, Whitby, we want to go to Whitby, I want fish and chips in Whitby!’ So we went to Whitby.

James Jeremy and I have got a bit of a thing about Whitby. We tried to do a DVD there together years ago and it didn’t really happen.

What’s been your favourite place to film in so far?
Richard Barbados wasn’t bad! It was a difficult one to go home and say to my wife and daughters, ‘Oh Jesus, I’ve been away working again!’ Daddy’s come back brown and relaxed.

James It’s difficult to answer that because it will irritate most people! It’s different for different things. We’ve been to the desert in California, where I’ve been before quite a few times, but actually performing in it was quite magical. Then you get somewhere like Whitby, where we’re on the harbourside in an old-fashioned English fishing village, and that’s fantastic as well, because it’s a place where I used to go a lot as a kid. We thought it was a big global idea, but it can go anywhere – a little village, the middle of a desert… It could potentially go on the deck of a ship in the middle of the ocean. That’s not a bad idea, actually!

What have the audiences been like?
Jeremy They do differ. The Americans were fully up for it. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the Germans are like. We probably won’t get a lot of laughter, so we may have to use a laughter track that week.

James They’ve all surprised me, because they’ve all liked it. The South Africans were the noisiest, and the Americans were there for longest, because it was a slightly different show, as it was bigger. And then we had the Yorkshire audience, which is traditionally quite a tough one. But they were fantastic and really got into it.

When you first released tickets, were you surprised at how popular it was around the world?
Jeremy I think 350 million people watched Top Gear every week, so it stood to reason that some of them would want to come and see the new one. The demand for tickets has been huge, it really has. It’s been absolutely potty.

Were people flying out from the UK to come, or were the audiences local to the area?
Jeremy I was really quite cross because in Whitby, we asked who was here from Whitby, and it was about 30 or 40. Then we asked who was here from Yorkshire and it was sort of everybody. Then somebody said on Twitter, ‘Oh, typical, nobody local was there.’ Everybody was local! In America it was all Americans and South Africa was all South Africans.

What can you tell us about your new driving track?
Jeremy We’re in Wroughton, at the Science Museum’s overflow. It’s where they keep all of the really interesting stuff that isn’t on display in London. They’ve got a series of roads around there, so that’s our track.

And there are deer that keep running out!
Jeremy Not just deer – they could film Autumnwatch there! It would be more interesting than wherever they are filming it!

Was there a point when you knew it was going to work? Where you turned round to each other and went, ‘It’s OK, actually?’
Jeremy In California, when we filmed our big opening sequence. The great thing about working with either of them [Richard and James] is that because we’ve worked together for so long, we all know what each other is going to say next. It makes it all so natural and easy.

Richard The first time we walked into the tent in front of the audience we thought, ‘Thank God, it works!’ We knew immediately.

James I think that was after we did the first studio recording, in South Africa, which was the test. It was the first time we’d done it for real, and you can’t really replicate it. But generally we haven’t been able to go wild after the studio, because we’ve always got to go somewhere else and do something else, so we’re making more shows than we used to…

Did anything go wrong?
Richard No. Everything went absolutely perfectly, as it always does, without a single exception. [laughs] We turned up to film the studio links last week, fished out our shirts and things from our suitcases as we don’t have wardrobe or anything and, of course, we’d forgotten an iron and ironing board. We’re not very good at that side of things.

Do you think people tune in more for the bickering than the cars?
Jeremy Some people tune in for the cars. They’re going to be tragically disappointed in week two, because there aren’t any, but there’s a lot of bickering. But in week one, it’s all cars and very little bickering. It changes.

Richard Cars are a tremendous starting point, and then it’s about three hapless idiots doing what they do.

James We do things that are about cars in which we are slightly secondary to the extreme petrol-head observer. There’s a big film in the very first show which is one of the most hardcore car films we’ve ever made together. There are films in other episodes that are car-themed, but they will annoy car enthusiasts because they’re not car-y enough. The sort of people who enjoy those will be the people who enjoy seeing us together.

Did it really take as long as you made out, to come up with the name?
Richard Yep. Genuinely did. It was agony. Absolute agony. We inherited the name before, and it’s a s*** name for a car show, Top Gear. So for the first time, we’ve had to come up with one ourselves..

Was Gear Knobs an actual thing?
Richard No. It was on the list. We had a list of silly, stupid ones. Of course we did. We went out and stayed in Italy for a couple of days’ brainstorming, and that came up a lot. It was agony. It was really difficult. I’m really pleased with The Grand Tour. It’s great and says what it is.

With two big car shows running, is it like getting guests for chat shows, where you have to fight over which programme gets to test which car?
Jeremy Oh God no, because a chat show guest comes over and goes, ‘Shall I do Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton?’ With us, they’ll say that we want it that week, so it’s not like the car flies away afterwards. We can get what we want.

Have you noticed differences working for a public service and a private company?
Jeremy Yes, because we’re not working for Amazon. It’s [W] Chump & Sons, which is our production company. The programme’s licensed to Amazon, but it’s not their production. They pay for it but it’s actually ours, which means we had to set up an office, which leaked! But it is on Power Road, which is quite apt. Yesterday, one of the kids was riding around the office on a sort of pair of electric wheeled slippers and I just thought, ‘Oh God, if he goes through the window, which he will in a minute, he’s going to cut his head off, and that’s just going to be so many forms to fill in!' At the BBC, if somebody cut their head off, we’d just say, Well, someone’s cut his head off, you deal with that.’  

