Amazon’s ‘The Grand Tour’ Leaves ‘Top Gear’ in the Dust, British TV Critics Say

Leo Barraclough
Variety

The Grand Tour,” the new auto show from the former hosts of “Top Gear,” Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, premiered on Amazon Prime Video Friday, and the British press love it.

The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston acknowledged that the big-budget — reported to be £160 million ($197 million) across 36 episodes, or $5.5 million an episode – is up on the screen.

He marvels at the opening sequence, in which a “Mad Max” convoy of cars, trucks and bikes travels across the California desert to a surreal concert. “It is, undeniably, a brilliant beautiful spectacle,” Wollaston says.

The Grand Tour
The Grand Tour

‘The Grand Tour’s’ Hollywood-esque opening sequence shows a convoy trekking through the California desert to an auto festival

The spectacle and new format points (such as replacing The Stig with The American as the test driver) aside, the core appeal that made the BBC’s “Top Gear” the most watched reality show in the world, remains. “It’s all utterly familiar,” he says. “You can pour something into a different container, but it still tastes the same. And, like it or not, this tastes of Clarkson, Hammond and May.”

The same questionable humor and aversion to political correctness that got the three guys into hot water at the BBC is evident here. The new test track is shaped like the Ebola virus, so it’s called the Eboladrome. Referring to the itinerant nature of show, Clarkson says: “We’re going to be like Gypsies. Only the cars we drive are going to be insured.”

Clarkson is unrepentant. He comments, “It’s very unlikely I’m going to be fired now, because we’re on the internet, which means I could pleasure a horse.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Ed Power too focuses on the strange marriage of Hollywood-style production values and British middle-aged male banter. “The real question was whether Clarkson, May and Hammond could reprise the chemistry that made ‘Top Gear’ an international sensation,” Power writes. The answer is an emphatic “yes.” “From a Hollywood introduction to three wrinkly blokes trading good-natured insults, ‘The Grand Tour’ was certainly covering all its bases.”

Power goes on to point out that the hosts have not forgotten that “The Grand Tour” is at heart a show about motor vehicles, with the first episode including a trip to Portugal for a race between a Porsche 918, a McLaren P1 and a Ferrari LaFerrari.

As with all British papers, the Telegraph refers at length to the rivalry with the BBC’s revamped “Top Gear,” generally considered a failure under new hosts Chris Evans, who quit after one season, and Matt LeBlanc, who remains. “Petrolheads can rejoice. The BBC may wonder how Matt LeBlanc and whoever joins him next year can possibly compete,” the Telegraph concludes.

The Sun’s Dan Wootton is awestruck, and again focuses on the twin charms of top-notch production values and boyish banter.

“A £160 million investment has made ‘The Grand Tour’ one of the most exhilarating TV series ever — and I don’t even like cars,” he writes. Wootton reassures the audience that despite the glitz, the grumpy old men remain unreconstructed. “If you thought the trademark banter that made ‘Top Gear’ such a phenomenon was gone for good, there was no need to worry,” he says. “Within seconds of taking the stage, the put-downs begin flying with Hammond describing Clarkson as ‘a shaved ape in a shirt.’”

Despite the high-octane elements, “guns, explosions, super yachts, madcap stunts …. dramatic crashes, a sinking ship and Hammond being dangled from a chopper,” Wootton concludes, “the one thing that really matters is Clarkson being reunited with his two mates on screen.”

Jim Shelley for the Daily Mail questions whether the show is really “new,” unless you were labeling it the “new ‘Top Gear.’”

“It was ‘vintage Top Gear’ too, ‘a futuristic Top Gear’ (‘Top Gear filmed in 4K’), ‘the American Top Gear,’ and more like ‘the Return of Top Gear’ than Chris Evans’ recent horrible, hollow, imitation of the original,” Shelley writes.

He underscores the similarities with the BBC show, “the same juvenile obsession with speed, same outlandish (stupid) stunts, exotic locations, banter with the audience, race-track and test driver…”

Rather than lambasting the hosts for this, he applauds them. “They were canny and confident enough to resist the temptation of being different for the sake of it, contenting themselves with being themselves instead,” he writes.

Shelley concludes that the departure from the BBC, and the period of rest that followed has been for the best. “After all that time away it was good to see them back – not necessarily where they belonged but bigger, better, and more badly behaved than ever.”

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