Amazon UK TV review: The Grand Tour Episode 2
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Ivan Radford | On 25, Nov 2016Reading time: 4 mins
After racing out of the blocks in pole position with its debut outing, Episode 2 of Amazon’s The Grand Tour faces a trickier task than comparing itself with Top Gear: living up to its own high standards.
The second instalment sees Clarkson, Hammond and May ship their gigantic tent to Johannesburg in South Africa. The benefits of their new roaming format are immediately apparent, thanks to the huge open windows behind their main desk, which showcase the South African backdrop beautifully. It’s The Cradle of Humankind, Clarkson informs us, and before anyone can say “It’s on this very spot that mankind separated itself from the ape”, the former Top Gear host is on comfortably uncomfortable territory. There’s a sense of him deliberately seeing how far he can go without any editorial interference from his new backers, his political incorrectness goaded on by May and Hammond. (The latter even tries some of his own risque material – gags that mostly end up stalling on the starting grid.)
Clarkson, though, is in his element, launching into a potted history of modern South Africa, as seen through the lens of automobiles – jabs at President Zuma and Oscar Pistorius are present and correct. It’s a change of pace from the kind of introduction you would expect on BBC’s Top Gear, almost a stand-up routine that would kick off an episode of The Daily Show, but one influenced by the location around it; if the show can keep varying its scripted jokes to provide satirical material to match each stop on The Grand Tour, there’s impressive potential here.
That flows naturally into “Conversation Street”, which the trio continue to use for topics that are slightly removed from the immediate broadcast date, and then, presumably, the main reason for fans tuning in: a chance to see the 800 horsepower Aston Martin Vulcan power its way around the show’s ebola-shaped track. The Aston, of course, looks spectacular, with its own metallic beauty heightened by the camerawork, which practically makes love to the vehicle all the way up and down the tarmac. The epic opening to Episode 1 remains the impossible-to-match benchmark, but the audio and visual team show no signs of dropping the ball.
That remains true of the other filmed sequence that makes up the bulk of the episode’s runtime, which sees the presenters up sticks and head to a facility in a disused quarry in Oman, where they are trained to be Special Forces.
“It’s really funny,” Clarkson has said of the movie. “Slight problem: we forgot to put any cars in it.” His assessment is half-correct: despite the addition of cars late on, the majority of it is essentially three middle-aged men running around like they’re in a computer game, shooting at things and failing to fit through windows. Despite their enthusiasm for the whole thing, though, it’s not all that entertaining, which brings us back to the dilemma underpinning the whole programme: is the main reason for tuning in the cars or the people behind the wheel? This is the farthest the trio have ventured from vehicular-based tomfoolery and it’s telling that the highlight isn’t the expensive action – the inclusion of a fake Queen Elizabeth II and an Edge of Tomorrow-like premise begin to feel tired towards the end – but the banter between the three of them, something that we can enjoy whether they’re brandishing firearms or not. (“This is like that Tom Cruise movie,” says Clarkson. “What, Cocktail?” comes Hammond’s brilliant reply.)
Episode 1 found the ideal balance between silliness and screeching tyres and, by the team’s own admission, this is the least car-ry that the show gets, so there’s every reason to expect superior service to kick back into gear next lap. But just when you think things should settle back into their formula (the celebrity guest this week is another roaring success), the episode delivers a big surprise: a segment that follows James May learning about the South African sport of spinning, which primarily involves doing donuts outdoors to generate as much smoke as possible from the wheels. Insightful, unexpected and utterly unique to Johannesburg, it’s a superb piece of documentary film-making, which reminds that The Grand Tour’s strength lies in its global scope as well as its financial scale. Forget the cars and the banter; the main reason to tune into Amazon’s show each week may be its travelogue format. If it can live up to the standard of that sequence for the rest of the season, The Grand Tour is on course to be a very promising ride indeed.
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.