Jeremy Clarkson was with James May and Richard Hammond in Victorville, Calif., in September shooting the first episode of their new Amazon series, “The Grand Tour.” The segment features Clarkson, May, and Hammond each behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang, leading a pack of cars across the desert to the foot of a stage where a raucous, massive crowd awaits. The three aging Brits, who together look like the Google image-search results for “older dad,” receive a greeting normally afforded rock stars.
“Everybody was saying welcome back,” Clarkson says. “That was genuinely touching. I and Hammond did well up properly.”
“It is nice to be liked,” May says.
“It’s unusual for us to be liked,” Clarkson says.
Not that unusual. For 12 years, Clarkson, May, and Hammond hosted “Top Gear,” the BBC automotive show that was ostensibly about cars, but in reality was about three guys — sometimes talking about cars, sometimes not, sometimes driving cars, sometimes not. The series was consistently BBC Two’s highest rated and in 2012 became the most widely watched nonfiction television program in the world, distributed in 212 countries and territories. With Clarkson, May, and Hammond, “Top Gear” was the definition of a global television hit.
“The Grand Tour,” which premiered at midnight, is a version of that show with a bigger budget and a road-trip element thrown in. Each episode features Clarkson and company in a different location around the world, with studio segments filmed under a massive tent in front of a live, local audience. The vibe that made “Top Gear” a phenomenon is present and strong. For Amazon, “The Grand Tour” represents a potentially smart bet as it attempts to broaden its original-series effort’s international appeal.
But it’s not risk-free.
Clarkson left “Top Gear” under a cloud, forced out after punching one of the show’s producers. Hammond and May resigned alongside him. The incident was the last in a long string of controversies, including charges of casual racism by the hosts directed at Asians and Mexicans. In 2014, a clip from an un-aired segment surfaced showing Clarkson appearing to say the word “n—–” when reciting a nursery rhyme. Clarkson, in an apology, claimed that he muttered over the word, but did not speak it. (He stuck by that claim when asked by Variety about the clip, saying, “We never said that”).
When Amazon Studios chief Roy Price appeared at the Television Critics Association last year, shortly after signing Clarkson, Hammond, and May to a deal for a new show, he fielded tough questions about their hiring. But Clarkson assures that his new boss has nothing to worry about.
“The truth is, if we were as bad as we were made out to be, as awful as we were made out to be, it wouldn’t have been the popular show that it was around the world,” Clarkson says. “That’s the truth of it. And Amazon wouldn’t have employed us to come onto their platform. It was a good show, and it was a fun show, and it was a family show.”
“The Grand Tour,” according to Clarkson, will also be a family show, one in which a good deal of the fun comes from watching the hosts do jack— things behind the wheel, while plenty more of it comes from watching them take the piss out of themselves, the audience, and each other. These are the essential ingredients that made “Top Gear” successful. But will fans missing Clarkson-Hammond-May “Top Gear” be satisfied with something that is the same, but different?
“The way I would describe it, and it worries me slightly, is that for 12 years, people went to their favorite restaurant on Sunday and had a cottage pie,” Clarkson says. “They loved it. It was comfort food. This is a shepherd’s pie. It’s still great comfort food, but it’s slightly different.”
That’s because, of course, the show can’t be a simple continuation of “Top Gear,” which has continued on BBC Two (albeit to ratings that are only a fraction of those drawn by the Clarkson-Hammond-May version). That means no Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, no Cool Wall — none of the particular segments that made “Top Gear” “Top Gear.”
The result is something akin to Conan O’Brien leaving his Masturbating Bear behind at NBC. It’s sad that there’s no more bear, but Conan is still Conan.
“It’s still us,” Clarkson says. “We still fall over and catch fire and laugh at each other. But the studio stuff is different. It looks different. It feels different.”
Different in a way likely to appeal to Clarkson’s fanbase.
“If we’d started with this show 12 years ago, everybody I think would have been very happy as well.”