Earlier this year, I wrote about the return of Top Gear - the new and not-so-improved version with Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc. My basic conclusion of that show was that it didn’t have enough new things to make it worthy of the revamp name.
I was keen to see what the Clarkson, Hammond and May trio would do in their Amazon Prime odyssey, and six episodes in, I think we have a good idea of how it’s panning out.
The first episode opened with such a bang that it felt like we were on to a winner. The first sequence, with the chaps driving through a desert amongst fellow car enthusiasts and to a welcoming crowd of festival goers, was everything that we liked about the previous Top Gear format - them being just a little bit smug but pairing it with equal amounts of astonishment at the scale of what they are doing.
Since then, it’s been quite hit and miss. The bits they do well are staggering. The recent feature with James May retelling the battle between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans was incredible - entertaining and educational in equal measure, respectful and moving, and more importantly, about cars.
I really loved the challenge they undertook to create eco-friendly vehicles, it was a bit gross in places, but for the most part was hysterically funny. These pre-recorded sections are the best bit of the new style show.
What is not so good are the bits they have tried to retain from their previous format. The Stig replacement just isn’t funny, the Celebrity feature wasn’t that good the first time, but for it to occur every episode is absolute overkill. The segments in the tent appear to be offensive just for the sake of it. Episode six featuring Richard Hammond’s ill-advised comments about ice cream were just awful. And his dig at the BBC crew on his way past the Cenotaph struck me as being as disrespectful as the initial faux pas.
It turns out that most of the stuff they do in front of the live audience is disappointing, compared to the humour of the edited sequences. The only really disappointing pre-record that springs to mind was the second episode’s Edge of Tomorrow, which was okay for a bit but was vastly lacking in cars and therefore relevance.
They’ve got more money to spend on the cinematography which remains amazing and beautiful to behold, and that is the real reason to keep watching. The tent stuff is just clinging on to something that used to work a while ago but has gone past its sell by date.
And so I think in the end, both programmes are struggling with the same problem. They’re so desperately trying to retain the structure of the formula that was incredibly successful, that they are stifling the creativity of the new situation they find themselves in. Matt Le Blanc and his crew need to get to grips with having a new format and a new team, whilst Clarkson and his mob must move away from the “how far can we push the BBC” mentality and instead embrace the thing that makes The Grand Tour special - three guys who love cars driving them around and irritating each other. That’s what we want more of.