Well, you can’t say that Amazon didn’t give us our Christmas wish. After praying that The Grand Tour would become less predictable, following a horrendously scripted Episode 5, its festive special breaks with tradition repeatedly – mostly, in a good way.
Jetting off to Finland, The Grand Tour’s tent pops up in Kakslauttanen, within the Arctic Circle, a setting that automatically gives things a seasonal feel. That’s backed up by an entire segment on Christmas present suggestions, including all kinds of inappropriate and intimate items that have been stamped with The Grand Tour branding, so Amazon can bump up their prices.
It’s the kind of skit that’s clearly been prepared in advance, but where overly rehearsed jokes have been a recurring problem for this series, the sight of Jeremy Clarkson collapsing into a crowd of people on rocket-powered roller skates is genuinely amusing; no amount of practice can quite prepare an old man for falling over so ungracefully.
By the time Bob Geldof makes a very unusual appearance, there’s a genuine feeling that things have completely spun out of control – and not just in the sense of Clarkson saying something deliberately un-PC to offend someone. Here, if anything, the joke is mostly on themselves, as they compete to see who can at a chocolate bar least messily, and mock Jeremy’s imitations of a Flake advert in the process. The result is likeable enough to make up for the fact that, well, it’s Bob Geldof, who’s hardly the most exciting celebrity around. Even when Richard Hammond tries his hand at being controversial, by pathetically claiming liking ice cream is a sign of homosexuality – seriously, Hammond, stop trying to establish yourself as the new goateed maverick of the group – Clarkson steps in and slaps him into place.
Hammond, not for the first time, is more palatable when he’s behind a wheel, taking delivery of a Ford Mustang V8 and giving it a tour of London and the UK. (Watch out for the unsubtle dig at Top Gear, as he passes the cenotaph.) The show once again reverts to its tired trope of the supposedly unscripted interruption of one presenter’s segment by another of the trio, but the showdown between a Ford Focus RS and the American muscle car is an interesting one, not least because of its super-cool retro presentation. Speaking of boring formula, The American’s attempted witticisms are about as funny as James May claiming that every Finnish racing car driver is an anagram of “Mika Hakkinen”, or Clarkson doing a stand-up routine about Finnish women all working in Britain as au pairs. Maybe in your cliched bubble of wealth, mate.
But just as you’re feeling disappointed there’s no sign of the Northern Lights anywhere – given how stunning the show’s visuals normally are, their camera department and location scouts seriously missed a trick – The Grand Tour breaks away from Top Gear of old to deliver another of its increasingly promising new features: a bit of informative filmmaking from Mr. May.
May, who’s a dab-hand at tech and automotive documentaries, presents us with a mini-doc about the race between Ferrari and Ford in the 1960s to dominate Les Mans. (This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first win.) The editing of the archive footage is as impressive as the cutting together of modern stock, while May’s narration and the parade of facts are actually interesting. The tent, now boasting cosy wooden benches, even has Le Mans posters on the walls – a sign of how much attention goes into the studio’s little details. “I’m jealous,” says Clarkson of May’s driving a Ford GT40 in his documentary. You believe him.
Alongside the South African donutting in the otherwise poor Episode 2, it’s proof that The Grand Tour team are capable of more than just pratting about or trying to generate publicity through controversy – and that when they put their mind to it, there is so much potential for Amazon’s motoring show to go the extra mile and become more than Top Gear 2.0. An hour-long serious series about car history? Maybe not. But a 15-minute chunk of intelligent telly makes for an enjoyably diverse programme. One of the best episodes to date, despite the lazy jokes and Hammond’s forced shock-statements, Episode 6 of The Grand Tour is just the treat fans (who apparently don’t like ice cream) will want to unwrap this Christmas. And the series seems to know it’s on a winning track, with the end credits continuing the action, showing off some gorgeous footage edited to look like a 1970s car chase.
The Grand Tour is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or as part of £79 annual Amazon Prime membership. New episodes arrive at 00.01GMT every Friday for 12 weeks, starting 18th November 2016. For more on how to watch The Ground Tour, click here.