Four episodes in and Jeremy Clarkson’s The Grand Tour is shaping up as one of the TV success stories of 2016 and this week’s instalment offered what I felt was the perfect mix of car reviews and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ style cocking about.
The utterly mad sustainable cars film rivalled anything Clarkson and co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May delivered during their final few years on Top Gear, and had the bonus of being more enjoyable than last week’s Italian trip thanks to Hammond’s performance being a lot less ‘in your face’.
But what’s really been notable the past two weeks is how much more comfortable the trio have been in front of a UK audience than when standing in front of an American or South African crowd.
Their former Top Gear Live shows sold out all around the world so it’s not as if they don’t know how to charm a non-UK audience – hopefully it’s just the combination of a new format, new set and the need to get back up to speed which has sometimes seen them over-acting in the tent.
With filming having continued after the first episode’s debut we’ll soon be able to gauge whether the knowledge that the show has been a clear hit has helped them relax and return to their old unforced banter.
But despite a few awkward moments, I’ve really enjoyed the series so far and am looking forward to seeing how it evolves over the remaining weeks as well what, if any, changes they make for series 2.
Personally I could live without The American (Mike Skinner) – like many fans I’d have preferred Ben Collins – and the weekly celebrity deaths are getting a dull.
The second of these are – I presume – a sideswipe at the stupidly long celebrity interviews in the dismal one-season Chris Evans era of Top Gear but unless they’re leading up to a huge pay-off and a star actually getting into the tent for an unexpected chat it’s all going to feel like a huge waste of time.
On the plus side I do like ‘Mr Wilman’ (“the old man who controls our lives”) replacing Top Gear’s ‘The Producers’ as the setup for challenges and tasks – not only does this provide the necessary narrative framing for why the trio are cocking about in a field, it’s a nice acknowledgement of exec producer Andy Wilman’s role in their success.
The tent is starting to feel as familiar as the old hanger and the new track seems like a decent replacement, although it doesn’t feel as integral to the show, partly because we know it’’s not just outside the door like the old one was.
SPOILER FOR EPISODE FOUR
The real highlight of this week’s episode had to be Clarkson asking the audience to help come up with a metaphor for someone who has ‘really tried their hardest at something and it hasn’t worked’. It was a cruel but funny punch in the face for Evans and his dismal, dead on arrival attempt to replace Clarkson.
Ahead of The Grand Tour’s launch a lot of people had asked ‘can it be as good as (the non-Evans) Top Gear?’ but the show’s success not only provides a loud affirmative answer, it hurls the question back to the BBC which now desperately needs the forthcoming Evans-free, Matt Le Blanc fronted Top Gear to be as good as The Grand Tour.
It’s not enough to merely be better than the Evans series – broadcasting dead space would achieve that – Top Gear has to be a huge, unquestionable hit that wins back and retains the audience Evans’s one-note, unfunny, gurning, shouty performance scared away.
As I liked Le Blanc’s efforts last season I’ll give him and the show a chance to impress me but I’ll be approaching Top Gear with a whole lot less enthusiasm than I did The Grand Tour.
The Grand Tour is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video – including in 4K – for anyone with an Amazon Prime subscription or standalone monthly subscription to Prime Video. The service can be accessed on selected Smart TVs, via smartphone and tablet apps and via Amazon’s Fire TV stick and Fire TV.