After months of anticipation, today is finally the day that the world gets to join Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May on The Grand Tour. And judging by the first episode, that tour is set to be oddly familiar.
Beautifully shot, but with some tediously edgy jokes making fun of gypsies, homeless people, environmentalists and cyclists, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were tuning into BBC Two on a Sunday evening. The Grand Tour is - perhaps far more than anyone expected - basically exactly the same as Top Gear. If you like Top Gear, you’ll like The Grand Tour. If you don’t like Top Gear, you won’t like The Grand Tour.
In other words, despite earlier suggestions of legal difficulties if the new show apes the old one too closely or not, it appears that Clarkson and his long time producer Andy Wilman have managed to almost exactly copy and paste the old show and walk into a massive payday courtesy of Jeff Bezos… despite, on paper, the BBC still owning all the format rights to Top Gear. The only thing missing is the name. Essentially, punching a producer might have been the smartest decision that Jeremy Clarkson has ever made.
Concurrent to the GT, as we know the BBC has been desperately trying to revive the Top Gear brand, as it is one of the corporation’s crown jewels - and a show that is not just successful at home, but also a show capable of bringing in cash internationally too. And as we’ve seen, it has so far had mixed success. The first series of the rebooted show was fronted by Chris Evans and was essentially the same in format - people arsing about in cars while somehow paying for it from the BBC’s factual budget - but it was met with critical disdain and ratings that could not match the Clarkson/Hammond/May era.
It seems that while the BBC technically owns Top Gear, it lacked the thing that made it successful: The talent. All the BBC has left is an empty aircraft hangar in Surrey, and a few rusting cars.
And if this sounds familiar, it is because it makes for a neat parallel with what has been going on with another of the BBC’s crown jewels: The Great British Bake-Off.
In September it was announced that Bake Off - inexplicably the highest rated show in the country - would be switching channels. Negotiations with the BBC fell apart and instead Love Productions were paid a massive £75m by Channel 4 for the rights to Bake Off.
Unfortunately for Channel 4 though, in the days following the announcement of the channel switch, the show appeared to fall apart as presenters Mel Giedroyc & Sue Perkins, as well as Mary Berry all announced that they wouldn’t be moving with it, and would be sticking with the BBC. This meant that all Channel 4 had really bought was, well, the name, a tent and Paul Hollywood. And who wants Paul Hollywood?
The Bake Off situation for the BBC is like Top Gear in reverse: Channel 4 now have the challenge of recreating what made Bake Off work with new people, while it is surely inevitable that the BBC will imminently be announcing some sort of marginally different Excellent United Kingdom Baking Competition show, fronted by Mel, Sue and Mary. Don’t be surprised when whatever this new show is creates something much closer to the Bake Off that viewers already love, and when it is much more successful than what Channel 4 turn out.
So what does this mean? Seeing The Grand Tour fairly effortlessly recreate the dynamic and the show that Top Gear used to have - and doing it so much better than the BBC managed with Chris Evans - should leave Channel 4 feeling pretty miserable. The BBC may have lost the magic of Clarkson and Co, but despite losing the Bake Off name, it surely doesn’t have much to worry about. The Grand Tour on the other hand, is living proof that Channel 4 almost certainly got screwed.
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