It’s finally here, the long-awaited Amazon Prime answer to ‘Top Gear’.
Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May have started on their ‘The Grand Tour’, and descended with their tent onto the Californian Desert. We knew it was going to be big-budget stuff, with some familiar elements included. The big question was, would they refer, even in passing, to their less than glorious departure from the BBC?
The answer - oh, yes, and then some.
The introduction was dominated by Clarkson’s exit from rain-drenched London and the sound of news footage reporting on his ‘debacle’. Then the jokes continued as the three hosts made blatant references to each of them being fired, culminating in Clarkson stating, “It’s unlikely I’ll be fired now because I’m on the internet.”
Once they’d got that out of the way, with such a successful back-catalogue to pluck from, it was inevitable some elements were going to be uncannily familiar to fans of ‘Top Gear’.
Instead of the News, we had... Conversation Street, complete with self-knowingly cheesy sting.
Instead of an A-lister test-driving a chariot, we had ‘Celebrity Brain Crash’, which proved to be short-lived when Jeremy Renner, Armie Hammer and Carol Vorderman(!) all tried, but fatally failed, to make it into the studio.
The ‘Top Gear’ track was replaced by the Ebola Drome (so called for its extraordinary virus-resembling shape), home to their new track for testing cars, complete with Old Lady’s House, grazing sheep, some moisture and an unexploded bomb, apparently.
And… yes… there’s a brand new Same Racing Driver, in the form of - ‘The American’ aka Mike Skinner of NASCAR, who’s clearly going to get his own global fanbase, with such Southern twang bon mots as “This isn’t a car, it’s a cry for help.”
Despite all these familiar elements, there was a new whiff to the show, of huge amounts of dollars, from the moment a smiling Clarkson was joined in the desert, by his two compadres, lining up Charlie’s Angels style, just in Mustangs.
The cars throwing up sand across the desert looked like the wildebeest of Planet Earth, and just in case we missed the epic quality, we had the soundtrack of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, sung by the Hothouse Flowers, who we finally came across in some kind of mini-Woodstock gathering, before our three unlikely looking British bill-toppers took to the stage.
Some things felt new. After all those years of causing ripples with Clarkson’s remarks about foreign cultures, they’ve solved that problem by bringing their show to those same foreign fields, presumably so Jeremy can insult them to their face. Cue laughter from a bunch of people who’ve queued up and paid to see these fellas, and aren’t easily going to be offended. Occasionally, they even get to have the last word.
The look of the thing is unprecedented, too, with stunning photography of the first film segment in the Algarve, hand-held jerky camera and lots and lots of colour.
However, apart from that, this could literally have been an old ‘Top Gear’ episode on steroids, all accessible car chat and bad jeans banter - as could the whole of the show, pegged securely by Clarkson’s never-failing narrative, and sheer triumph of personality.
On paper, it’s easy enough telly to while away an hour while the pizza’s on its way, but a certain BBC reboot has proven just how difficult this effortless kind of TV actually is to make.
There’s the promise of huge stunts to come - Richard Hammond being dangled in the air from a helicopter, Clarkson on a jet-ski - but the heart of the show is a bunch of blokes who simply like cars and claim not to get on. What’s that we can hear? I think it’s the sound of three middle-aged men having the last laugh.