OVER DRIVE

Richard Ham­mond talks with

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Ear­lier this year, Richard Ham­mond and his for­mer Top Gear co-hosts James May and Jeremy Clark­son filmed an episode of their car show — the world’s most watched fac­tual pro­gram — in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. In their typ­i­cally en­ter­tain­ing but bone­headed way, the trio used sin­gu­larly in­ap­pro­pri­ate cars (a BMW, a Bent­ley and a Nissan GTR) to round up 4000 cows and bulls on a vast pas­toral sta­tion. They ended up get­ting lost, and herded by the an­i­mals; the Nissan driven by May (aka Cap­tain Slow) was head­but­ted by a huge, clearly unim­pressed bull.

Ham­mond, May and Clark­son also fished by a “pond’’ that turned out to be croc-in­fested, and used a vast, open-cut mine with lethal drops as a race­track, whip­ping up pa­prika-coloured dust storms. “We loved the North­ern Ter­ri­tory; we had a bril­liant time,’’ Ham­mond tells Re­view. “We did dis­cover that ev­ery­thing is a very long way from ev­ery­thing else out there. Go­ing 250 miles to get a loo roll and a news­pa­per is go­ing to get a bit wear­ing.’’

As it turned out, the tri­umvi­rate’s Top End ad­ven­ture, broad­cast lo­cally on BBC Knowl­edge, was one of the last Top Gear episodes with the three knock­about pre­sen­ters in the driv­ing seat. Shortly af­ter­wards, Clark­son — the pro­gram’s abra­sive, res­i­dent wit — al­legedly lost his rag over a steak din­ner, as­saulted a pro­ducer and was sacked. The BBC sus­pended the re­main­ing episodes of the 2015 Top Gear sea­son, while Ham­mond lamented: “Gut­ted at such a sad end to an era. We’re all three of us id­iots in our dif­fer­ent ways but it’s been an in­cred­i­ble ride to­gether.”

How­ever, Ham­mond and May have since filmed stu­dio links for an ex­tended fi­nal episode of se­ries 22, which will air si­mul­ta­ne­ously in Aus­tralia and Bri­tain on Mon­day. A trailer for this episode — the last to fea­ture the in­sis­tently sham­bolic trio un­der the Top Gear brand — shows them writ­ing off at least one car­a­van and, in­con­gru­ously, wear­ing din­ner suits (Clark­son ac­ces­sorises his with big plas­tic gog­gles). Ru­mours per­sist that the ex- Top Gear hosts are in talks with Net­flix about a lu­cra­tive new car show, while the BBC will con­tinue to broad­cast Top Gear, but with a new line-up of pre­sen­ters led by ra­dio and TV host Chris Evans.

Be­fore Clark­son’s melt­down, Top Gear was broad­cast in more than 200 ter­ri­to­ries and was the BBC’s big­gest money spin­ner, at­tract­ing up to 350 mil­lion view­ers world­wide. Yet to hear Ham­mond tell it, the pro­gram’s phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess was ran­dom: a for­tu­itous align­ment of the plan­ets. In a phone in­ter­view ahead of the trio’s visit to Aus­tralia for a live arena event, the baby-faced co-host (nick­named “The Ham­ster’’) tells Re­view: “Hon­estly, I don’t know the an­swer as to why the show grew … we just set out to make the best car show we could; that’s all we’ve ever done. We don’t know why it worked, but it did, so we kept doin’ it.’’

He gig­gles, in the same boy­ish way he did on the show. “There was an hon­esty to it,’’ he con­tin­ues. “We wouldn’t want to take any credit for it, be­cause we didn’t do it on pur­pose.’’

Next month in Perth and Syd­ney, the trio will ap­pear in a live show that was orig­i­nally billed as a Top Gear event but has since been stripped of the name, the peren­ni­ally hel­meted stunt driver the Stig and all other Top Gear brand­ing. Re­vamped in the wake of Clark­son’s sack­ing, the show is part of an in­ter­na­tional tour and has been re­named Clark­son, Ham­mond and May Live (one wag wrote that this made the world’s most fa­mous TV revheads sound like “a skif­fle act made up of so­lic­i­tors’’.)

The arena event will fea­ture stunts, su­per­cars and “above-av­er­age lev­els of cock­ing about’’, ac­cord­ing to the PR spiel. Ex­pect cheeky ref­er­ences to Clark­son’s demise: as the Belfast leg of the trio’s tour got un­der way, the crowd was asked to welcome “two men who have not been sacked’’ (Ham­mond and May).

