Tanks, sheep, shopping malls, and Bill Bailey. Episode 5 of The Grand Tour’s second season has it all – and entirely in the right doses. The sophomore run of Amazon’s motoring series continues to steer promisingly away from the dubious skid marks of Season 1, with an episode that dials down the offensive remarks, the deliberate gimmicks and the forced banter, focusing, instead, on cars.
Jeremy Clarkson jokes in his introduction that this isn’t really a motoring show anymore, but Episode 5 is the most car-heavy chapter yet. James May, once again, gets the welcome chance to put a car through its paces – in this case, the new Volkswagen Up! GTi, which he drives around the Eboladrome with a fondness for its retro stylings. (Sure enough, it does terribly when Abbie Eaton takes it for a test run.)
“I haven’t looked in the boot yet, but I expect there’s a miner’s strike in there,” May quips, the first of many genuinely funny jokes in the episode. Later as they discuss a recently revamped Bentley, Clarkson observes that the screen inside is “retina-quality”, to which May replies: “I hope it’s not my retina quality. Slightly blurry and bloodshot.” Clarkson even manages a dig at a certain tax-shy driver, as he notes o the new Mercedes-AMG Project One: “It’s going for £2 million… it doesn’t say if that includes tax.”
Throw in an amusing double-act of Bill Bailey and Dominic Cooper, who cement Celebrity Face Off as a success by being the best famous rivals to date, and you have an hour of TV that doesn’t fail the laugh test. If the script has calmed down to something much more resembling BBC’s Top Gear, meanwhile, The Grand Tour makes up for with sheer visual spectacle – spectacle that, brilliantly, isn’t accompanied by overblown or knowingly controversial commentary.
Richard Hammond, in the episode’s best sequence, heads to Dubai, where he tests a Sandrail buggy in the desert. If you thought that last episode’s buggy sequence was fun, this is even more so, as the sand dunes prove the perfect environment for Hammond to let rip, without fear of accidents: going 0 to 6 in three seconds, but on sand, the resulting chaos is jaw-dropping, not least because the cameras mix up the fast-paced tomfoolery with a judicious amount of slow-mo. Then, he really steps up a gear, by upgrading to a Ripshaw luxury vehicle – which is, to put it simply, a tank.
His tank is remarkable at scaling the dunes and skipping across the gaps between, but it’s even better at crashing into other cars on the road – and smashing through the wall of a Dubai shopping mall. It’s a stunt that’s clearly set up and agreed in advance, but Hammond’s sheer delight at the whole thing is infectious. “If you’re nine years old, which I am, it doesn’t get better than this,” he grins – it’s hard to disagree. This is The Grand Tour delivering on its promise in the simplest, most effective way: dazzling car-based stupidity without any additional fuss or pretence.
So when you see Jeremy Clarkson start to parody Ken Block, it’s easy to doubt where the show is going. Given that this trio inspired the kind of Gymkhana videos that have gone on to delight motoring enthusiasts on YouTube, it seems a bit mean for them to take aim at someone who would surely have no truck with them.
Clarkson deliberately gurns for the camera, as he performs ridiculous feats and handbrake turns around everything he can find, from sheep and fence posts to barns and stacks of hay. And it’s impressive and entertaining, perhaps, again, because any mean-spirited voiceover is kept to a minimum. Best of all, though, apart from the bullet time camera work, is that Hammond and May then decide to show us the outtakes from the whole sequence – a laugh-out-loud collection of crashes and screw-ups that takes the mockery away from Ken Block and makes Jeremy Clarkson the butt of joke. After Season 1’s grand-standing and extravagance, Season 2 has succeeded, in part, by becoming more self-deprecating. Modesty, tanks, sheep, shopping malls, and Bill Bailey? The Grand Tour Season 2 continues to grow up into a more satisfying show with ever new lap.
The Grand Tour Season 2 is available on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Friday.