The Grand Tour review – Clarkson’s banter dads are on a sinking ship

Tim Dowling
Photograph: Amazon Prime Video/PA

Headlines appeared recently suggesting that former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson had revised his views on climate change. Previously he didn’t believe in it, or he did but he was in favour of it, or something. Now he accepted the danger was real, because he’d seen it with his own eyes.

This epiphany supposedly came about while making the new series of The Grand Tour, Amazon’s expensive refit of the popular BBC show Clarkson was obliged to leave a few years back after a disagreement about his dinner. For the first episode, Clarkson and colleagues Richard Hammond and James May were given the mission to travel from Cambodia to Vietnam, not in cars but boats: a 1930s pleasure craft for May, a US army patrol boat for Clarkson, a Scarab speedboat for Hammond. Unfortunately their starting point had to be shifted due to a serious lack of rain.

“There ain’t enough water in there to drown a witch,” said Clarkson, pointing to the parched river bed.

They cycled the length of the dried-up river to Tonlé Sap lake, where there was water, but not much. Even out in the middle, their three mismatched boats kept scraping the bottom, and they had to creep along.

“Don’t worry, the irony is not lost on me,” said Clarkson. “Man who hosted car show for 30 years limited to seven miles per hour by global warming.”

This appears to be the extent of Clarkson’s conversion to environmentalism – irony is retained. Climate change exists as a production headache, or possibly just a reliable way for things to go wrong, as they must do for the formula to work. The crippling drought kept spoiling their best laid plans, as did the frequent bouts of blinding rain. Don’t worry, the irony is not lost on me.

Once they cleared the shallows, the trio devoted most of the remaining trip to demonstrations of poor seamanship. They crashed into each other and to just about anything else afloat. As a source of visual comedy, boat mishandling seems less akin to incompetent skateboarding and more like a cavalier approach to gun safety: you feel like you shouldn’t be laughing, even if no one got hurt.

Piddling peddlers … James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond. Photograph: Amazon Prime Video/PA

Whatever you think of Clarkson, Hammond and May as a treble-act, they once had a way with irreverence. They knew how to take things too far, and had a knack for deadpan cruelty. On this outing their banter seemed not so much scripted as computer-generated – steadfastly formulaic, and once or twice seriously ill-judged.

At one point Clarkson told May that Jeremy Corbyn and Pol Pot had the “same policies”, only minutes before he pointed out that Pol Pot’s main policy was murdering a quarter of the Cambodian populace. It’s a remark even Mark Francois might think twice about.

At the best of times this stuff would make for a diverting, if disquieting hour. But here, it was stretched over 90 minutes, which meant everything had to go wrong more than once. They got lost at least three times. Clarkson knocked the top of his boat off twice, against the same low bridge. All three ran aground over and over, until it began to seem suspiciously intentional.

But the show did finally shift gear. After getting lost one final time, the trio found themselves obliged to cross a stretch of open ocean. This was clearly a frightening prospect and, in retrospect, possibly a terrible mistake, which made the closing minutes absolutely gripping. The sea was rough, and got rougher. The route went through a shipping lane – an obstacle course of tankers and container vessels. A brief shot of the flooded hold of the production team’s camera boat, filled with cowering crew members and floating equipment, made it clear that genuine jeopardy had finally arrived.

Clarkson appeared to have been temporarily drained of bravado by the experience, which is lucky because he’s been known to punch producers for putting him through a lot less. The ending left me feeling sorry for three rich guys obliged to risk their necks in order to satisfy the conditions of the huge contract. That is, if nothing else, an impressive feat.

It turns out I do not want Clarkson, May and Hammond to die. Retire possibly, but not die.