What surprises you, on reflection, when thinking about this first episode of The Grand Tour is how much it is obviously about cars. Given that a frequent insult against the Clarkson-era Top Gear was that it was a gimmick-laden right-wing punching-down joke-fest it’s easy to forget that what they did every week was make you sit down and enjoy the site of a car racing through some countryside and then around a track. The exploding caravans were a neat addition but, on the evidence of one episode of The Grand Tour, they weren’t what our three middle-aged heroes were there for. They really do like cars.
And The Grand Tour with its budget the BBC can only dream of is that view of Top Gear dialled up to 11. Was it six supercars that were put through their paces or was it seven? How many cameras and how many takes were used just to get the moisture dripping out of the exhaust of a Ferrari? How many countries can we fly over with how many helicopters? This is the iconography of the Top Gear car segments taken to the next level. It’s like seeing a nice picture of a boy selling fruit on the BBC and then next to it a Caravaggio of the same scene. It’s not even close.
All of this wouldn’t matter if the chemistry hadn’t transferred. It has. These are three blokes who are clearly having the time of their lives – but who also want to share that enjoyment. Lost among the, sometimes legitimate, comments on the offensive nature of Clarkson’s gags is the number of times that he makes himself the butt of the joke. They are also three blokes who know their stuff but wear that knowledge lightly. It’s there for when it’s needed, never presented as a lecture. They want the audience to be part of the experience – or if they don’t, they are damn good at pretending that they do. I don’t much care for cars or driving but I watched this straight through, an almost permanent grin on my face.
I haven’t seen the post-Clarkson Top Gear. I was waiting to for the series after the initial reprise, for when they’d learnt not to try to replicate and to go their own way. Because as The Grand Tour all too easily shows there really isn’t any other group that can do this. With the right production players on board and with the triumvirate in front of the camera there’s no use even trying to compete directly – especially now they have the budget to spend on whatever takes their fancy. Maybe in eleven episodes times I’ll think differently but, for now, The Grand Tour marks a clear win for Amazon’s big money investment.