Apart from the next Game of Thrones, there’s nothing I’ve been looking forward to quite as much as The Grand Tour (Amazon Prime). I like Clarkson, Hammond and May, I like banter, I like political incorrectness, I like exotic scenery, I like cars, I like puerile jokes and I liked Top Gear. Take the same ingredients but with a £4.5-million-per-show budget — more than four times what they had with the BBC — and you’d have to ask yourself: ‘What could possibly stop this from being the greatest TV show ever?’
Well, I hate to be a party pooper but it’s definitely not there yet. We had some friends staying for the weekend and we all sat down eagerly after supper, fully expecting to be wowed. Instead, though, at about 40 minutes in, we found ourselves seized with a powerful urge to walk the dogs and head for bed.
It started well enough, with a spectacular opening (on which most of the first week’s budget appears to have been spent) in which Clarkson — newly liberated from the grey, rainy, cheeseparing grimness of the BBC — flew to sunny California, there to be reunited with the boys. Trailing dust, they raced across the desert, joining a Mad Max-style convoy of petrolhead crazies, before convening at the new roving Grand Tour tent, played in by the Hothouse Flowers, to meet their new global audience.
And that was where the problems began: with a PowerPoint lecture. All right, it was droll in parts, with Clarkson delivering a ‘to-may-to, to-mah-to’ riff on the linguistic differences between English and the alien language spoken by his US studio audience. But it was all overly scripted. (Though not, one got the impression from the stiltedness, overly rehearsed.) The bit where he quoted George W. Bush’s line about the French having no word for ‘entrepreneur’, for example. It’s the sort of quote which, at a push, you might consider slipping into an after-dinner speech at a stiff business convention where no one had a sense of humour or got out much.
Every review I’ve read has quoted the line where Clarkson, referring to the itinerant nature of the show announces: ‘We’re going to be like gypsies …Only the cars we drive are going to be insured.’ Had it been on the BBC, this line would have been hilarious. It works because it’s just politically incorrect enough to offend the offendable, without quite straying into actionable ‘racism’. You can imagine the BBC complaints department being inundated, and Clarkson’s old nemesis, ex-BBC director of TV Danny Cohen, spitting with impotent rage.
Like the cheeky fifth-form smartarse that he is, Clarkson knows exactly how far he can push things without actually getting caned by HM. Problem is, he’s not at Repton any more. Now he has been moved on to Dartington Hall. As Clarkson boasted, now he’s on the internet he could ‘pleasure a horse’ and still not get sacked. And though this ought to be a blessing — finally, Clarkson unleashed! — it has had the odd effect of cramping his style. Perhaps he needed that grit in the oyster, the BBC’s nannying bureaucracy, to bring out his subversive streak.
Then there’s the money thing. It’s possible, I suppose, that Clarkson is so perfectly comfortable with the idea of becoming Britain’s highest-paid entertainer, on £10 million a year, that the massive rise in earnings hasn’t cramped his style one bit. But I doubt it. Part of the Top Gear team’s appeal has always been their evident sense of ‘Jesus! They’re paying us to do this stuff?’ The pressure to justify the new crazy money, even if only to themselves, must be immense — and I think it rather shows. They’re all a bit on edge and over-eager to impress, with rictus grins.
There are lots of snipes at their old employer, sometimes disguised as jokes about ‘new ideas’ they’ve had, which are so dangerously close to the old Top Gear format that the BBC’s copyright lawyers would eat them for breakfast. Unfortunately, what this does is draw attention to their constrictions. The new show had a gag in which a succession of celebrity guests — among them Carol Vorderman — died in a series of tragic accidents before they could open their mouths. It would have been more fun, though, you couldn’t help feeling, to see them doing Star In A Reasonably Priced Car.
The other thing that’s missing is that cheerful, make-and-mend, quintessentially English amateurishness. It worked when they were on Top Gear because the show grew organically, from nowheresville, and — despite the BBC’s best efforts — into a global phenomenon. When you’re being indulged with a virtually limitless budget by a production company whose only answer is ‘yes’, you can’t play that game any more. I’m sure the new boys will settle into their strange new environment eventually. But at the minute, I’m afraid, they’re looking a little homesick…