The Grand Tour Presents: Seamen

Dept. of Vroom Vroom Vroom


When it came out in March of 2015 that Jeremy Clarkson was not going to have his Top Gear contract renewed, I was admittedly a little sad. What he had done to deserve the dismissal is inarguable, but my despair was for the show, especially having come to it so late. 

When it was announced soon after, however, that the Holy Trinity of car reviewers (Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond) were going to continue their trio act and take it to money-bags Amazon Studios, I was suddenly filled with much glee. In November of 2016, the first episode of The Grand Tour was released on Amazon Prime and the opening seven minutes of that premiere episode was just glorious. 

Clarkson, leaving (what seems to be) the BBC headquarters in downtown, dark, dreary, and rainy London, makes his way to Heathrow airport, flies to sunny Los Angeles, races down Interstate 15 with his two mates in complimenting American muscle cars, beaming from ear to ear. The three then lead a Mad Max style flotilla of almost two hundred vehicles through the Californian desert, ending up at a concert stage with thousands of screaming Americans welcoming them with open arms. It was, and still is a spectacle of television. Rewatching it still fills me with joy and goosebumps, seeing the faces of the three Brits light up with such happiness and, dare I say, love.

The sequence ends in the most American of ways, with the Breitling Jet Team flying eight aircraft jets right over the stage in formation. It was the most over the top, most American way to open a show about three British car journalists whinging and fawning over motor vehicles. And those opening seven minutes cost a reported £2.5 million. YEAH ‘MURICA! AMAZON! AMAZON! AMAZON!

But then the episode starts, and well, it was just more of the same show. Instead of a studio, they had a massive tent that they would take from location to location, fill it with audience members, and do the same show they’ve always done. It was essentially the same ‘three-British-journalists-on-a-stage-talking-about-cars’ show. But just not as good. The Grand Tour had an anonymous test driver like Top Gear’s The Stig. They had a test track called the Eboladrome (because it looked like the Ebola virus) much like Top Gear’s Test Track. They tried to make fun of Top Gear’s “Star in a reasonably-priced car” segment by constantly accidentally killing the stars that supposedly came on the show. (It’s not as funny as it sounds on paper.) 

They did eventually move away from that Top Gear format in seasons 2 and 3, but in the end, The Grand Tour, despite the reported £4 million budget per episode, did not feel at all different from Top Gear. It was fine when Clarkson, Hammond, and May were doing Top Gear, but it was disappointing to find that even on Amazon, they were still mostly doing Top Gear.

At the end of 2018, it was announced that The Grand Tour would be changing its format, from the audience studio setting, to just a handful of “specials” a year. If you’ve ever watched Top Gear, then you’d know what these are; these are the special mission based episodes where Clarkson, Hammond, and May have to do a “thing” (buy a cheap car to go from Miami to New Orleans, a race to the North Magnetic Pole, journey across Chile and Argentina in V8 cars, etc.). 

And then, in December 2019, the first of the new format of The Grand Tour was released; The Grand Tour Presents: Seamen. In this special, the three have to travel from Tonle Sap lake, at the centre of Cambodia, through the Mekong river and out to Vietnam.

Again, The Grand Tour Presents: Seamen isn’t much different from all the other specials that they’ve done in the past at Top Gear. That being said, this was the show that I always wanted to see. In this day and age, where any piece of car trivia can be pulled up by pulling out your phone, knowing how fast something can go from 0-60mph is no longer enough. Knowing how well a car goes around a track is tiresome after awhile because, let’s face it, they all pretty much go around the track pretty damn well. But to see these three senior citizens try and survive a drive across high elevation in Bolivia or pull pranks on each other in India is exactly what I needed in my life.

The Grand Tour Presents: Seamen is great. Clarkson is at his boisterous and aggravating best. Hammond plays the naive Brummy to pitch perfection. And May is, well, Captain Slow. And I for one love him for it. These episodes (both in The Grand Tour seasons past and Top Gear) were always fan favourites. 

This special however was a little different. It starts off with a slight tinge of social commentary as the episode opens and the three are standing in the middle of a dry lake bed. Tonle Sap lake had dried up through both climate change, and, as Clarkson points out, the damming of a river further upstream by the Chinese government. The three bike down what used to be a river to a local village on stilts, that due to the damming, no longer needed to be on stilts. It was about as much commentary as the three could muster about the environment and geo-political wrangling, before the fun starts.

Further along their journey, as they cross into Vietnam, Clarkson drags Hammond on to a detour (May being May was left behind on his much slower boat) to visit Chau Doc, a small town where, as Hammond describes it, they do a small history segment about an American nurse who was trapped during the Tet Offensive. 

As much fun as it was to watch the three of them do stupid silly things, these little asides were, to me, what could have made this episode really stand out. Traveling from Cambodia, through a country ravaged by the madman Pol Pot, into Vietnam, the first war the American military lost, a lot of history could have been mined and featured. As much as this is (or maybe was) a car show, a lot more can be done with the adventure format. 

2004’s Long Way Round followed Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they traveled by motorbike from London to New York. And then, three years later, they made Long Way Down, in which they journeyed from the tip of Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa. They were more introspective and a lot more sensitive about the things they were seeing the and people they were meeting. It was a beautiful series about two best friends experiencing a part of humanity that neither of them had.

Yes, I know one is a serious documentary and the other is a bit of fun entertainment, but The Grand Tour could do a bit more than just be a bit of fun. That aside to the village of Chau Doc and the story of Maggie Frankot – the trapped nurse – felt so entirely out of place in this show, that I half expected Clarkson to say that Maggie Frankot was the mother of someone on the production team. 

These special episodes seem to be the way forward (for now at least) for The Grand Tour. The entire team (host and producers) have renewed their contracts with Amazon Studios for a further 2 years, so there will be more to come. If you know what these episodes have been in the past, and if you’ve liked them, you will like these. I sure did. But I for one just hope that these episodes will be more than just 3 fifty-year olds faffing about in their vehicles in a far flung place. Not a whole lot more. Just a little bit more.

The Grand Tour Presents: Seamen
Amazon Prime
91 minutes
Showrunner: Andy Wilman
Cast: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May

Bahir likes to review movies because he can watch them at special screenings and not have to interact with large groups of people who may not agree with his idea of what a movie going experience is. Bahir likes jazz, documentaries, Ken Burns, and summer blockbuster movies. He really hopes that the HBO MAX Green Lantern series will help the character be cool again. Also don’t get him started on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (#NotMyArthurCurry).

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