I was a huge fan of Top Gear when I was growing up, and when the hosts left their BBC show to become an Amazon Original, I was skeptical. But not only have they managed to reinvent their ethos, but every episode they release also seems to be bigger and better than every idea they had before it.
In their most recent special, A Massive Hunt, the guys go on a treasure hunt around Madagascar. They destroy cars, beaches, and a soccer field in their quest. I won't spoil the ending, but it's a hoot.
One of the reasons viewers keep coming back for more is the gorgeous cinematography and real-life set pieces within the series. Every shot of this sweeping epic of a show carries you to another land. You see actual cars crash, tires pop off, and see people doing their best to surmount whatever nature throws at them.
But when the pandemic hit, the show was forced to rethink how they did things.
This was tricky, not only in dealing with temperamental hosts but also with traveling internationally. See, The Grand Tour was scheduled to shoot across several continents for a few specials they would hold for Amazon. They planned to go to places like Russia and across Asia in places like Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.
But COVID changed all of that.
Producer Andy Wilman spoke with Deadline about the process and protocols.
"Amazon has got the protocols and you’ve got to adhere to them," Wilman told Deadline. "If you lose the money, it’s all down the drain. We were all really grown up about it. We’re not slapdash on health and safety as we’re all still alive after 20 years, but those kinds of processes, we usually groan and roll our eyes. But we thought we’ve got to do this because if you follow them, you’ve got a chance of making it to the end."
In the article, he mentions spending almost $70,000 on tests alone. He said that even on days when they were tired of protocols, their compliance officer kept them in line.
"They were really tough on us. On the third day, we started to get a bit slack and revert back to muscle memory, so I jumped in someone else’s car. The chief medic guy, f***k did he bollock me, to bring us back into line. But it was what we needed.”
After each day of shooting, they got swabbed and were able to receive results at 11 p.m. that night. So they knew who was clear to work in the morning.
They also employed a kind of rolling bubble. That meant producers and hosts were isolated from the crew. When they were shooting they only interacted with the outside world when performing necessities like filling up their cars with gas.
Sound and other crew members wore hazmat suits if they had to be close to the team.
This helped them prevent exposures outside of the regular crew. They did so well in Madagascar that they wound up filming another special in Scotland this year.
“Scotland was tremendous," Wilman said. "In adversity—a slight element of backs to the wall—we’ve got a really great film. If you don’t have Madagascar or the Mekong River… it makes you work harder. We don’t leave as much to chance, you set up more scenes and that is like going back to the old days."
This kind of success on such a humongous travel show is excellent news. Protocols, along with vaccines, will allow them to figure out other plans soon. They still hope to go to Russia and to film all over the world.
Host James May told RadioTimes, “We’ve already filmed one for next year which is our recent Scotland adventure, so I would hope we could do another one next year but it’s slightly out of our control. It depends what happens with all the COVID stuff. But I’m confident we’ll be able to film another one, so two will come out in 2021!”
He hinted Russia wasn't off the table.
"The Russia plan is simply postponed until we don’t know when, but we haven’t canceled it," May said. "We’re just having to put it in the cupboard at the moment but we will get it out one day and finish it off."
As a fan, I hope this all shoots sooner than later. But it's interesting hearing how they accomplished shooting anything this year. The idea of a rolling bubble definitely helps hosts and producers, but the crew seems to be a little left out. I think hearing they tested daily and got rapid results is really smart. You can get ahead of any outbreaks and isolate anyone in the meantime.
Still, not many shows, or even movies, have the budget for this kind of testing.
Let us know what you think of all this in the comments.