The Grand Tour review, episode 1: The best of Top Gear but with a much bigger budget

'The trio’s chemistry remains as brilliant as ever, the toys just cost a lot more'

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The Independent Culture

It’s finally here. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, back together on the small screen, driving cars and making chauvinistic jokes as always. Despite a huge budget - rumoured to be around £4 million per episode - The Grand Tour is business as usual for the trio who make light work of their opening hour-and-a-bit long episode. 

Of course, there are some changes from Top Gear, the show they departed following Clarkson’s infamous ‘fracas’. Notably, The Stig is no longer around; instead, there's The American - an ex-NASCAR driver who believes every motor without eight cylinders was made by communists. The track has also changed, now scabbier and named after the Ebola virus. 

Perhaps the most obvious addition, though, is the jokes about the BBC. While the corporation isn’t named, the spectre of Top Gear haunts almost every moment. Whether Clarkson would overtly make jokes about the BBC was debatable beforehand, and yet The Grand Tour opens with the 56-year-old handing in his notice and jumping in a taxi, all while the radio tells of how his career is over. Slightly on the nose. 

Seconds later, the presenter is in California, driving a blue Ford Mustang, his colleagues Hammond and May approaching from either side driving red and white cars of the same variety. There are contagious smiles all round as both they, and you, realise Top Gear’s back. The trio then drive through an armageddon of cars and motors as they fly through the desert, every shot reminiscent of Mad Max: a bombastic scene made for the cinema. 

Eventually, there’s a rock concert with thousands of people in attendance: a celebration of Clarkson and co. being released from the BBC’s shackles. “We’re now on the internet, which means I could pleasure a horse,” Clarkson tells the audience, who tepidly laugh.

One explosion and penis-joke filled montage later, and Clarkson is introducing the new portable studio, an elaborate tent with a huge window showcasing the surrounding area. “We’re basically Gypsies but with cars that are insured,” says Clarkson - a joke the BBC would likely have edited out.

Inside the tent, Clarkson and co. perform what’s basically a minor stand-up routine for the audience, laughing about how American words for car parts are ‘stupid’ while us Brits know a bonnet from a bonnet. You didn’t expect the humour to change just because the show is streaming in 200 countries around the world, did you?

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As with the new Top Gear, the structure feels familiar. The trio launch into a sgement beginning with just Hammond and Clarkson debating which one of their chosen cars is better. It looks incredibly cinematic, filmed in pristine quality with the same incredibly capable cameramen that helped make the BBC show such a success. It's just shame most viewers will inevitably be watching on their smartphones or laptops due to the VOD nature of Amazon Prime. 

Part one of their trip through Portugal - which May inevitably ends up joining - contains The Grand Tour’s first shots of speedometers, screeching wheels, and exhaust pipes: this is, after all, a car show, and the trio’s brilliance in balancing humour and talking car specifications remains excellent. There are, however, a few added budget jokes (“In one wing mirror I have a £1 million Porsche, in the other a £1 million Ferrari.” Yes, Clarkson, we know you’ve got more money now.)

Back in the studio, things aren’t quite as smooth. In a segment called ‘Conversation Street,’ they joke about ‘Captain Slow’ (May) getting a speeding ticket for driving at 37mph, Clarkson and Hammond performing the same routine we’ve seen a thousand times. The aforementioned new driver and track are introduced in another segment and, while Clarkson driving around in a BMW M2 is a highlight, The American is entirely boring and unfunny; a knowing attempt to win over an American audience which doesn’t quite fit yet. 

Then there are the celebrity cameos. Two relatively big names in cinema - Jeremy Renner and Armie Hammer and an I’m a Celebrity star, Carol Vorderman - make glancing appearances before being killed off. Another relatively unfunny joke, but a segment that shows The Grand Tour will no doubt draw in some of the world’s biggest celebrities. 

Back for part two of the previous Portugal segment and things are back on course. More revving engines, new tracks to skid around, and jokes to be made. Top Gear was always best when it was just the three presenters playing with expensive toys and cracking jokes. The Grand Tour is no different. The trio’s chemistry remains as brilliant as ever, the toys just cost a lot more.

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