And what is the transition to businessman like?
Richard Yes, I’m a high-powered businessman, I’ve had meetings and even board meetings on Skype!

Have you been given freedom to do what you want?
Jeremy It’s tremendous. We’ve had not one single bit of editorial. They’ve never once said, ‘Do you mind…?’ Although they did say we could swear, but we said we’re not going to. We never swore on the old show. You’d sometimes go, ‘F***ing hell,’ if you were a bit frightened, but they’d beep it. I wanted to make a programme that a child could ask its parents to watch, and that they’d feel comfortable about letting them, even though we can swear if we wanted to.

Richard Oh, absolutely, yes! There’s an element of us being able to say what we like and swear, but I want my family to be able to watch it. We don’t want to be horrible. We’re quite nice boys really. Well, I am!

Do you worry about Jeremy offending someone?
James He can never offend them as much as he offends me so it’s not really a concern. I’m quite excited about Germany, I’ve got quite a few German mates, I like going to Germany. They’re more like us than we like to admit.

Do you ever argue about who is driving which car?
James A bit. But generally, if we do something that has three cars in, a car will attach itself to one of us for either personality or historic reasons. Or even the reverse of historic reasons – 'You can’t drive that because you drove that or you said you like that,' so we have things that fit us. We’re just blokes who like cars. It’s tragic, really.

You’ve got some big names lined up. Can you tell us about any of them?
Jeremy No, but I can tell you categorically that Matt Damon isn’t on, in the same way Roger Daltrey and Wilko Johnson haven’t written the theme music.

James I did a theme tune, but I kept it to myself because I thought it was a bit s*** and a bit ploddy. Then someone else came up with one. Some of us might be involved in the performance in some way.

The schedule must be super demanding?
Jeremy The last recording is December 12, and on December 13 we start filming for next year’s run.

What cars have you enjoyed driving the most?
Jeremy It’s a really boring answer, but the Aston Martin DB11 was really good. Everyone will go, ‘Well, of course it was,’ but if you really know about cars, Astons look lovely but they’re not particularly brilliant and never have been. Now it looks lovely and is brilliant. We wanted to show everyone a ‘grand tour’ so we went to Italy. We started at the Palio horse race in Siena, then went to the Uffizi in Florence, then to the opera in Verona, up to the gallery and museums around Bologna, and finished in Venice. It sounds like a very high-brow, boring programme that Mary Beard should have done, but it’s OK because Richard Hammond was there to entertain the masses with his bovine idiocy.

Richard I rather liked the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. The manufacturers have been great about lending us stuff. 

James So far, I’ve been saying it’s the Honda NSX, but I might change my mind. People ask me what’s your favourite car, what’s the best car you’ve ever driven and I don’t know, because it’s a bit like music. Days are different and cars are different. Without wishing to sound pompous and pretentious, we all like cars for slightly different reasons.

How many years can the three of you continue?
James Well, not indefinitely. I’d quite like to learn a bit more about cooking and gardening, because I’ve got a garden now. I’ve got some hobbies and some other friends. I can play the piano but I’m very rusty because I haven’t had enough practice – I’d like to do all of those things. When we first started working together, we didn’t know that we’d start becoming grey and crunky and forgetful and still be doing broadly the same thing. It can go on for a bit longer, yes, but it can’t go on forever. Even Morecambe and Wise didn’t go on forever, and Countryfile will end one day.

Do you socialise together outside of work?
James What socialising would we do? Go and drive some cars together? We’ve done that. Eat a dinner together? We’ve done hundreds of those because we’ve been around the world. Go to the pub? We’ve done that already on tour. There’s nothing left for us to do. I mean, we don’t have many interests in common anyway, apart from cars, and we don’t even agree on that. I’ve got other friends and I live with my other half Sarah. I can go home to the woman I love and who loves me, or I can go out with Jeremy Clarkson. I mean…

Do your partners socialise?
James They know each other, but not very much. I know, absurd though it seems, they’re probably quite pleased to get us back and I’m quite pleased to be there.

Did you have any doubts about going to a streaming service rather than a mainstream channel, and reaching less viewers?
Richard That’s only relevant in a linear schedule television context and that is dying so quickly, it’s taken my breath away! The idea that you sit down and watch what you want to watch when you’re told to is insane. So the figures based on what’s watched that night is completely irrelevant.

Jeremy No I think the days of scheduled television are drawing to an end. It’s kind of potty that the BBC has to make a programme for 4pm – good though Cash In The Attic is, it’s my second favourite programme! It makes a huge amount of sense that you put it on a streaming service. Fine, don’t watch it at 8pm on a Friday, like it’s normal television. But it also means if you’re out on Friday night it doesn’t make any difference, you just watch it at 12 minutes past six on a Sunday morning. It’s great! Why would you not do that? And there are no adverts. That was important.

James They’re never going to tell us how many people watch it. I hope it will be more than a city, and there are opportunities for the audience and the accessibility to grow, so who knows? But Amazon, the territories it’s in are pretty big. It’s in America, for a start, and it turns out we’ve got quite a few fans there – and there will be more, spearheaded by us.

Amazon Prime Video, Friday

Elaine Penn

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