The Grand Tour is Broken, and Needs a BBC Executive to Fix It

By James O Malley on at

We're now four episodes into The Grand Tour, and despite the massive budgets and great expectations... it appears to be skidding off the tracks.

In the opening to the show, once again filmed in Whitby (suggesting that the touring premise is harder to execute than Amazon intended), the presenters quipped "I’m trying to think of a metaphor for something where someone has tried really hard at something and it hasn’t worked" - which was greeted with much laughter from the audience. If you're as bamboozled as I was - it appears that it was an attempt at an oblique reference to Chris Evans quitting the rebooted Top Gear, but in truth it also is an accurate summation of much of the Grand Tour so far.

The show started rather differently to other episodes. The first part of the show was dedicated to a fairly straightforward review, comparing the Porsche 911 GT3 RS with the BMW M4 GTS. Clarkson made the piece solo, and it featured him doing laps around the track and talking about what they are like to drive. It wouldn't have looked out of place on the Top Gear of old. Heck, it might even have been too dull for Top Gear of old.

The Environmental Reality

But it was after this that the wheels really began to fall off. Much as in the terrible second episode, the show's main film was fatally flawed by not just skirting too close to the "reality vs fiction" line, but by actively leaping over it and dancing a jig.

The premise was that the trio would build "eco-friendly" cars and from the get-go it was impossible to suspend one's disbelief. Unlike previous similar Top Gear films where we were supposed to believe that Clarkson, Hammond and May had bought whatever crappy cars they were driving, it was clear that production designers had spent ages crafting each vehicle. Then the reality broke down from there: Why would May have a kiln? Would he really have spent all night making bricks? And so on.

Don't get me wrong - I don't mind scripted television. When Daredevil is kicking the shit out of some secret ninjas, I'm not sitting on my sofa saying "This is ridiculous, there's no way that an early career lawyer with student loans could afford such a large apartment."

But because The Grand Tour masquerades as a factual show, the rules are different and consequentially, as I noted in my review of Episode 2, we're just watching some men, doing some stuff, for no clearly defined purpose.

Pedestrian Conversation

The distinct lack of a point carried over into the studio too. Much as with last week's show, because filming schedules mean the show can't be tied to actual news events, the presenters had to instead go in for discussion that even local radio producers would turn their noses up at.

Instead we were treated to the presenters talking about some pedestrian crossings that had been modified to celebrate LGBT inclusivity.

And this isn't even to mention the fact that one skit was premised around immigrants trying to sneak into the country, or the tediously poor taste script in which Clarkson accused May of "raping" the countryside when digging a hole.

Essentially, the problems of the earlier episodes do not appear to have gone away, and the show appears to be continuing to indulge the worst instincts of the presenters and the production team. This results in a show that should, on paper, be a bigger and better Top Gear, but in reality has resulted in something much messier.

The Lottery Winners' Curse?

So this raises the question: Why is this happening? Why, despite Amazon's enormous budget and the presenters' previously demonstrated skills is the show just not working as fundamentally well as it did when they were employed by the BBC?

My current hypothesis is that the show is suffering from something akin to the Lottery Winner's Curse. There are endless tabloid stories about when people have won big money on the lottery, and their instant wealth has caused them big problems, such as families falling out to not knowing how to handle the cash, and quickly finding themselves bankrupt.

I think The Grand Tour has suffered from something similar. The BBC is fairly well known as an organisation with tonnes of bureaucracy and red tape. At all stages in the production process, chances are there is a manager or an executive butting in and keeping tabs on what everyone is doing. It's the reason Clarkson had such a troubled relationship with the corporation despite being one of the biggest stars: Each time he pushed it too far, there was a cadre of bureaucrats trained to rein him in, and put out any fires that he had started.

With Amazon's show, by contrast, it certainly appears that Clarkson, May, Hammond and producer Andy Wilman had won the lottery. Punching that bloke could have been the savviest business move that Clarkson had ever made - as it meant that he and his mates got an enormous payday. But being freed from these constraints can cause problems too. It means that there was no one on the production who was there to stand up to Clarkson and Wilman and say "This scripted stuff doesn't work" or "Perhaps tone down the Daily Mail pandering as it looks pathetic". So-called "Executive meddling" is often maligned by creatives - often with good reason - but with TGT, it feels as though we're witnessing the flip-side to that on a weekly basis.

This wouldn't be a new phenomenon. Free rein has resulted in poor quality output before. Ricky Gervais, for example, found huge critical success with The Office, but the series also had the side-effect of making him untouchable. He could dictate the terms of any contract, and do only what he wanted to. But look at his output since he shot to fame and it consistently has a more mixed reputation.

The biggest example of this though is from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The Star Wars sequel trilogy shows exactly what happens when the talent can do what they want - and how big money can be easily spent on mediocre results. It was only once Disney's corporate machine got its hands on the franchise that we got a truly great follow up to the original trilogy.

So could it be that we're currently in the process of watching The Grand Tour head down this well-trodden path? There are still another 32 episodes planned (8 in the current run), so there's still plenty of time to turn it around. But perhaps the current trajectory shows that what it is really missing is the firm hand of a BBC executive who is prepared to say "No, Jeremy, don't do that."

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