You will have heard about it. Once upon a time it was a river, delivering water to the world. Then it started delivering books and things, to people. And now, it also delivers films and the like, digitally, because we already have too much physical stuff. Well, they gave Mr Clarkson and some of his thirsty-for-petrol chums a ton of money and said “would you like to make some more of those motoring programmes you like so much?”
And so, at midnight last night, the first fruits of their endeavours were released. The Grand Tour has commenced. And how was it? Well, what did you expect – it’s Clarkson, Hammond and May being exactly what you know them to be. Daft and entertaining.
But it’s been more than 18 months since we saw Clarkson in cars on our screens, and in this first outing since the event, they were not shy about addressing the elephant in the room. This is not Top Gear. So let’s address it ourselves.
It opens with an elaborate sequence of Jeremy leaving an office in the miserable rain of London, with some little snippets of radio in the background, referring to Jeremy’s exit from the previous programme – specifically his contract “not being extended”. Then to the tune of “I can see clearly now the rain has gone” he swoops through sunny California in a tuned version of the new Ford Mustang, soon to be joined by his familiar cohorts, in other tuned versions of the same car. The red, white and blue triplet of Mustangs then bisect the desert, through a multitude of cars, and towards a huge crowd of people enjoying the song being played live on stage by the Hothouse Flowers. The trio then introduce each other, reminding us that Jeremy, despite being Britain’s best known “Controversy Seeking Missile”, was not actually fired from Top Gear.
The main sequence of the episode is then dedicated to some major Top Gear unfinished business. The suite of three, super-limited, million pound, hybrid hypercars that have been termed by some as “the holy trinity”. McLaren P1. Porsche 918. LaFerrari. Back in series 21 of Top Gear, early 2014, so convinced that the Porsche couldn’t possibly be faster than the McLaren, Jeremy confidently told Richard Hammond that he would change his name to Jennifer if it was faster, round the old Top Gear track. If you want to remind people that this is a programme about cars, made by automotive journalists (that just happen to be friends) then this is the trio to do it.
So, old Top Gear style. We had the three of them, mucking about in wonderful cars, with wonderfully shot footage, to a rousing soundtrack. Sure, some of it was daft and unnecessary, but it’s what you expect and hope for from them. Conducted by Andy Wilman, with a script edited by unsung hero Richard Porter (AKA @SniffPetrol – the funniest sideways glance at the automotive industry there is), it’s the sound of the old orchestra, firing the way it should. And exactly the way Chris Evan’s Top Gear films faltered.
The rest of the episode is a constant reminder of what used to be, and what now cannot be. For 22 series of Top Gear, they refined and improved, and worked out the kinks in the format of their pokey motoring programme on BBC 2. But many of those format aspects are now considered intellectual property of the BBC and Jeremy has made many references in the past year, to regular calls to lawyers. So, there’s a new track, but no Stig. There’s a News section but it isn’t about new car news – instead, expect Clarkson-esque automotive posturing, that readers of his will be very familiar with. And they’re not allowed to put a celebrity in a car, so there was some celebrity posturing but without any hint of an interview.
So, what are we left with, as a feeling? Well, Top Gear, the way it was, will never be again. That’s what we have to deal with, and move on. None of the “good old days” rhetoric – that’s what got Donald Trump elected. It’s true, that Top Gear formula, with those guys and their camaraderie was ideal. That’s why the intellectual property they created and they brought to life, was so strong. Meanwhile, lacking their interaction and charisma, the BBC watered it down, ruining the format, while trying to inject it with a fresh identity. They failed, and properties that were once so strong, are now just pale impressions of what they used to be, exposed for the fact their strength lay in the people that used them.
Ultimately the episode should have been called “Elephants in the Room/Tent”. It was called “The Holy Trinity” after the triplet of hybrid hypercars – not an ego-centric naming of the three hosts. But if you’re from the BBC, looking at what they’ve set free and said goodbye to, it’ll feel like those hosts were “The Holy Trinity” that made Top Gear into a religion. It remains to be seen if The Grand Tour will become its own church, but it needs a chance to become its own entity, instead of being compared to what used to be. Hopefully, from the next episode on, we’ll be able to work out what it will become.
But what we will still have, as evidenced by a personal highlight from the show, is Mr Clarkson’s delectable own way of dealing with questions of importance – like addressing the VolkswagenDiesel-gate with nothing but a single look.
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