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Grand Tour producer Andy Wilman on Carnage A Trois: ‘We’re just jealous of the French!’
The Grand Tour trio, stuck in the UK, are casting an affectionate eye across the channel. Producer Andy Wilman spoke exclusively to BT.com about the making of Carnage A Trois.
Clarkson, Hammond and May are back, and while the latest special, The Grand Tour Presents: Carnage A Trois, clocks up fewer miles than previous outings, their affectionate look at the French relationship with their cars is typical Grand Tour fare – entertaining, educational and just a little bit near the knuckle.
The pandemic has presented its own challenges for the show, not least how do you do a Grand Tour special without actually leaving the UK, and the result is something a little different which the fourth member of the ‘trio’ – executive producer Andy Wilman – hopes viewers will enjoy.
Wilman spoke to BT.com about the inspiration behind Carnage A Trois, how they worked around lockdown restrictions to create engaging set-pieces, and what’s next for The Grand Tour.
The idea came from a throwaway line
With Covid-based travel restrictions preventing a traditional overseas trip, the team was faced with coming up with a topic for a second lockdown film following the Scottish ‘Lochdown’ special. The brainstorm was going nowhere until a joke inspired the special.
“We knew we were going to end up doing two lockdown specials and we didn’t want to do another road trip as the second one,” says Wilman.
“Yes we could drive around Wales and England but it’s not going to be a ‘road trip’. We were stumped. We were having a meeting in the office, throwing ideas around and I remember after about two hours someone said: ‘At this rate we’ll be doing “What’s the matter with the French?”’
“There was a silence and someone went: ‘Hang on a minute…’
“We all started laughing, the clouds started to part and we could see all the possibilities in it. It didn’t take long to start shaping this thing about how their car culture is unique, and it’s unique for its weirdness and its idiosyncrasies as opposed to the Italians with their supercars or the Americans with their muscle cars. You realise quite quickly that it’s illustrative of the French character.
“So rather than a road trip we thought we’d do a more scripted thing where we look at aspects of the French. There’s a lot to go at but we knew we’d get wonderful cars in it.”
It’s a fond tribute to the French
The film’s opening scene ends with Jeremy Clarkson asking: “What is the matter with the French?” but Francophiles need not worry – the special unfolds as a love letter to France, French motoring and the Gallic way of life.
“We’re not bloody Brexit voters,” Wilman insists.
“Our view about the French is we’re jealous of them as you can see in the film. We’re jealous of their attitude to motoring and their attitude to life and that wilful desire to take their own path.
“I’m hoping people don’t think ‘They’re being like little Englanders’ because it’s so far from what we want to be or do or say. When people first see the publicity they might think ‘Oh, they’re going to have a go at the French’ but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
It’s almost a return to the studio days
Because it was conceived as an interlinked series of clips, rather than a single road trip, Carnage A Trois is reminiscent of the trio’s Top Gear stint, where a VT package would be followed by a studio discussion.
“Richard [Hammond] said that this was one of those films where we’d go back to the studio, like that bit where they have lunch and you see that French arthouse cinema film,” Wilman explains.
“In the old days we’d have done that in the studio with an audience but we didn’t. I hope it works and I’m braced for a few people saying ‘Where’s the road trip?’ but we have to try things.
“It’s deliberately shorter at 70 minutes rather than 90 because without a road trip you can’t stretch it out. So it’s a punchier one that bounces from thing to thing - I hope it entertains people. The ones who miss a road trip will moan but we had to do something different. It was a good experiment for us.
“In the future we could combine a hybrid of a road trip where you stop and do things, like we did in the French film.”
The stripped-back set-pieces really work
The privations of lockdown may mean Carnage A Trois lacks the exotic edge of earlier specials but the back-to-basics approach makes for some entertaining and memorable set-pieces. Chief among these is the hot-hatch rally, a race between six small French cars around the Lydden Hill course in Kent.
The thrilling battle between the hosts, two crew members (one French, naturellement) and a professional driver is subject to several typically Gallic interruptions including lunch.
That race turned out to be one of the best we’ve ever done. It was pretty low-rent but the action, the fighting, was immense
- Andy Wilman
“I didn’t realise it until I got in the edit but that race turned out to be one of the best we’ve ever done,” Wilman says.
