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December 21, 2017

When Wrong Makes Right

The prospect of imminent calamity keeps viewers tuning in to Amazon’s The Grand Tour, where great cars meet great scenery, and three petrolheads bicker over whose engine is bigger, who makes a better cup of tea — and what you’ll get if you cross a Soviet warplane, a Suzuki Jimny and a speedboat.

Benji Wilson
  • Ellis O’Brien / Amazon Prime Video
  • Ellis O’Brien / Amazon Prime Video

“This,” Jeremy Clarkson says as he runs his hand over a car that’s been turned into a boat, with the engine from a jet airplane strapped to its back, “could be a classic.”

“This” is a sequence for season two of Amazon’s The Grand Tour. On a pontoon by the side of a lake near Huddersfield, England, Clarkson and his cohosts and compadres, James May and Richard Hammond, are putting the finishing touches on their bizarre boat-car. What got them to this point, as so often happens with The Grand Tour, was an argument among the three men.

They wanted to break the world amphibious-vehicle water-speed record. Clarkson reckoned the best way to do that was to attach a jet engine from a Soviet warplane to a Suzuki Jimny and weld a speedboat hull to the front. Hammond and May were not so sure but, not surprisingly, Clarkson got his way.

And so today he is helming the first test drive of a homemade deathtrap. Hammond quickly rules himself out: it’s a two-seater and, anyway, “jet engines just aren’t my thing,” he says.

He’s referring to a 288-mph dragster crash he had while filming The Grand Tour’s predecessor, Top Gear, in 2006, which left him seriously injured. So Hammond is staying out of the water. May and Clarkson change into fireproof race suits and put on neck braces, balaclavas and helmets. Gallows humor is the order of the day.

“Eighty-five percent of people who have attempted a water-speed record have been killed in the process,” Clarkson announces, like it’s a boast. They bat around ideas to make The Grand Tour funnier, edgier.

“How about a season finale played to a soundtrack of ‘It’s Raining Men’ as we’re atomized and a red mist falls on the lake?” Clarkson suggests. “We could end on Jeremy’s head rotating through the air in slow motion,” May says. They talk about their last wishes.

“James and I have a longstanding agreement that I can have his green Moto Guzzi motorbike if he dies first,” Hammond says. There is a thorough health-and-safety briefing, which Clarkson treats with predictable disdain. Then Clarkson and May get into the “Jet Jimny,” laughing about how they don’t know what any of the buttons do, and the contraption is inched into the water with them strapped inside.

Among all the quips, it’s hard to tell if Clarkson and May are nervous, but they probably should be.

The three Grand Tour hosts have taken some hits for their love of motoring over the years. One of the lowest points came in 2015, when the trio left Top Gear, the BBC show that made their names. Clarkson was fired after he punched a producer; May and Hammond left with him. A few months later, Amazon signed them to host The Grand Tour, essentially a bigger-budget version of the act they’d been honing for years.

Other hits have been literal. In addition to Hammond’s near-fatal 2006 crash, May broke his arm last year. This year, Clarkson got pneumonia, and Hammond crashed a motorbike in Mozambique and later was hospitalized when he rolled a supercar on a hill climb (more on that later).

The problem is that part of the trio’s appeal is the enduring prospect of imminent calamity. Things almost always go wrong, but they usually go wrong in the right way. And things going wrong in the right way for Clarkson, Hammond and May is funny.

Take the Jet Jimny. Clarkson flicks a switch, and the jet engine explodes into life. It makes a gut-thumping din, sends spumes of spray in a 50-yard arc… and propels the Jimny forward at about three miles per hour. Clarkson and May might as well be fooling around on a paddleboat, were it not for the colossal noise their contraption is creating.

After five minutes of minimal progress, with Clarkson looking from speedometer to rear mirror in mock panic, the jet runs out of fuel. The camera boat pulls up alongside the stricken Jimny. Clarkson takes one of his trademark pauses for effect and then announces, “It doesn’t work.”

“Nothing we do works,” he adds later. “It has to look like it might work, but not work.”

When things don’t work, the trio gets to bicker — and it’s the bickering, more than the camerawork or the superlative machines, Clarkson reckons, that has made global brands of first Top Gear and now The Grand Tour.

“See this pie chart?” he says, drawing a sketch. “Look, I did this for the crew and producers when we started this. I said to them, The Grand Tour is this much about the pictures,” he continues, drawing a minute slice of pie, “and THIS MUCH about the words.” Even though the photography on The Grand Tour is renowned, and the locations are reliably jaw-dropping, the cars are not the stars of this motoring show.

To see what Clarkson means by “the words,” we go back to a hangar at “Huddersfield International Airport” — really just a grass airstrip on a hilltop next to a couple of portable buildings. A sign that reads “GTIT” (subtitled “Grand Tour Institute of Technology”) is taped to the hangar entrance; inside, the hosts are about to film one of their three-handers.

It is, unsurprisingly, a discussion about how to build a better amphibious boat, given the failures so far. But it’s actually a funny argument among three middle-aged men who will never agree to disagree.

There’s no script. There’s just a page with a series of bullet points — narrative nodes that, ideally, the conversation should follow — but none of the three even seems to look at it. It’s not clear if anyone says, “Action.” They just start talking, wandering around with power tools in hand, squabbling about who makes the best cup of tea.

For such a major part of Amazon’s slate, The Grand Tour is a surprisingly low-key, minimally staffed production.

