Well, they were never ones to back down from a fight. (In the end, that was the problem.)
Yet even for a trio of professional naughty schoolboys, the decision to start Clarkson, Hammond and May’s new show with a revisionist history of their leaving Top Gear is ballsy.
Cast out of the grey, rainy stand-in for the BBC’s Broadcasting house…
… our hero travels across the Atlantic to the sunlit uplands of America, mates in tow….
…along with a convoy of fellow petrol heads and producers…
…only to find an army of fans already waiting for them, arms outstretched, all forgotten and forgiven.
It’s a cheeky sequence that will raise a smile, but this was a firmly Clarksonian version of events. There were shades of how the Soviets restaged the storming of the Winter Palace as a propaganda spectacle.
This was followed by a few lines that were either poorly chosen or thinly disguised jabs: of the trio, Clarkson is “technically the only one never to be fired from anywhere” (he was not sacked following his infamous punch, his contract at the BBC was simply not renewed) and they’ve all been “motoring journalists for 20 years” (none of them starred in an American sitcom, for example.)
The intro wrapped up with an off-colour and off-putting joke about gypsies that seemed designed only to prove that the experience (and Amazon’s millions) had not made Clarkson afraid of controversy.
“We’re on the Internet,” he boasted, meaning he’s now safe from sacking, even if he gets intimate with animals on screen.
Without the upbeat music in the background, this could have seemed like so much bitter recrimination. But with old scores put to bed, it was time to show what was new. Forget Top Gear – what is The Grand Tour?
Turns out, it’s a lot like Top Gear. If Andy Wilman hadn’t described the great lengths Amazon’s lawyers have gone to in order to differentiate this new motoring entertainment show from the old one, you might think they were in trouble.
There’s The News, now called ‘Conversation Street’…
…there’s a new track, ‘The Ebola Drome’, that’s full of sheep…
…with a new tame racing driver to master it – Mike ‘The American’ Skinner, a NASCAR superstar…
…and even a new celebrity scoreboard competition: ‘Celebrity Brain Crash’.
Well, there would be, if any of the celebrities survived long enough to play it.
It’s here, in a show that stamps out subtlety wherever it finds it, that The Grand Tour starts sketching out its new vision. Yes, it’s bigger and brasher, and Amazon’s money comes spilling out of every frame, but there’s some clever thinking going on.
Star in a Reasonably Priced car was always the most painful part of Top Gear, a seeming hangover from Clarkson’s dream of hosting a chat show. While Chris Evans decided to extend the interviews to almost half the programme (just one of several fatal decisions) The Grand Tour elects to violently kill Jeremy Renner, Armie Hammer and Carol Vorderman before they can even step on stage. It’s a genuinely funny comedy sketch that arrives without warning in the middle of a car show.
Similarly, badinage/banter with the audience is a throughline to the early success of Clarkson’s Top Gear – the idea that the hanger was a ‘treehouse’ for socially awkward petrolheads. Moving the tent from country to country means we should expect an awful lot of local material/casual racism.
But then something strange happens. The mining of cultural differences between the US and UK turns into an elongated editing joke, with hours apparently passing as the hosts and audience get into a long, bloody fist fight over who has the better airforce.
Even the new track betrays the serious thought that goes into stupidity: ‘Your Name Here’ corner and ‘The Old Lady’s House’ already hit like in-jokes you’ve been sharing for years.
Top Gear was always a love letter to mucking about – its best moments came spontaneously or by accident, or at least so it seemed. Over time, this bumbling became strained, a forced kind of artlessness, professional unprofessionalism, crap clowns.
By the end the shtick had worn thin, but they couldn’t be seen to be trying something new, or it wouldn’t work. It’s the difference between your mate telling a joke down the pub, and a stand-up trying the same joke on stage. Expectations are higher when you’re expecting to laugh.
The Grand Tour is brave enough not only to try and be funny but to let the effort show. And at least in this first episode, it’s a welcome and hilarious change.
Of course, one area that was never afraid to try hard was the car tests: more money was never going to hurt a team that turned out stunning footage week after week.
However, this showed that there’s an art to it that goes beyond filters, lenses and camera drones. The battle of the hybrid supercars was not only perfect playground fodder – I’m pretty sure Ferrari stole the design of LaFerrari from a dream I had as an eight year old– but was shot with an unabashed love for these machines. Even while the studio sections were more tightly structured than in the past, the films had space for real, spontaneous emotion.
Clarkson is not a good enough actor to fake being this scared at the wheel of a McLaren P1.
It was gorgeous, TV selling, demo-reel-in-Dixons stuff, and the glimpse of upcoming episodes hinted at even bigger thrills to come.
If nothing else, after the damp squib of the official Top Gear reboot, The Grand Tour’s first episode shows that the format can still work. It’s not a total reinvention, yet much as half a second makes all the difference on the race track, every refinement is a breakthrough.
Clarkson’s team may not be afraid of a fight, but until they have a worthwhile competitor, they’re happy to keep pushing themselves.
New episodes of The Grand Tour are released every Friday on Amazon Prime