After months of waiting and a fairly disastrous start to the new era of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May have returned to our screens with their own new car show. Fuelled by a supercharged Amazon budget said to pump around £4 million into each of its 12 episodes, streamed in glorious 4K with an introductory sequence that feels positively filmic, The Grand Tour is quite an event. Yet, at its core, its debut episode shows that it’s still three middle-aged blokes mucking around and geeking out about cars. That it’s still so familiar despite all the money behind it is actually quite comforting.
Not that The Grand Tour is a complete carbon copy of what’s come before – if it was, no doubt lawyers from the BBC would be knocking on the production team’s door. Ideas that make their way over in a slightly different form – like celebrity guests and a dedicated test track – are delivered with a wink and a nod that makes it clear Clarkson and pals know what their audience wants. Free from the shackles of terrestrial television, there’s nothing to stop the test track being called the “Eboladrome.” Cars are compared to crystal meth and iffy weed. There’s a gag about pleasuring a horse, and the celebrities make only a fleeting appearance during a bizarre skit in which they’re all killed off.
Much of the scripted comedy actually does fall a little flat. We get it, guys, you’re on the Internet. It’s when the trio are out making the car-centric films that their sense of humour shines through best. Whatever you think of Clarkson, Hammond and May, these are three mates who are comfortable and confident in each other’s company. Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc’s Top Gear was often awkward, because there was about as much chemistry as there has been between myself and just about any attractive woman I’ve ever met. The Grand Tour’s presenters have it in spades.
The main film puts to the test three cars that give the first episode its name. An absolutely gorgeous trifecta of a Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche pitted against one another in a series of drag races and time trials. The Holy Trinity promised to be car-centric and it is. Future episodes promise more of the mad escapades that made up Top Gear’s classic seasonal specials, but The Grand Tour is a bit more reserved as it bids to get into its stride. That said, each of the trials is shot beautifully, with a cinematic sheen. Some of the action wouldn’t look out of place in a Bourne chase sequence. Another extended shot of a parade of cars and trucks making their way across the California desert might well have been pulled from Mad Max.
When they’re not out in cars, Clarkson and pals are stationed in a massive tent that promises to travel with them over the next few months. The Holy Trinity’s tent is stationed in California with a live audience, so there are plenty of predictable gags to be had as the Brits banter with their American fans. As is the case with all the humour, just as much of it hits as it misses. It would be less of a problem if there wasn’t so much of it – as said previously, The Grand Tour is at its best when cars are involved. For the most part, anyway. Its own tame racing driver, a NASCAR driver whose name I can’t recall but is referred to simply as “The American,” is a lazy attempt at playing to Stateside viewers that doesn’t really work.
Thankfully, the bulk of the 70 minute running time is spent on things that really do work. It’s no surprise that what made old Top Gear so fun is what makes The Grand Tour so fun, too. So yeah, there are problems, but most will happily take them in exchange for what has undoubtedly now usurped the BBC’s effort as the world’s flagship motoring show. And all it took to achieve it was more of what worked before.