The same two camera operators who follow the hosts in their cars follow them around this room as the conversation ranges to such topics as albums by Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote, May’s T-shirt (which has a picture of his own face on it), the density of air and whether Clarkson is wearing his welding visor the right way up. (He says it’s broken. “Why does nothing ever work?”)

The cameras keep rolling throughout a very long take. It ends when Clarkson says, “Right, we’ve got enough.” There are no more takes.

The truth is that Clarkson, Hammond and May are very, very good at this, even though “this” is basically just them being themselves. They have an instinctive understanding, which allows them to appear as though they will never understand each other. Through more than 20 seasons of Top Gear and a year on the road making The Grand Tour, they’ve got their petrolhead pantomime down to a fine art.

The nub of it is what happened in that Huddersfield hangar — it’s them rambling. “Rambling is good,” Clarkson says later, when asked about their style. “You do what’s necessary to get the program made, and then you just ramble. Often the rambling provides better stuff than the stuff that’s planned. We’ve been working together for 12 years, so we can ramble.”

Three weeks later, they’re rambling again, this time in Switzerland, where the twists and turns of the Gotthard Pass on the Italian border provide the setting for a supercar challenge.

Clarkson, in the same jeans he was wearing back in the U.K., is driving a bright yellow, fire-breathing, gas-engined Lamborghini; May has the keys to an electric hybrid Honda NSX; and Hammond has a futuristic all-electric Croatian car called a Rimac. Each believes his machine — one representing the past, one the present, one the future — is the best.

The scenery is astonishing, but then it almost always is for The Grand Tour. Amazon’s $150 million investment is well known, and it allows the series to pick the world’s most stunning locations. But it’s not just about the backdrops.

“You can shoot as many pretty pictures as you like,” Clarkson says, “but eventually it’ll look like a screen saver. You need to have words in a story to make it work. The story is the important thing. And it’s quite a good one for this episode.” So it’s not just the words they say — it’s the stories they cook up. And this story, for what is likely to be the first of the new season’s 12 episodes, is that each host is driving a supercar that reflects his own character.

“I can’t fit in the Rimac,” says Clarkson, who is six-foot-five, “and in any event I am the resident dinosaur, so it was obvious I should drive the dinosaur. James likes to maintain hilariously that he’s modern enough — because he doesn’t like old-fashioned stuff. So he wants to drive the NSX, and anyway he likes it and I don’t. Then that left Hammond in the Rimac.”

Like any good drama, The Grand Tour sets up the story and then maps out the consequences of each character’s decisions. Thus, Hammond has brought them all to Switzerland because it has the world’s fastest charging ports for his all-electric car. As a result, the three men have to spend a lot of time twiddling their thumbs near the charging point, waiting for his car to recharge.

There are trips to the local chess museum, the transport museum and a pencil museum, with the other two needling Hammond endlessly for his car’s failings. Suffice it to say that when they do get their cars on the road for a drag race and a hill-climb trial, the results lead to little consensus. None of them likes the others’ cars. They make their case using the following dialectic: “You’re wrong.” “No, you’re wrong.”

Once the Rimac is all charged up, they head into central Lucerne. Inevitably, the super-wide supercars get stuck in the narrow streets of the Old Town, and hilarity ensues. It’s funny to watch but difficult to film. Fast, loud cars tend to attract attention, but loud cars with Clarkson, Hammond and May inside soon draw a sizable crowd.

As the whole point of the scene is that the cars can’t move, the hosts are stranded, easy targets for selfies and signatures. With the camera crew scurrying to get the shots but not get in the way, Clarkson attempts to perform a three-point turn in a car that is nearly as wide as it is long. By this point, Lucerne’s Old Town is in gridlock.

“It’s pandemonium,” producer Gavin Whitehead says. “Which is good.”

Good pandemonium is an apt description of what The Grand Tour tries to capture. the tagline for season one was, “what could possibly go wrong?” And viewers duly tuned in to find out. (Amazon doesn’t release viewing figures, but a speedy renewal suggests that The Grand Tour at least performed to expectations.)

Sometimes the pandemonium goes too far. A few days later, Hammond crashed again, missing a corner at high speed and rolling the Rimac down a hillside. It burst into flames with him inside. He was airlifted to a hospital and subsequently appeared on social media saying he was fine. You wouldn’t want to be on The Grand Tour’s insurance team.

The hosts, who created and write the show in conjunction with longtime producer Andy Wilman, have responded to some criticism of the first season with a few changes for the second, which begins December 8.

“Certain elements of the last [season] that we didn’t think worked quite as well as they should’ve done are going to be changed,” Clarkson says, “and then certain things that did work will be pumped up.”

Most notably, the huge globe-trotting “tent” that was a mobile studio base for the hosts and audience will now appear in a fixed location in the U.K. In season one, the hosts met their fans all around the world. Hammond says it was simply too much of an undertaking, like setting up and maintaining a medium-sized town every few weeks.

“I’m trying not to use the word logistics , but it was logistics, yeah,” Hammond says. “There were a few little operational things we learned about [season] one — parts of it were making our lives more difficult than they needed to be.”

He hastens to add that, in terms of how they make their program, season two of The Grand Tour will be more of the same.

“I think we’re sort of still doing it the way… well, the only way we know how, actually.”

Which means that in spite of, or possibly because of, all the mishaps, this GT is staying on the same road.

“People like us three clowning around, and people like fast cars,” Clarkson says. “And then you need stories with all the elements — great pictures, great scenery, great cars and us three bickering. That’s it.”


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2017

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