“It was pretty low-rent but that meant the action, the fighting, was immense. And then to be able to stop and have lunch in the middle of the race as a nod to the French love of lunch – that was a Jeremy thought – was fun.”
The film’s other race sees the trio drive three family cars to the top of a hill in the Black Mountains over terrain more suited to 4x4s. After weaving through woods, crashing up and down ditches and wading through streams, the three were rewarded with a view to remember.
“Getting up that hill was a fantastic day. When we got to the top of that mountain – I know we’re called The Grand Tour and our remit is to go around the world - but when you see that you don’t really want to go anywhere else,” he says.
As usual, it’s Richard Hammond who risks life and limb in Carnage A Trois, although this time the threat to his wellbeing comes from an irate driver unimpressed with the presenter’s attempt to follow the French ‘priorité à droite’ rule on a busy English roundabout.
“Man, was he angry!” Wilman laughs. “But would you blame him? It’s Saturday, he’s trying to get out of Wickes and there’s some d***heads on the roundabout trying to make a hilarious point at everyone else’s expense so I don’t blame the guy, but he was brilliant.
“Those moments you live for. Richard was really good at it – ‘I’m trying to do a roundabout the French way!’ We couldn’t have picked a worse time!”
When it comes down to it, however, The Grand Tour is a show about cars, and it’s a straightforward chat between Hammond and Clarkson about the beauty of a classic French car that stands out for the executive producer.
“That Citroen SM drive with Richard and Jeremy also sticks in the mind because when they’re sitting in that car, I got a reminder of why we’re the best at this. The way they brought that car to life, I thought ‘No-one else can do this’. It was really lyrical.
“It’s nice to have that next to explosions and the other stuff.”
Covid restrictions caused a lot of stress
The strict lockdown restrictions in force during the filming of the Scottish special – “it can be pretty miserable, you sit in the bar in the evening, you have to book out the whole hotel and you all have to sit about 10 feet away from each other, which isn’t really conducive,” Wilman said at the time – were relaxed slightly for Carnage A Trois, but the threat of a Covid outbreak among the crew was still hanging over the production.
“It wasn’t quite so tight,” Wilman explains. “We still had to take over whole hotels but we could use the bar more easily, where previously we had to sit 20 miles apart and shout to each other and then the bar shuts at five past eight and you had to go to your rooms. There was less of that.
“But the stress was the same, whereby if one crew member goes down, the ripple effect throughout the crew means your bubble is burst. But we got through it.
“But we had to be tested every day, had the mobile lab with us, all these things that Amazon make us have because no-one’s insured for these things, you have to do everything you can to make sure the wheels don’t fall off.”
It's like old friends getting back together
The move from multi-episode seasons of The Grand Tour (and Top Gear before it) to twice-yearly specials has allowed Clarkson, Hammond and May to indulge their other passions for our enjoyment, be it running a farm, surviving life on a desert island or becoming an unlikely TV chef.
But the trio clearly enjoy being back together, and the chemistry of old friends is evident in Carnage A Trois.
“Now we’re not doing 12 shows a year they’re not in every day. They scatter – it’s like when Fleetwood Mac finish a tour they all bugger off – and there is an aspect of old friends getting back together, particularly in Scotland because that really was like something we’d last done in 2007,” says Wilman.
“But their relationship hasn’t changed, it’s just after 20 years they each have their own lives and there’s not the reason to come together.
“I miss it because it means you have to work harder to come up with the stuff, whereas the more time you’re sitting around talking, the easier it flows.”
Next stop – the Arctic Circle (hopefully)!
The Grand Tour plan for 2020 - to head to Russia to film an extensive road trip in the ice and snow – was put on hold as soon as it became clear that the global spread of Coronavirus would impact on international travel.
With travel still compromised by the pandemic, Wilman admits that the Russian film will now not take place at all, but will hopefully be replaced by an equally chilly Grand Tour special.
“We were going to do a big Russian, snowy winter one before Boris Johnson said ‘Everybody go home’,” Wilman recalls.
“That was March 2020, and that film will never come back so we’re talking about going up to Scandinavia, up to the Artic Circle - fingers crossed. We want to do that in the snow so it’s got to be this coming winter.”
The Grand Tour Presents: Carnage A Trois launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, December 17