Back from rock bottom: Andy Wilman on how The Grand Tour was born

Back from rock bottom: Andy Wilman on how The Grand Tour was born

“Guys, it’s Amazon on the phone. They say they want to do a show”


THIS WEEK you’ll probably drive to work listening to a Grand Tour radio advert and sit in a traffic jam looking at a Grand Tour billboard, and when you settle down to a post-Sunday-lunch viewing of The Guns of Navarone next weekend, odds are it’ll be peppered with Grand Tour telly adverts.

Tidal waves of noise and hype such as this make me chuckle. Marketing campaigns suggest confidence, big wheels turning, the inevitability of a sequel following a hit movie, but in truth what’s going on now is a world away from where Jeremy, James, Richard and I found ourselves 18 months ago.

That would have been April 2015, when, as the dust settled over the debris of our stint at Top Gear, there was no plan, no strategy, no nothing. I remember the four of us sitting round the kitchen table at Jeremy’s place — which was a start, I suppose — blinking in the daylight outside the BBC womb, not really knowing what to do.


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For my own part — we are blokes, remember, so I wouldn’t have asked the others what they thought — I never had any doubt that we should carry on. The question was whether we could. I was confident that, in terms of delivering car-related entertaining nonsense, we still had much to offer, but my fear was that we wouldn’t just be picking up where we left off; we’d be starting all over again, which is much scarier.

In 2002, when we relaunched Top Gear, there was nothing to live up to. This time we would have our own legacy breathing down our necks. Also, even we had enough legal nous to realise that some of our favourite toys — the Stig, the hangar — had been confiscated for ever, so we would be starting again with one hand tied behind our collective back.

“In 2002, when we relaunched Top Gear, there was nothing to live up to. This time we would have our own legacy breathing down our necks”

The biggest immediate problem was: exactly how do we start again? Do we ring someone? Does someone ring us? All we had done before was work at the coal face; we had never opened a mine. In the end we were saved from our own incompetence by people ringing us, and then the way forward came into focus, a no-brainer, really: we had to go New World, the Amazon or Netflix route.

Out in these TV frontier towns we would be left alone to do our thing: we wouldn’t be working for a channel trying to impose its own identity on our show. There’d be no having to make “an ITV-type show” or “a Discovery-type show”. The Amazons and the Netflixes offered a blank canvas — they just want to put out great stuff.

PYRAMID SCHEME On the Moroccan set of Game of Thrones, the crew prepares for a lightweight sports car shootout.

PYRAMID SCHEME On the Moroccan set of Game of Thrones, the crew prepares for a lightweight sports car shootout.

 

Although we could now see the runway lights, we still had to land the plane. We needed to do a deal, and when it comes to business, not one of us would get past the first round on The Apprentice. Luckily we had had calls from prospective agents in America, and in the end we plumped for Lance at WME.

Lance didn’t get the gig on account of his social skills. Small talk for him is something that takes up valuable time when he could be doing a deal, so on the phone it’s limited to “Hi” — to make sure you’re there — and then he’s plunging into the order of business.

However, even with Lance’s fat-free conversation skills the deal would take months; it would involve many transatlantic phone calls, which presented Jeremy, James, Richard and me with our next hurdle — the conference call. Strange though it may seem for such globetrotters, none of us had performed a conference call, but now that we had to do so, we always gave it 110%. We would all, for instance, make sure anyone in America could hear us by shouting really loudly at the plastic spidery phone thing in the middle of the table. We also learnt quickly to make sure everyone had left the call before saying, “What a tit,” and other friendly observations.

£160m

The amount that Amazon reportedly paid for 36 episodes of The Grand Tour. It works out at nearly £4.5m a show

With the experts driving everything along, a contract was signed. By now it was August 2015, and clause 8a, subsection b, stated that we had to start delivering a run of 12 programmes by October 1, 2016. Bear in mind it used to take us a year to make 12 Top Gear episodes when we were in the groove, and this time we had no show, no name and nobody to make the show with no name. We didn’t even have an office.

The office problem was temporarily solved by the kindly Eric Fellner, devout petrolhead and co-chairman of Working Title, who lent us a room with two phones and two desks. And so, cosying up next to the team making the new Bridget Jones, we began our resurrection.

Job one was to build the framework for a new show. We knew we couldn’t copy certain elements of the Top Gear we had created, but that didn’t prepare us for the barrage of pessimism emanating from our lawyers, Amazon’s US lawyers, Amazon’s UK lawyers and other lawyers still at law school.

BACK ON THE BOX Andy Wilman reviews some footage at the Portimao racetrack in Portugal

BACK ON THE BOX Wilman reviews some footage at the Portimao racetrack in Portugal

 

The discussions became nonsensical — whether or not James could say “cock” (yes); whether the banter between Richard, James and Jeremy would have to be different to distance it from Top Gear (actually, it couldn’t be, because nobody would want to watch James pretending he likes tyre smoke, Richard suddenly being serious and worldly and Jeremy driving slowly and listening to other people’s opinions).

I think things hit rock bottom when we said we were off to Namibia to shoot a road trip and a lawyer’s comments came back noting that on a visit to Botswana we had commented on the beauty of the scenery, so could we avoid doing the same in Namibia? Fine — so the lads stare over the Skeleton Coast at sunset and say: “What a rubbish view.”

“Not everything will be right — there is no way it can be, given the speed at which we’ve built The Grand Tour from scratch. But that makes us feel alive”

As hastily self-appointed legal experts, the four of us knew that you could not alter the dynamic of the three guys on screen, because it was never a TV invention in the first place. What we had to change was the big stuff, starting with a substitute for the hangar at Dunsfold. You can read about how we came up with the tent in Jeremy’s article, after this.

We have been filming furiously since last September. Fortunately, many of the brilliant Top Gear veterans still had enough patience to work with us, which made the punishing timetable just about manageable. Offices? We sent Richard off to Knight Frank, but when he came back with a brochure for a barn near his house in Wales, he was quickly relieved of all property-related duties.


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So, as D-Day, November 18, approaches, where are we? Well, anyone who knows me knows my glass isn’t just half empty; it has cobwebs in it. However, I am very proud to have my name on this show. I would say almost all the films are epic and the tent business looks and feels brilliant.

We’ve taken a lot of care in choosing the content of the first two shows, with episode one deliberately being a petrolhead’s car show. At first the plan was to kick off with a film that appealed to our broader audience, but then we thought: “Sod that. We’ll have our car crown back.” And, as a film in its own right, it is a tour de force; it’s like a Clash song — out of the traps, grabs you by the neck, doesn’t let go. As for episode two, well, we thought we’d have our cocking-about crown back as well, so those who have missed our mental-age-of-nine offerings will be happy with this one.

Not everything will be right — there is no way it can be, given the speed at which we’ve built The Grand Tour from scratch. But that makes us feel alive; it’s 2002 all over again. If something works, high fives; if not, try something else. I think that when you first see the guys blathering away in the tent, it will feel odd, because it did to us — it’s them doing their thing, but they’ve moved house, and for a while you’ll be distracted by the new furnishings.

But let’s not worry about that. If you’re a fan, when you see Jeremy, Richard and James back together, you will breathe a sigh of relief that nothing — be it the newness of the show, the marketing hype, the whatever — has got in the way of them being the Jeremy, Richard and James you know. From the bottom of my half-empty glass, I truly believe we will be giving you the comfort food you have been waiting for.

 

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The Grand Tour begins on Amazon Prime on November 18, 2016. Click here to sign up and watch.