The Grand Tour review: Clarkson returns in 'filmic' show
Filmic is the word that sprang to my mind when watching the Grand Tour.
The scale of the production, the quality of the cameras, the epic sweeping shots and the pastiches of old movies - it seemed the show was aimed at the big screen, not the telly. Or a mobile phone, which is how I imagine a lot of people will view it.
It opens with a scene so over-the-top and opulent you'd think that the Prince Regent was behind the camera. Think Mad Max meets Easy Rider as we see the three presenters drive across the Californian desert, making their way through a sea of cars all barrelling along to a massive stage that has risen from the sand like a pyramid.
They look out of their car windows and smile a cheesy smile at each other. We know what's coming next. Richard Hammond will spin his motor while not paying attention, or James May will be shunted from behind by a guffawing Jeremy Clarkson, or all three will come unstuck and end up in a smoking pile of bent metal.
Whatever the device, an amusing comeuppance is seconds away. We know the drill.
Except we don't. Because the payoff never comes. The cheesy smiles are not a set up to a joke, but a precursor to them taking to the stage in the manner of rock stars on tour. A huge crowd of cheering fans has amassed at their feet. There is no irony. It feels uncomfortably hubristic.
Cut to a large tent with a huge picture window looking out onto the desert, in front of which is a more modest wooden stage, set with a small table. This is their new home, a peripatetic studio that appears in whichever country the show happens to be based that week.
Hammond and May sit at the table while Clarkson introduces the show, joshes with the audience about them being American, and uses a TV screen to go through a PowerPoint-type presentation of images about which the three presenters joke. Normal service has been resumed.
They go to Portugal to race three fast cars around a racetrack, which petrolheads will no doubt enjoy, but their many fans who are more interested in horseplay than horsepower might find goes on a bit.
We're introduced - at length - to a new "home" track with a "not straight", a grumpy American Nascar driver who takes The Stig's place, and a new format for a celebrity interview - the guest appears to "die" before a word is spoken.
As ever with these three, the best bits are the banter. Hammond, in particular, stands out. His energy, eagerness to please, and ability to crack genuinely funny off-the-cuff jokes (beyond those that are scripted) are a boon for the viewer, and, one would have thought, Clarkson, on whose shoulders and talent the show rests.
May seems more out of sorts. Clarkson has repeatedly said during his round of interviews to promote the programme how much he hates his co-presenters. The assumption that this is a tongue-in-cheek comment, adding a dynamic to the sitcom feel the show has of three middle-aged male characters haplessly going about their business as car journalists. But the screen chemistry between him and May suggests there's a ring of truth about Clarkson's claim, which is not much fun to watch.
In future episodes, the cars take a back seat to give the presenters a chance to do what they excel at: being very silly. A trip to Jordan to play in an army training centre is good. There are a lot of laughs, plenty of slapstick, and more film allusions to enjoy. Perhaps this is what they should focus on in the future.
Maybe the small screen is too small for them, and their next step should be away from the internet and into the cinema. It seemed to me that Grand Tour is a TV show that wants to be - and quite possibly should be - a movie.