I may be one of the very few people who never watched a single episode of Top Gear before watching the Grand Tour. I think I may have seen the name clicking through the DirecTV guide on BBC America in the mid-naughts, and if so, I had assumed it would be a very stiff magazine-format series on the newest British cars*. Deucedly boring to an American whose late father owned a Chevrolet dealership, old chap! It was only when I read Charles C.W. Cooke’s article in National Review on Jeremy Clarkson’s firing by the BBC in 2015 after he slugged a producer that I began to become intrigued. Cooke’s headline dubbed Clarkson “The Anti-Scold,” and at the time, I wasn’t sure such people still existed in England:
If he disappears from view, somebody else will come along. Why? Well, because Jeremy Clarkson is what happens when a nation’s cultural elites set out to forge an environment in which nobody is allowed to say anything remotely risqué without drawing condemnatory looks and an open invitation to apologize. As yin invites yang and positive necessitates negative, political correctness has created Jeremy Clarkson to serve as the anti-scold.
This he did with great aplomb. On Top Gear, in a series of best-selling books, and in the pages of Britain’s many rightward-leaning newspapers, Clarkson has for years now played a starring role in the country’s national life. He is the man through whom the commonsensical meek can live vicariously; the man who can say what others will not dare to say; the man who has never had to grow up. Most important, perhaps, he has been the grumpy old codger who still remembers the days when it was acceptable to poke fun at everything — including oneself — and to do so without being hauled into court.
Unlike, presumably, Clarkson, I go to the gym more or less daily, and do about 50 minutes total on the treadmill. So poking around Amazon Prime on my iPad, I began watching the Grand Tour. This was fun stuff — beautifully photographed (in 4K high-definition video) high-MTV-style shots of exotic supercars, comedy out of Monty Python, and whacky video gags inspired by Ernie Kovacs, David Letterman, and Britain’s own Goon Squad. Letterman may have dropped bowling balls off of the roofs of tall buildings – Top Gear dropped a Toyota pickup off one:
Top Gear also knew its music; a surprisingly moving segment at the end of their 13th season (from Obama’s dreary first year in office) is built on Brian Eno’s ambient piece “An Ending (Ascent)” from the 1989 Apollo documentary For All Mankind, seemingly anticipating Clarkson’s departure from the BBC:
Clarkson is the British version of Archie Bunker-meets-Don Rickles, with a little bit of Peter Finch’s crazed Howard Beale character from the 1976 film Network mixed in. Very loud, very conservative, very-pro-England (though perhaps surprisingly, anti-Brexit), and very offensive to everyone, from his co-hosts to those in the show’s audience. It’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did with the BBC:
2016: Top Gear goes into the Witness Protection Program
After Clarkson’s firing in 2015, his two other presenters and executive producer Andy Willman quit in protest. After signing a lucrative (some reports say it was very lucrative) deal with Amazon the following year, the four set about reinventing Top Gear into a format that would maintain the same mania, but wouldn’t be sued for direct copying by the BBC.
During the second season of the Grand Tour, some of the older elements began working themselves back in. The biggest absence in the Grand Tour is the Stig, the mysterious non-speaking racing driver whose persona was created by Clarkson in 2002, but whose rights are owned by the BBC, which wanted some continuity with Top Gear after their hosts departed for what Clarkson once dubbed “Top Gear in witness protection.”
In order to blow away what Top Gear had done during the Clarkson era, for the first episode of the Grand Tour, the producers created an eye-popping opening sequence that “cost 3.4 million dollars to produce. In total 150 cars participated, worth 26 million dollars,” according to the Internet Movie Database.
Slow out of the gate
It took a while for the Grand Tour to find its footing. The first season’s replacement for the Stig was American NASCAR driver Mike Skinner, who no doubt is an excellent driver, but he was tasked with playing a one-note character called “the American,” a sort of motoring version of Slim Pickens’ character in Dr. Strangelove, who believed that everything that was made in America was Communist, godammit. The audience quickly hated him, and from the second season onward, he was replaced by British racer Abbie Eaton (the first distaff member of a heretofore all-male show originally chiefly aimed at the British “petrolhead” teenage lad demographic). Also, because of the Grand Tour’s fear of the BBC making their lives hell, they ditched Top Gear’s trademark “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment for a recurring gag in which a celebrity invariably dies an excruciating death before actually making it inside the studio, with May deadpanning each week, “Does this mean he’s not coming on the show?” Fortunately, along with a new pro driver, the second season brought celebrities racing on the Grand Tour’s (second) racetrack back to the show.
The second season of the Grand Tour also brought back an unintended flashback of one of the horrific moments on Top Gear, when in the first episode of the season, Richard Hammond crashed a Rimac Concept One high-performance electric car at 130 mph, echoing his terrifying 2006 crash of a jet-powered dragster moving at 288 mph.
Take them — to Detroit!
The third season of the Grand Tour debuts today. After an opening featuring scenes to come in the weeks ahead cut MTV-style atop Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” song from 1973, the first episode of the new season is built around a racing tour of Detroit, with Clarkson and co-presenters James May and Richard Hammond in a trio of high-end American muscle cars. Detroit alternates between looking like the backdrop of Full Metal Jacket (at one point, James May compares its destruction to Hiroshima and Pompeii) and Detroit’s downtown, something akin to Berkeley or Austin, with rent-a-bicycles and Microsoft billboards. Driving a trio of cars, each worth somewhere in the vicinity of $100K, eventually, not being able to find a decent restaurant to stop at, the lads decide to purchase a down-on-its-luck home in the Motor City — for about $2,800. Clarkson mentions a segment he did there in 1997, when he faced a gun to his temple for violating a gang-controlled space.
As with all of the segments of the Grand Tour, it’s beautifully photographed, in stunning 4K footage, with plenty of rock music and tire squeals on the soundtrack. Whether you’re watching on an iPad, a computer monitor, or on a full-size TV through something like the Roku box, the video will knock your socks off.
This is apparently the last season for the Grand Tour in the show’s original format with a studio audience. According to Hammond, Amazon will commission future seasons, but focusing on the show’s travel-themed episodes, which heretofore usually aired around Christmastime. If so, I will miss it. The antics of Clarkson, May, and Hammond are highly addictive, although with no severe side-effects, and while they have a massive back catalog of clips on YouTube, and full episodes via DVD from Netflix, it’s fun to see new product as well.