Is Richard Hammond always late?
“Not normally,” says James May. “Not unless he’s crashed something.”
The Grand Tour is back with a bang and The Big Issue has secured exclusive interviews with its team of presenters. Well, one out of three ain’t bad. Richard Hammond, who suffered a(nother) horrific accident during filming, is delayed, and Jeremy Clarkson, fulcrum of their unit, is still recovering from pneumonia.
May at least is fighting fit. “As far as I can make out I’m okay but so many people have asked me if I’m okay I’m beginning to doubt it. I have slight backache,” he offers.
The trio turned Top Gear from a low-key motoring programme into a global sensation and the BBC’s most lucrative asset, bringing in tens of millions in overseas sales. Broadcast in pretty much every country in the world, forget Boris and most of the royals (Meghan and her dazzling smile excepted); Clarkson, Hammond and May became Britain’s most famous faces.
After a much-publicised bust-up with the Beeb, the team found a new home at Amazon, in a deal worth a reported £160m. The components that made TG a roaring hit are all present and correct on The GT; globe-trotting automobile-based antics with the presenters’ chemistry and constant mockery of each other and all else in heaven and earth.
The juggernaut rolls on, yet the best word James May can think of to describe the phenomenon is “peripatetic”. “It moves around like a music teacher when I was a kid, not attached to a particular school,” he explains. “It’s a stupid word to use but I can’t think of another. If you can come up with a better one I’d be grateful.”
If The Grand Tour’s presenters are teachers, what lessons are we learning?
“Being prats, I suppose. People could watch us and tell their kids, if you don’t work hard at school you’ll end up like that lot.”
Millions of fans would think it was a dream job. “There’s no denying it,” May agrees, “But in the end only three people can be Grand Tour presenters at any one time so it’s not a viable career ambition.”
Cars and the human condition
When Richard Hammond appears, a Peter Pan who did grow up but who maintains an eternal boyishness, it has not been long since he returned behind the wheel for the first time since crashing a concept car in Switzerland in June, and he is still flushed with emotion thinking about it.
“When I got in the car it was like meeting up with me,” he says, comparing it to the liberty he felt at driving at 17. “My daughter is approaching that age where she will have that same breathtaking moment of suddenly being granted freedom.”
Car ownership is a much more complicated thing than fridge ownership or kitchen worktop ownership. They reveal the soul of humanity in some way
Will you teach her yourself?
“She’ll have lessons,” Hammond replies. “With my record, I don’t think I’d be the best teacher, would I?”
The pair believe the urge to drive is ingrained. “At a very basic fundamental level to us as animals, the ability to dominate territory, to cover territory fast, is really important,” Hammond says. “It’s kind of primal. Why do kids still have posters of cars on bedroom walls? Why do grown adults still hanker after them? Why do they get stolen? Why are they politicised and demonised? Why are they so emotive?”
Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.
May adds: “Car ownership is a much more complicated thing than fridge ownership or kitchen worktop ownership. They reveal the soul of humanity in some way. There’s technology, performance, artistry – simple things like colour and shape and the desire to possess something. The car is a very complicated proposition once you start looking at the socio-political and psychological reasons for wanting them.”
They talk about cars as if they are cultural equivalents to music or literature. “If you pull apart literature and music and their ability to commentate essentially on the human condition then yes, cars are a very good reflection, and on occasion an influence of that,” Hammond says. “Why were 1950s American cars with their huge fins such a flamboyant display of apparent wealth? Why as we approach a new age are they sometimes styled to look less self-indulgent? They’re a tremendously important sign of where we are socially, politically, historically, a reflection and expression of it. As well as bloody handy for getting to the shops.”
If cars are art, are the artists the designers or the drivers?
“God knows this is an interesting and unexpected conversation,” Hammond replies. “If you watch a motor race, the natural racing line is also the prettiest. Something on a human level tells us less is being asked of that car and that is somehow a poetic process. It’s about exchange and interplay so I don’t see why we couldn’t look at driving as an artistic endeavour as well as one for practical or competitive reasons.”
James May’s solo documentaries like The Reassembler celebrated the mechanics and technology of the past. Modern cars have to be plugged into a computer to discover what bee is under the bonnet; is something lost by people not knowing how to fix their cars, getting some grease under their fingernails?
“One of the great myths about the olden days is that things were made properly, made to last and you could mend them yourself,” May says. “The fact is not long ago, certainly when I was a lad, cars went wrong all the time. They were expensive so you replaced them less often. I actually approve of obsolescence, the disposable society. We should throw things away: cars, telephones, domestic appliances. Throw the fucking things away, get a new one, it’s better, it keeps people employed, keeps us creative. If we recycle the old stuff it’s ok.”
The Brexit Ambassadors
The notion of ‘the grand tour’ gained repute in the Victorian age when it was obligatory for any Romantic poet to tread a path past the cultural highlights of Europe. May equates this to today’s gap-year trend: “I’m going to do my gap year in my 50s,” he says. “You spend the year fart-arsing around going looking at the world, saying ‘isn’t it marvellous’ and ‘aren’t the locals lovely?’”
With Brexit down the road, how do they feel about being Britain’s highest-profile representatives in the world?
“Oh God, I didn’t realise we were – I resign,” Hammond declares. “We’re far from ambassadors for Britain but you’re right that it remains a British show. We’ll never get away from that, there’s no point disguising that.”
“I’m not hung up on the idea of being British but we are of an age where it had a greater bearing on the way we were brought up than it does now,” May continues. “I think the idea of nationhood is weaker now than in the ’60s and ’70s when we were kids. We can’t help being British, and we apologise.”
“Putting to one side politics and customs arrangements, we must continue to enjoy the necessary and engaging dialogue between countries as we get closer to realising we are all, after all, human,” Hammond concludes. “The rest is just rules and regulations and stuff.”
Perhaps we should be grateful that prominent players on the global stage are not just ineffectual politicians, and another side of our national identity is displayed in all its glory.
“I don’t mind people seeing our prattish side because that is part of being British,” May says. “As we are threatened with isolationism because we are becoming a slightly retarded nation, maybe it’s a good thing that at the very least us three are out there.”