A tour de force of exhaustion, damp clothes and army food
WHAT’S your retirement plan when you’re one of the three most famous car show presenters on television? Nice place in the sun, surely, and a whacking pension? Maybe not, according to The Grand Tour’s James May, 55. “We’re ageing, yes, there’s no denying it,” he acknowledges, but adds that he’s “not yet actively thinking” about retirement.
Hasn’t he made enough money? “I haven’t worked that out yet,” he says.
“I’m not that careful with money really. It depends what level you want to retire at. I think I’d be quite happy living in a shed with some animals though I haven’t tried it. But a cat, a dog and goat... that sort of thing.
“I’m very low maintenance. I would have the shed in my own garden. Me and Sarah [his partner] have a little cottage down in Wiltshire, sort of hilly with trees and we could add a crofter’s shed.”
Would he carry on doing the show until say, 92, the age of TV legend Sir David Attenborough?
“Well, I don’t know. I’d be surprised if we lasted that long. But it depends what the alternative is. If it’s being dropped into a dumpster, yes! It would depend on Amazon, too. But they have also talked about doing non-car shows with me.”
In the meantime, May remains gainfully employed, with the third series of the very global The Grand Tour starting this week. The first episode takes us off to the motor city of Detroit where, along with co-stars Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, he indulges in some street racing in large V8s.
It’s business as usual except, reveals Clarkson, that “episodes have previously run for too long”. He tells me: “Something had to go so we’ve lost the celebrity interview.” Past interviewees included Hugh Bonneville, Kiefer Sutherland and Dominic Cooper.
“The thing about Amazon is that you can see when someone isn’t watching a particular part of the show and this wasn’t working. But the good news is that we are the most watched show on Amazon.”
Is it frustrating not knowing the ratings? “Not really,” he says. “It is what it is.”
May agrees with ditching the celebrities in the tent. “It’s quite nice, we’ve done it for a bit, but we know now they like watching the big films with us in. They also like supercars going around the track or Abbie [the new Stig] posting a lap time. There’s no point denying it. That’s what they want so we will give it to them.”
It’s a far cry from the days of BBC Two’s Top Gear when it regularly out-rated shows broadcast on BBC One at the same time. Of course, it wasn’t enough to save the team, who walked away from the Beeb after Clarkson assaulted his producer for failing to provide a hot meal.
They went to Amazon with a three-year deal that was not only reputed to be worth £132million but also allowed them “to have all the freedom”, says Clarkson. Not that any of them claims to be rich and
Clarkson insists “we’re all paid the same, to the nearest cent”.
Meanwhile, Top Gear goes on with another new set of presenters, including comedian and actor Paddy McGuinness and cricketer Freddie Flintoff. Will this be the magic solution after the valiant efforts of Matt Le Blanc and Chris Evans? How would Clarkson fix Top Gear?
There’s a long pause. “Well, what
I would say is that a former cricketer [Imran Khan] has become the leader of Pakistan, so they can do anything.” Ouch! Does it lack a format? “I don’t think we really had one either. You just need a lot of good ideas, that’s all.”
There appears to be no shortage of those in The Grand Tour, many from the inventive mind of producer Andy Wilman, who co-created Top Gear as we know it with Clarkson and quit at the same time.
One of the more trying challenges is a trip to Mongolia, a six-day camping jaunt across this land-locked country between Russia and China. Clarkson, who says he only has six countries left to visit, says it was a “six-day orgy of exhaustion, animal lavatory facilities, discomfort, dirty fingernails, damp camping-trip clothes, army food and James May’s spinnakersized sinuses”.
It left a lasting impression on May, too. “I won’t deny that Mongolia was quite arduous,” he says. “The weather was awful although we were told it would be quite warm, but it was chucking it down and we were cold.”
He adds: “I never get blasé about it
[the trips]. At that point you would be morally obliged to stop doing it.
You can’t do it and moan about it because most other jobs are probably not as exciting.
“But I wouldn’t have gone there otherwise. In my life, I would never go to Mongolia and effectively get lost in the middle of it so you can’t complain about it. It would be #firstworldproblems to do that.
“But on the trip we had to take all our food, army rations and fuel for both our cars, which were quite thirsty, and the camera car. And we started to run out of rations. I certainly wasn’t fat when I got back... Jeremy was still fat!”
No drink either? They’re infamous for enjoying a tipple. Says May: “We’re not alcohol dependent, just wine enthusiasts.”
THAT IS probably not the adjective to be used for May’s proposed new cooking show, coming to a channel near you soon. Maybe Amazon. It’s “one-pot garage cooking”. It’s basically what you can cook on a single ring in your own garage. Those without a garage should look to other cooking shows.
His last solo effort, The Reassembler, he reveals, was “very popular with stoners... I’m told by a group of students that they would come home from the pub or club at two or three in the morning, spark one up and watch me put a lawnmower together!”
But what about the cooking show? “There’s very little to address people who can’t cook. I would buy tins of beans with those little sausages. I’ve tried adding mushrooms, then sprouts for vegetarians, then also a few spices that will go with sprouts.
“The real skill to cooking is not knowing recipes but knowing the basic rules that, for example, fennel goes with fatty meat, that basil goes with starchy things. That’s why it goes with pasta pesto. If you know those, then you can learn how to enliven dishes, and what to squirt brown sauce on, or Lea & Perrins. But so far, cooking these up is largely a private thing.”
Which you couldn’t say for Clarkson’s views on current affairs. He has been very vocal on Brexit. Has he visited a country with a better political system than ours? “All of them! Even Azerbaijan is better than ours.” That’s Westminster told.
But how long can this partnership last? May, who calls it “magic chemistry”, provides the secret to its longevity. “We don’t actually catch up with each other between filming the series,” he says. “We insult each other on Twitter but that’s part of the TV machine nowadays. We do see enough of each other through work.
“First and foremost we are work colleagues. I don’t think being mates is essential. I don’t think Morecambe and Wise were good mates. Rock bands all famously hate each other but play together. So maybe that’s why it works.”
The Grand Tour is released by Amazon Prime on Friday
‘We’re not alcohol dependent, just wine enthusiasts’
THREE KINGS OF THE DESERT: Living the simple life in Mongolia