Top Gear and Grand Tour mastermind Andy Wilman: ‘Engines have character – EVs are just transport’

Richard Hammond, Andy Wilman and Jeremy Clarkson on location in Poland for The Grand Tour
Andy Wilman, centre, with Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson on location in Poland for The Grand Tour - Alamy

All great motoring journeys must come to an end eventually, one way or another. Ideally you arrive at your intended destination on time and in one piece, before finding a neat and sheltered parking place, putting the handbrake on and locking the vehicle up safely.

A worse scenario is to drive on for too long and too far, spluttering to an ignominious halt when the engine gives out or the wheels come off. But the worst way to finish, of course, is to crash out, especially if somebody’s hurt or the car’s written off for good.

The Grand Tour, the mega-budget Amazon Prime show in which Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond travel the world driving extraordinary (or sometimes extraordinarily ordinary) vehicles in extraordinary places, is no different.

It was reported this week that after five series, the trio have filmed their last adventure. There will be no more touring. The race has been run. But Andy Wilman, the show’s executive producer and Clarkson’s off-screen co-driver for almost everything he’s done on television since the mid-1990s – including 178 episodes of Top Gear and the now wildly successful Clarkson’s Farm – insists the journey is ending precisely as planned.

“The thing is,” Wilman says, “we don’t look at it as The Grand Tour, we look at it as Top Gear and The Grand Tour, so we’ve been doing this since 2002. We’ve now got people working on the show who used to talk about Top Gear on the bus to school. Which is a compliment, but you start to feel your age…”

Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond in Top Gear
Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond in Top Gear - Getty

By coincidence, news about the end of The Grand Tour came a few days after the BBC announced Top Gear will also be put in the garage under a car cover “for the foreseeable future” after its latest presenter, Freddie Flintoff, was severely hurt in a crash while filming last year. With both programmes – the only two of their genre to have sizable audiences – going off-air, a reasonable question can be asked about the future of motoring shows.

“In an ideal world [the motoring show] just regenerates, like Doctor Who, because there’s still a lot of love for cars out there, despite electric cars coming along, which I don’t think will create any TV whatsoever,” Wilman says, declaratively. It’s difficult to disagree: there’s no such thing as an electricity-head. A Top Gear with EVs is quite a bleak prospect.

Wilman laughs at the very idea. “There just wouldn’t be one. All they do is go quickly. Designers can do things with the outside of them, but you’re f---ed with EVs on sound, that whirring compared to a Ferrari engine. And then the dashboard is just a big iPad and some plastic. It’s f---ing terrible. It’s the end of looking at a nice interior of a car, everyone will do [the same] because it’s cheap. So no noise, interiors like that… Where is there a car show in that? Where can you celebrate the human input?”

A while after Wilman and the Top Gear gang relaunched the show in 2002, they hit on gold when they realised how much viewers connected with old bangers. They didn’t want to see the new supercars every week, but a charming heap breaking down a few miles into an adventure struck a joyful chord with people – especially people who vaguely know how engines work.

“Engined cars give you that: they give you characters. They give you foibles and idiosyncrasies,” Wilman says. “The Lamborghini Miura was built more or less in secret after work by a team of kids under 25, yet it’s one of the greatest cars of all time. You’re never going to get those stories with electric cars. Because they’re transport, they just whizz about… F---ing dull.”

Wilman, Clarkson, May and Hammond (their production company is actually called W Chump & Sons Ltd) left Top Gear and the BBC in 2015, after Clarkson punched a producer over a row about the availability of hot food during filming. Afterwards, Wilman watched “15 minutes” of the new iteration of Top Gear, hosted by six people including actor Matt LeBlanc and DJ Chris Evans, “before switching off”.

Not because he thought it was dreadful, he insists, but because he didn’t want to find out if he thought it was dreadful – then he’d have to lie to friends still working on it. “The BBC management at that time were obsessed with proving the idea that Top Gear works without Jeremy, James and Richard. Actually, the incarnation of Top Gear we created 100 per cent was Jeremy, James and Richard. It’s sad [Top Gear] has now ended the way it has.”

In 2006, when Hammond had a life-threatening crash while driving a jet-powered car at 320mph for Top Gear, the team naturally considered whether the show should continue. Only briefly, though, for not only did Hammond recover, he joked about it at awards shows, footage was shown in the next episode, and it became a triumphant part of the programme’s legend. The Flintoff crash “feels different”, Wilman reckons.

Jeremy Clarkson in The Grand Tour
Jeremy Clarkson in The Grand Tour - Ellis O'Brien

“I don’t know the details, but we all know it’s been long and protracted, and the guy’s suffered terribly. Richard suffered, it was huge, but there seemed to be a different mood around the events. But what happened to Freddie seems to have been an awful accident and an awful recovery. That’s knocked the stuffing out of what’s meant to be an escapist, childlike show. And who’s going to take that job? Give the man some respect.”

Is it done, then? “I think it’ll go away for a good while, and I don’t think the BBC has the stomach to make a new Top Gear. I don’t think there’s the will or the interest. We’ve been talking about electric cars, and if the BBC has its Left-wing leanings, they’re not going to go, ‘Let’s create another car show with Ferraris and Lamborghinis and hijinks’. They don’t have the will to do it.”