Ham­mond says the arena show is “about bring­ing the mo­tor show to life, so you see the cars ac­tu­ally mov­ing and do­ing stuff, which means you can hear them and en­joy them as the de­sign­ers in­tended.’’ Well, not quite — Clark­son ar­rives in a hov­er­craft, while a skit de­vel­oped for Aus­tralian au­di­ences fea­tures “The CrAshes”, an Ashes-style game of car cricket in which Ham­mond and his co-hosts plan to “ex­plore and en­joy’’ the long­stand­ing ri­valry be­tween Aus­tralia and Bri­tain.

Ham­mond says he has a “hor­ri­ble feel­ing’’ Clark­son came up with some of the game’s de­signs. Here is an ex­am­ple of the play­ful put­downs (“your bit was rub­bish’’) that char­ac­terised the pre­sen­ters’ ban­ter through al­most two dozen TV se­ries. Ham­mond, who spoke to Re­view be­fore Clark­son was axed by the BBC, in­sists the “back­bit­ing and fight­ing” weren’t played up for dra­matic ef­fect. “It comes quite nat­u­rally to us,’’ he says, chuck­ling.

These slightly slovenly, mid­dle-aged pre­sen­ters have be­come un­likely global celebri­ties be­cause: 1. They love cars. 2. They hate po­lit­i­cal correctness. 3. They refuse to grow up. Feel like cross­ing the English Chan­nel in a banged-up ute? What about driv­ing a Jaguar around In­dia with a toi­let fit­ted on to the boot? In Top Gear’s lad­dish, big-bud­get (for public broad­cast­ing) uni­verse, it was all doable. For the 2015 se­ries, Ham­mond was winched up the steep, ver­ti­cal sides of a dam by a sin­gle me­tal­lic rope. It was nail-bit­ing stuff.

But the risks these am­a­teur dare­dev­ils take hit home in dev­as­tat­ing fash­ion in 2006, when Ham­mond was al­most killed in a car ac­ci­dent while film­ing the show. The fa­ther of two was driv­ing a jet-pow­ered drag­ster at al­most 500km/h when a tyre blew. The car crashed and rolled, drag­ging his hel­met along the ground.

Ham­mond suf­fered brain dam­age and was in a coma for two weeks, be­fore he be­gan the long, slow haul back to health. Asked if there are any lin­ger­ing ef­fects, he says philo­soph­i­cally: “It (the ac­ci­dent) is in my past, so any ef­fects are part of me now. I no longer look to at­tribute things to it, as I did for a while. It’s one of the ma­jor events in my life, along with hav­ing my fam­ily, get­ting this job.’’

He agrees the ac­ci­dent — which was broad­cast on Top Gear af­ter he re­cov­ered — played out in a very public way. “That was all more pe­cu­liar for my fam­ily than it was for me, be­cause I was in­ca­pable of reg­is­ter­ing it, re­ally,’’ he re­veals. He says it was harder for “my chil­dren, my broth­ers, my par­ents be­cause their loved one was in­jured, and the whole world was in­volved. (But) the (public) sup­port was tremen­dous and much ap­pre­ci­ated.’’

In the end, it was a dis­pute over an ab­sent steak din­ner, rather than a dan­ger­ous stunt that brought the show un­done. Clark­son was al­ready on a fi­nal warn­ing from the broad­caster when he was axed, given that he used one racial slur in a Myan­mar spe­cial, and ap­peared to mum­ble another while film­ing a sep­a­rate episode.

When it comes to cul­tural stereo­typ­ing, Ham­mond has form, too. In 2011, he de­scribed Mex­i­cans as “lazy, feck­less’’ and “flat­u­lent’’ while jok­ing about Mex­i­can cars on air. He was ac­cused of be­ing xeno­pho­bic, and apol­o­gised later on Face­book. But he also said the BBC al­lowed “stereo­type com­edy’’ in pro­grams “where the au­di­ence has clear ex­pec­ta­tions of that be­ing the case’’.

Asked whether Top Gear went too far in ex­ploit­ing na­tional stereo­types, Ham­mond replies: “I think pok­ing fun, ex­pect­ing peo­ple to be re­silient, and able to take it in the spirit in which it’s meant — you ex­pect peo­ple to give it back as well. Look at the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Aussies and Brits.’’ Still, he con­cedes “there are oc­ca­sions when the mark is over­stepped or deemed by oth­ers to have been over­stepped, quite of­ten not by the peo­ple who are at the point of be­ing of­fended, quite of­ten it’s by those stand­ing on the side­lines … But fair enough, we put our hand up and apol­o­gise. We don’t want to ac­tively

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