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James May on Our Man in Italy and The Grand Tour’s future: 'They think people want to see me dress up and make an a*** of myself'
We catch up with James May to talk about his picturesque new travel series Our Man In Italy, which takes the Grand Tour presenter from Sicily to the Dolomites.
Can a bumbling, middle-aged British bloke discover the secrets of ‘la dolce vita’?
That is the mission at the heart of James May's new series, Our Man In Italy, which follows the Grand Tour presenter as he travels the length and breadth of Italy from the Sicilian capital of Palermo to the peaks of the Dolomites.
Following on from the success of his Our Man In Japan series in 2020, this six-episode journey is a joyous post-lockdown treat as May and his crew capture the stunning sights and sounds of Italy’s jaw-dropping landscapes and rich culture.
We caught up with James when he got back from his travels to find out more about the trip and the latest updates on the future of The Grand Tour.
1. How different is this Italy series to Our Man In Japan?
Italy isn’t as challenging and that did worry me a bit. It’s very different from Britain and Japan, but it’s a European country and it’s not as surprising as Japan. Italy is a related culture.
Thankfully, there were enough differences for Italy to be baffling and interesting at the same time. Everywhere is interesting if you look close enough. And you don’t have to go far in Italy.
It’s full of fabulous things to look at, eat, argue about – it’s a very culturally and experientially dense country. That’s the reason it’s so popular. It’s not a big place, but it’s rammed to bursting point with stuff.
2. What was the best thing you learned in Italy?
The most useful skill was either driving through Rome or, though it wasn’t on camera, learning how to hand-make macaroni. Rolling out sheets of handmade pasta and then wrapping them around wire, it takes hours! And you end up with a small bowl of pasta. But I can do it now. You’d have to wait a day for me to make it, but I can do homemade macaroni with truffles or cheese.
3. You meet some Italians who have built their own Lord of the Rings Shire and live as Hobbits – how did you keep a straight face?
I didn’t [keep a straight face] through all of it. I think it’s daft, in the way that I think Morris dancing is daft. But I don’t think it’s harmful of a threat to society. Unless they turn out to be a dangerous Nazi cult, which always worries me with those things.
You go along and think this is quite funny, these people think they’re Hobbits and they offer you homemade beer and pasta, but then five years later it is revealed that they are a dangerous Nazi cult with people in prisons in dungeons and there’s a picture of me having a drink with them.
But I don’t think they’re dangerous. It’s just cosplay. If this was Japan nobody would bat an eyelid. It’s people dressing up, having a little fantasy and going back to the office on Monday.
4. You spend a lot of the series in fancy dress – how much persuading does it take from the crew?
Quite a lot. Occasionally I do get slightly bad-tempered about it. I’m not convinced people want to see me making an a*** of myself, but they think people do want to see me dress up and make an a*** of myself. We have a few light arguments. In the end, I know I’ve sort of got to do it for TV. But there’s a trade-off, I say "I will do that but you’ve got to let me to go to the woodwork shop, the gunmaker or the Ferrari factory" – it’s a deal. And then they cut all that bit out.
5. Do you enjoy working solo after spending so much time with ‘the other two'?
Yes. YES. We’re not very good on The Grand Tour of giving anything any gravitas. Everything is boring or nerdy. So it’s quite nice to be on my own. But I can get a little too immersed in things and need moving on some times. If it had just been left to me, you would have just got six episodes of me making bagpipes.
6. Do you have any Grand Tour specials with Clarkson and Hammond in the pipeline?
More Grand Tours? We’ve filmed one. It will be coming out later this year, but they haven’t decided when yet. I’m not being secretive; they just haven’t decided. After that, we’ll just have to see.
We’re all knocking on a bit. At some point we’ll all be past it or one of us will die. But at the moment, it’s still working.
7. Do you still want to make Our Man In the USA?
Oh definitely. We didn’t have any problems with America. We had it all set up. Lots of things I wanted to do. And lots of thing the producers wanted that I didn’t want to do. But it now all depends on Italy and how much Amazon like it and how it performs as a show. Everything is metrics driven, but if that’s all good, America would be great.
As usual with my life, the future beyond this week is a grey fog. But I am working on a couple of ideas in secret. I can’t tell you what they are I’m afraid because that will jinx it. There’s some surprising stuff, let’s put it that way.
James May: Our Man in Italy is available on Prime Video from 15 July