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30th November 2016

Review: The Grand Tour, Episode One

The boys are back in town. And in a similar vein to recent weeks, May and Hammond had the nation in stitches

In March 2015, Jeremy Clarkson punched a BBC producer due to the absence of a hot meal on offer after a day of Top Gear filming. Immediately, debates were opened up as to what the BBC should do next. Take the moral high ground, make a statement and sack Clarkson? Or accept a public apology, acknowledge his popularity and let the incident slide? In essence, the nature of these debates were akin to the “non-dom” taxation debates of the 2015 UK general election campaign: morality vs economics.

Well, despite petitions from fans to keep Clarkson, the BBC decided Clarkson had crossed a line and had to go. And so with him went colleagues James May and Richard Hammond. In an attempt to prove Top Gear was bigger than the trio, another series of Top Gear was filmed. Cast selection made it clear from the offset the BBC were trying to appeal to a wider audience than before. Top Gear had become symbolic of heterogenic masculinity, with its “laddish” style humour. That is not to say women didn’t watch the show but the new Top Gear wanted to feel more inclusive. New presenters included radio host Chris Evans, Friends star Matt LeBlanc, F1’s Eddie Jordan, as well as professional racing driver Sabine Schmitz. The show certainly had crafted a fresh, new image.

Despite the BBC’s efforts, the new Top Gear series went down like a lead balloon. That didn’t stop Evans rather embarrassingly taking to twitter to defend the first episode, tweeting “The new Top Gear is a hit. OFFICIALLY. 23 % audience share. 12 % MORE than the opening episode of the last series. These are the FACTS”. Indeed, people may have watched the first episode out of curiosity but that is not to say they enjoyed the show, as indicated by the plummeting viewing figures of subsequent weeks. The 3rd episode’s overnight viewing figures were 2.4 million: the lowest for the BBC2 show in over a decade. Matt Le Blanc received praise from critics but overall Top Gear flopped. So much so that Evans has since stepped down as host due to the overwhelming volume of criticism received.

And so all eyes turned to Clarkson, Hammond and May. The trio signed a multi-million pound deal with Amazon to host a rival car show, titled  “The Grand Tour”. Fans were brimming with excitement, with the first episode due to go live on the site on the 18th of November from 00:01.

The Grand Tour started off in tongue and cheek style. Clarkson left a building, exchanging glances with the security guard (alluding to his BBC departure) before heading off to the airport to get a flight to Los Angeles. Clarkson then began driving along a picturesque road in America, joined by May and Hammond. The trio then drove along a beach to the opening set to the sound of Johnny Nash’s “I can see clearly now the rain has gone”, played by a live band. Lots of other cars, trucks and Lorries drove alongside Clarkson et al. to illustrate the number of team members that followed the trio to Amazon from BBC.

Amazon had clearly gone over and above to ensure as many fans were at the show’s launch as possible; the size of the crowd illustrated the extent of the global reach of the trio’s popularity. The cinematography of this scene was stunning, as well as being very clever, it was basically a way of sticking two fingers up to the BBC and saying “you need us; we don’t need you” without explicitly saying or doing anything controversial. The beaming trio were upbeat, and their energy infected the crowd.

Once inside the tent, the Grand Tour began with a classic Clarkson Vs Hammond battle over whose car was best, with May eventually joining the duo. The three cars reviewed across the show were hybrid hypercars: McClaren P1 (Clarkson); Porsche 918 (Hammond) and LaFerrari (May). There were some details given about the mechanical features of the cars. But in traditional Top Gear Style, these reviews were light hearted in nature. Clarkson suggested Hammond’s Porsche was like Downton Abbey and his McClaren was like Breaking Bad. The humour was also as politically incorrect as fans have to come expect (and love). Clarkson compared the trio to gypsies due to the fact they will be travelling round in a tent but pointed out the difference is that they will pay insurance tax. In the “I’m offended” political era, Clarkson’s politically incorrect jokes are somewhat refreshing. The trio’s humour is what the fans tune in for. Evans just did not have that presence about him. He might tell a joke but it seemed slightly forced and awkward. With Clarkson et al., the show is embedded with witty jokes and one-liners; the trio bounce off one another and have great chemistry: a complete contrast to the Top Gear presenters who failed to gel as a group.

While the BBC has ownership rights over lots of Top Gear content, the Grand Tour was very similar to the traditional Top Gear set up which the fans know and love. “The Stig” has been replaced by “the American”, who seems to like to make jokes about Communism. The “Star in the reasonably priced car” section has been replaced by “Celebrity Brain Crash”, although details of what this actually entails remain vague as of yet. All that has effectively changed is technicalities and titles: it is basically Top Gear but Clarkson et al. now have more money, as well as greater freedom to do what they want given the show is broadcast online and not on TV.

The Grand Tour’s reception was well and truly brilliant. Over 3,000 people have rated the Amazon episode, averaging 5 stars. In addition, the episodes’s IMDb rating is 9.6. Given Top Gear was one of the BBC’s most exported programme worldwide, the success of The Grand Tour might have them worried. With the loss of so much revenue, further question marks will be added over the BBC’s future. Sacking Clarkson might have been the right thing to do morally but it was bad for business.

Score: 4/5

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