Richard Hammond talks with
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