Wilman, who is 62, first met Clarkson when they were boys at Repton School in Derbyshire in the 1970s. He’s shorter and has an even more casual, roadie dress sense (today he’s in a black Rolling Stones Exile on Main St T-shirt with dark jeans and trainers), but otherwise doesn’t look dissimilar from Clarkson, and doesn’t sound entirely different either. “What, do I end things with ‘ the world’?” he asks, in an exaggerated Clarksonian drawl. Not quite, but you can tell why they get on.

We’re speaking in his office-cum-edit suite in central London. In one corner is a framed painting of David Icke, under the words “The Earth needs rebels!” (bought as a joke to annoy someone), but every other surface is covered with hand-written planning notes for Clarkson’s Farm. He is currently editing the third series. A fourth has just been announced.

Jeremy Clarkson in Clarkson's Farm
Jeremy Clarkson in Clarkson's Farm

“LISA MUSHROOM PONDER” reads one curious entry. “PIG DEATH SOLUTION” barks another. I fear that one may be linked to “ABATTOIR” on the same whiteboard, but cannot be certain. “Well, I won’t give anything away,” Wilman says, grinning.

Clarkson’s Farm is, of course, the unexpected new chapter in Wilman and Clarkson’s already staggeringly successful television career. “There’s a lot of joy in the smallness of everything. We can go, ‘Right, this episode is about mushrooms we’ve been growing.’ That’s counter-intuitive for people who’ve been sending cars down ski slopes that blow up for 20 years. But it’s a real delight to do, and we got so lucky with our cast of characters – Caleb, Charlie, Alan, Gerald – who were already there.”

Wilman felt grateful for the distraction of the new show after The Grand Tour finished filming in Zimbabwe in October, if only to distract him from the end of that era. “There were lots of tears, and we had a big old party,” he says. As well as May and Hammond, a lot of crew members came with Clarkson and Wilman when they all left Top Gear.

That loyalty was the thrust of a speech Wilman gave after “cut” was called for the last time. “I said a lot of massive numbers are thrown around when people talk about what we’ve done – the number of miles flown, the number of hours driven, the number of babies people have had. But the smaller numbers were the most amazing. In 20-odd years we’ve had eight cameramen, eight soundmen, four mechanics. Our dysfunctional family has stayed really loyal.”

Former Top Gear host Freddie Flintoff
Former Top Gear host Freddie Flintoff - Will Douglas/BBC

Wilman and the presenters had been thinking about ending it for at least two years, and always wanted to stop when their programmes were still being well received (“which the last series was, in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe,” Wilman says). Too often, he observes, people don’t know when to quit successful franchises. “Like that thing of people always being promoted one level above their ability, TV commissioners always commission one series too many.”

There were a lot of factors involved in calling it a day. The world is simply “harder to travel around”, for instance. They used to film in Ukraine, Myanmar, Israel and Argentina. That’s impossible now, chiefly thanks to conflicts, though in the case of Argentina it’s more that Clarkson et al have relentlessly pissed that country off over the past decade.

Then there’s age. Hammond is 53, but the others are all in their 60s. “Jeremy said he’s not getting any younger, and he’s right. It’s different clambering around in s--t nylon tents when you’re 63 compared to 40. And at our age, if we’re going to do anything else, the time is now.”

He and Clarkson aren’t good delegators, and don’t know any way of working other than “at the coalface”, even when they started making millions. Occasionally it’s meant coming up with brilliant format ideas such as for The Stig or having celebrities race around a track; sometimes it’s meant walking in the desert or taking a cargo ship across a far-flung sea, having the kind of Boy’s Own experiences people dream about.

But it’s just as often meant 2am finishes in edit suites, or Clarkson feverishly writing scripts, or everyone tackling logistical migraines, or marathon meetings with lawyers, or dealing with tabloid attention. (For the record, Wilman “will not be talking about Meghan Markle”, but will deny Clarkson’s incendiary column about her having anything to do with The Grand Tour winding up.)

With his wife, Amanda, he has two children who are now 23 and 19. “I missed sports days, all of that stuff. And every cliché is true. I massively regret it,” he says. “Amanda wasn’t always forgiving, but I was really defensive about Top Gear and working. There was no balance whatsoever.”

A scene from series 3 of The Grand Tour
A scene from series 3 of The Grand Tour - Ellis O'Brian

There now is, sort of, with Clarkson’s Farm. He and Clarkson both love it: learning a new subject, finding a new cast of characters, and only having to travel up the M40 (in the case of Wilman, who lives in south-west London) or step outside their front door (in the case of Clarkson) to film. It could, in theory, run and run. “The seasons provide a bit of structure, which is unusual in TV.”

Wilman is a huge muso, and compares Clarkson, May and Hammond to the Beatles more than once in our conversation. I suppose that makes him George Martin. “I’ll take that, I’ll definitely take that,” he says, nodding with mock pride. He likes the idea of keeping working for years to come, like the Rolling Stones, but “doing that Status Quo thing of a reunion tour every few years? No.”

Hammond and May have their own TV projects. Clarkson has the farm. But never say never to the band getting back together. “I just can’t see us doing it for cars. That’s us, but there’ll be a void for car programmes now, for a while.”

He sighs. “Do you think people will miss us?” he asks, suddenly sincere. There will definitely be a void, I confirm. “Yes, I know. But will they miss us?” Oh, I say, more than they know.

“Hmm. I’ll be OK if they do, because we gave it f---ing everything. The weight gain, the hair loss, the crashes, the having kids… We kind of lived our lives out on those shows. You always look for lightning in a bottle, and we had it with those three.”

The Grand Tour will return to Amazon Prime next year