Grand Tour review: Jeremy Clarkson & Co revive Top Gear spirit but is anything new?

Former Top Gear trio are back with Amazon dollars and sweeping visuals but episode one feels a touch too familiar

Former Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May return in the official trailer for their new show 'The Grand Tour'. Video: Amazon Prime

 

Well, here we are. Almost two years since Jeremy Clarkson got angry about non-existent steak and punched a producer in the mouth, the big man of motoring is about to powerslide back onto our screens.

Well, our screens if you’re living in the UK, Germany, the US, Austria or Japan and have an Amazon Prime account. If you are one of , presumably, many who want to watch Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May pratting about with cars on screen, you have to live in one of those countries and pony up for an Amazon Prime account (a more open, global launch will follow in December - see our how-to-watch guide here) The days of traditional broadcast telly are dying and three of its oldest-school presenters are now at the cutting edge of modern on-screen entertainment. With added genitalia jokes.

GT v TG

It’s a few minutes before the midnight release of episode one of The Grand Tour, the re-teaming of the three old frenemies, away from their BBC heartland, bereft of old Top Gear tropes such as the track, the hanger studio and The Stig and out into brave new world of streaming, 4K video quality and an opening sequence that cost a reputed USD$3.2 million. Was it worth it? Has the wait whetted our appetites or simply made us apathetic to the antics of these three middle aged car nuts? How will GT compare to TG? Hush, the internet curtains are opening and the flickering light is beckoning us in…

Well, that was quite the opening sequence. After a brief, faux-comical start involving Clarkson leaving a pretend BBC building in London’s driving rain, we switch to the sun-baked widescreen of California’s Mojave desert, where Jeremy, aboard a modified Ford Mustang is joined by his trusty wingmen, a gaggle of sports cars, supercars and some Mad-Max-esque creations, some leftovers from the Burning Man festival and the Hot House Flowers singing “I can see clearly now the rain has gone…” Allegory a-go-go.

Was the money all up on screen? I’m not so sure. There was no plot, no actual dialogue for the famously verbose trio and it all seemed to be over a bit quickly. Actually, I’d suggest the series promo, shown once the trio were safely in their studio audience tent, was actually more interesting and certainly more tightly edited. Showcasing everything from Aston Martin hypercars to drive-by shootings, it looked as raucous and as stupidly entertaining as Top Gear ever was.

Holy Trinity of supercars

This episode though? Well, the idea was to showcase the ‘Holy Trinity’ of supercars - the Porsche 918, the McLaren P1 and the Ferrari LaFerrari, allegedly the most exciting cars one can currently buy. And they are - they’re fast, loud, trailed by a constant haze of tyre smoke and each one as fiercely high-tech as a weaponised laptop. But while the quality of filming is not in doubt, indeed the photography is as good as anything ever shot by Roger Deakins, the first segment on a race track in Portugal did seem to drag just a little. Perhaps we’re too inured to the sight of multi-million-Euro supercars going sideways?

Better was the badinage. Clarkson, Hammond and May are old friends and that still shows as soon as the script becomes looser. While the BBC’s revamped Top Gear needed much more careful and considered scripting, The Grand Tour, as with old Top Gear, works best when it’s just three grumpy, middle-aged men talking rubbish about cars. Or about celebrities as there was a genuinely funny middle segment where big-name celebs were apparently about to enter, only to fall prey to… well, I won’t spoil it for you but it’s Jeremy Renner’s best performance yet.

There was also a trip back to the UK, to Wroughton Airfield, near Swindon, where a twisty-turny test track has been set up. The drizzly airfield location and comedy corner names certainly seemed familiar and could give truth to Clarkson’s only half-joking pre-show comments that they’re bound to get sued by the BBC. Anyway, it gave Clarkson the chance to test the BMW M2, which he pronounced the best BMW M car ever. Before being promptly laughed at by Hammond and May when it turned out to be the slowest M-Car around the track.

Those hot laps were driven by American NASCAR driver Mike Skinner, who provides a pleasingly grumpy commentary as he corners, and stands in garrulous contrast to the wordless Stig.

Ground breaking?

Finally, we were back in Portugal for a series of shoot outs between the three hyper-expensive hypercars. Here at last the format seemed to come together a bit better, and the tension of competition allied to the looser scripting seemed to bring the best from the three ageing war horses. It was, perhaps, not quite yet at the peaks of classic Top Gear, but it was certainly entertaining enough for those of us who used to tune in every Sunday. Ground breaking? Possibly not, no.

So, what have we learned? Well, we’ve learned that Clarkson, Hammond and May can still present a reasonably entertaining television show, but perhaps that was not a major surprise. We have learned that Amazon’s bottomless pot of dollars certainly buys some spectacular imagery, but not necessarily anything better than can be wrought by the BBC. We have learned that James May has been recently done for speeding at just 37mph. I did laugh at that.

We have perhaps learned that aside from Clarkson, the most important member of The Grand Tour team is script editor Richard Porter. Also the man behind comedy car website Sniff Petrol, Porter was script editor all through the Clarkson, Hammond and May era of Top Gear and he takes up the reins again here.

And it shows. Alongside Clarkson’s legendary head for hard graft when it comes to writing and editing, Porter’s steady hand on the funny button shows the BBC’s revamped Top Gear up for the under-written mess that it was. Yes, the gag about getting into a fight with the American tent audience was over-played, and the celeb gag did run out of steam. But once again it has been demonstrated that three guys talking utter cobblers about cars makes for enticing television.

But, we haven’t seen anything new, yet. Old Top Gear fans will probably be happy enough with this first episode, but the three hypercars tested have been around for years already (and have been compared in an internet video a year ago by New Top Gear’s Chris Harris) and you get the sense that the central trio are yet to truly stretch themselves. Will that massive Amazon budget lead to genuine must-stream TV? Or will it be a case of the most expensive televisual comfort food ever? Right now, it’s leaning towards the latter but next week The Grand Tour tent will move to Johannesburg, and we can start afresh. Much like Jeremy Clarkson himself.