Monday, 6 February 2017

The Grand Tour: A Series Review



It occurs to me that I have lately become something of an evangelist for new technology and new media. I am an enthusiast for all Apple products for instance (with the exception of the pointless and annoying watch) thoroughly enjoy the benefits of time shifting television devices and wax lyrical about the endless joys of the internet and have done these last 20 years. I have also lately become an enthusiastic watcher of the programming of Netflix and Amazon, not least because there is seldom anything worth watching or time shifting on normal TV.

And all of this at an age when, conventional wisdom suggests, I should be baffled by technology and in need of a five year old to help me figure it all out. Why oh why can I not act my age and buy a sports car, date a woman young enough to be my daughter and dye my hair to a colour my eyes are incapable of actually appreciating. To be fair, by the way, I also tick two out of three of these boxes just to show that middle aged maleness has not completely eluded me.

Which brings me to The Grand Tour, the first series of which came to a slightly damp squib of an ending this weekend. The Grand Tour, in the event that you are in need of a five year old to advise you on how to watch it and have been unable to engage the services of one, is what Top Gear is called now. Except Top Gear is still called Top Gear and remains on the BBC, but has become like the sort of sad tribute bands that people my age are supposed to enjoy because we cannot work out how to watch Netflix. Oh, except that The Grand Tour is not on Netflix - it is on Amazon. This is an internet site that sells everything, literally everything and then delivers it to you, or to your five year old. Watching The Grand Tour is possible along with a wealth of other entertainment - including Tom and Jerry I discovered to my delight this week - if you are a member of Amazon Prime: essentially free delivery plus other goodies in return for a modest annual sum.

Anyway, back to The Grand Tour. This stars Clarkson, May and Hammond. It is Top Gear but with a new title not so very different to the old one, especially when abbreviated and seen in a mirror.

This blog was and is a big fan of old Top Gear. I am also a fan of Jeremy Clarkson. Oh I know that he is an oafish, bumptious, arrogant, fuzzy headed ape of a man, but he is also funny. Being funny means that one can be forgiven a lot. Apparently he is even, I'm told, one of those men that women find themselves fancying even though they know that they oughtn't. No, really.

Essentially then The Grand Tour is just a rebooted and resuited internet version of the old show. With a bigger budget. And swearing. This is thanks to its being on the internet, where swearing is allowed, presumably on the grounds that it is after the watershed somewhere in the world at all times. It is also hosted from a large tent and then taken to various parts of the world because the old show became a huge international brand and made the terrible trio massive stars in many highly unlikely places.

Because many of the elements of old Top Gear could not be transplanted to the new show since they are 'owned' by the BBC, much of the new show had to be completely new. This meant that there could be no Stig, because he is 'owned' by the BBC. This even meant that it owned the jokes that are used to introduce the Stig, which were written by Clarkson and delivered by him in inimitable style. We know it was inimitable because the new presenters, including a shouty ginger bloke whose name escapes me, tried to imitate him and failed. There was also no star in a reasonably priced car and the chat show element.

This obliged the new show to come up with new ideas and new ways of making us laugh. As is the way with these things their efforts were not always successful, but at least they tried to be different and innovative. There was a new test track with comic potential. There was a celebrity section in which guests were 'killed' each week before they got to chat, an element which would presumably have seen the show sued by the BBC. I for one found this part each week amusing if only because of its determination to send up the BBC and its attempt to own the notion of a celebrity chat show. There was 'Conversation Street' instead of the news, including a weekly sting intro, many of which were very funny. Less successful was The American, a test driver and a kind of anti Stig, because he talks a lot. He was not funny. He should be dropped, or maybe killed like some of the celebrities.

The point of all of this was that, through necessity, the show had to do things slightly differently and thus had to be creative and, as is the way with Clarkson, iconoclastic. Conversation street is just the news with a new title and a humorous intro. They couldn't have a celebrity element and so they had them on and then killed them in a different fashion each week, many of them driven by the location they were in. This again could often be very funny, although the location and budget definitely helped. Clarkson has the sensibility and timing of a comedian. The elements that are there every week are like sitcom catchphrases.

The series was probably 2 or 3 episodes too long and was forced to stretch its material and budget a little too thinly. It also needs to remind itself of why it became so wildly popular in the first place. It is loved because of its irreverence and humour of course and because it sees three grown men behave like bickering children. Their taking the piss out of one another was always part of the fun. This is why the road trips and the challenges were so successful. But you can have too many of them. There were too many in this series, a mistake that they also made on new old Top Gear. And there were not enough races. The best road trips saw the three guys get into often knackered old cars and drive extraordinary distances in them. My personal favourite episodes were when they had races between two on trains or planes and Clarkson in a car. Or there were the two challenges in cars turned into boats. Comedy masterpieces all.

But sometimes the three can be best when delivering films alone. Clarkson in particular delivered his best films when shorn of the others and making mini comedy masterpieces about the Reliant Robin or the Peel P50. Both hilarious throughout.

None of this is to suggest however that, though a little clunky at times, The Grand Tour was not well worth the price of an Amazon Prime membership, especially since I discovered Tom and Jerry. The new show had to pull off the trick of taking an established formula, make it sufficiently different to appease the lawyers, whilst sufficiently similar to appease the fans and the subscribers. They pulled this off. Having said that there were no real classic moments to compete with old Top Gear. But compared with new Top Gear, well if I could get my money back on that I definitely would.

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