Ah, Christmas time! A time for peace on Earth, and goodwill to all men! Which is why after watching this week’s Grand Tour, I dare say that despite my past criticisms, this week I’m prepared to offer the olive branch of peace towards Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond.
Why? Well, episode 3 was… actually pretty fun.
The show started in Majorca, where James May - purportedly filling in for Hammond post-crash - was testing a Kia Stinger sports car. It was a film reminiscent of Top Gear of old - a bit of context, a bit of a review, some nice photography of the car driving through an interesting landscape. And then a race: The car was pit against a couple of skateboarders, to see if it could reach the bottom of the mountain for May could reach the top.
The only weird part was a reference to how the car could probably outrun one of Kim Jong Un’s missiles - because Kia is South Korean, see? And then a shot of the car coming out of a tunnel with a CGI explosion layered on top, to emphasise the point.
But whatever, the piece was basically fine and you’d have to be a particularly massive Scrooge to find fault with it.
Glossing over the still unbearable “Conversation Street” segment, which this week featured some pantomime-scripted bants about Christmas gifts, the next film was the highlight of the episode - and dare I say… actually a little inspired?
The premise was simple: could Hammond and May turn a business park into a racetrack? And in execution, it worked surprisingly well. We saw how the twists and turns of a business park in South Bedfordshire made for an effective track, and we got to watch as a group of office workers took part in timed laps.
It was fun. And it is for this reason that I hope that what we saw on screen was actually real. So thoroughly does The Grand Tour blur the line between fantasy and reality that even when it does something good, because it hasn’t earned my trust, I find myself questioning every aspect of the production.
I’ve no empirical reason to doubt that the film was fabricating anything - though in TV, obviously everything is slightly fabricated to a certain extent. For example, they clearly had to shoot some cutaways separately, as these screenshots show.
But even though it was an enjoyable film, I still found my mind wandering: were the office workers on screen genuine or were they actors? Were they doing genuine timed laps or were they being pieced together in the edit?
The scene with Hammond briefing staff in the conference room looked as though they should have made more of a meal of it - parodying a boring powerpoint presentation as bored office workers look on. But in the end, it served as merely exposition.
Still, it was definitely the best thing the show has done this season: it was good-natured, a clever idea, and strayed just on the right side of believable. Good work.
Next was a passable Celebrity Face Off, this week pitting an American nature presenter against, umm, the totally on-brand Hugh Bonneville, who was there to plug Paddington 2 to the tiny slice of the audience venn diagram where there is overlap between twee kids’ films and big budget factual shows about fragile masculinity. Hugh then went on to explain how he’s not really a car person, but had recently bought a Tesla. Cue the cutaway shot of Clarkson grimacing.
The final film of the show was Clarkson solo - driving a Bugatti Chiron from St Tropez to Turin.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: what did James hate about Clarkson this week? What obnoxious things did Clarkson say that particularly infuriate him? Are we about to see fifty different annotated maps explaining why the journey Clarkson claimed he was making in the film actually wouldn’t work like that?
You know what? I actually liked it. As Clarkson was going solo, rather than show us some pretend banter that is supposed to be real, it was like he was showing us, the viewer, his own hyper-real fantasy that inspired by driving such the car. Sure, there was a skit with a butler as Clarkson read the paper on his superyacht at the start of the film, but with this film, it actually sort-of worked.
It worked in part because it did the thing I like best: it became a travel show. It was less about the car, or the top bants, and more about the scenery. Every shot was beautifully done, and really gave you a sense of the places that Clarkson was driving.
The best parts were the shots taken from a camera mounted on the bumper of the car, as it snaked through Turin - giving a real sense of speed and intriguing angle from which to view the city.
So, to my surprise, what I’m saying is that… I didn’t hate it. If The Grand Tour was more like this every week, then it might be a lot more palatable. Sure, pissing around in a Bedfordshire business park probably doesn’t really classify as going on a “Grand Tour”, but hey - what’s wrong with making something a little bit fun and not making my blood boil for once?
So on this, unexpected bombshell, I have a message for the production team: Let’s call a Christmas truce. The Grand Tour was pretty good this week. Let’s get out of the trenches, and have a game of Scalextric. We can resume hostilities next week.
Merry Christmas, Jeremy.