The Grand Tour is back with a series of specials! Why did you decide to say goodbye to the studio?
There is no question that people prefer the specials when we whizz off and go and do something incredible, compared to the studio side of it. The other problem we have is time. Doing 12 or 13 shows a year is phenomenally time-consuming and it was sort of wiping us out, so now we can just concentrate on the specials and make them even better than they were.
Richard, James and yourself had a break from each other after the end of the third series, did it help to reset things when you came back together?
Definitely. The truth is whatever those two might say, we do laugh constantly when we are together. Sometimes I could cheerfully strangle both of them, but I know that when we meet up for the next special I will do more laughing than I will at any other time of year. We do have a good giggle. It is hard work but we laugh, and that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
You have been together for such a long time now, has anything changed?
Nothing. I know for the next special we will get to the airport and James will suggest a glass of red wine even though it will be 8am and then we will start laughing and we won’t stop for two weeks except for occasionally shouting at each other. Even when the cameras are turned off, the three of us will go and have supper and absolutely crap ourselves laughing. When we run out of stuff to laugh about, we just talk about what happened on the last special that was funny and then still find it funny.
Why did you choose Vietnam and Cambodia for the first special?
The truth is I had already decided we should go there entirely due to a photograph I saw on an Amazon Fire TV screen saver. The place on the screen saver turned out to be the Mekong Delta but the idea I had, which was to re-conquer the Spratly Islands, simply wasn’t going to be possible because we would have been killed by the Chinese.
It turns out the Chinese get very shoot-y when you turn up in the Spratly Islands so we decided we didn’t really want to be shot. Then I went to Vietnam and Cambodia for three months and I suddenly had a new idea, and it all worked out. Except, it wasn’t quite as I’d planned because of the weather.
It went instantly wrong. It was the first time anyone would hear me admit that the climate is changing. There is still a long way to go to convince me that man is responsible for it, but there was no question the climate is changing. For most people it doesn’t really make a difference because you don’t live near the sea and are not reliant on it for your food. If it changes by course of a degree over the next hundred years, contrary to what Greta Thunberg might tell us, it is not going to kill everybody: unless you are in Cambodia and make a living out of the river system there. We got there and there was simply no water for our boats. So that was a bit of a problem and by the end of the course we had massively too much water. So it was a well-rounded story.
It is not often we hear you talking about climate change in a serious manner…
It is the first time I have ever addressed it on television but it is very difficult not to, when you are standing by a river that should be full and is completely empty. You can’t stand there and say ‘Oh this is all poppycock’. It just wasn’t raining. We were there four days before filming started and the sun never went in. It was permanently hot and sunny and it shouldn’t have been. I had been there three months earlier in the year and the windy season was all wrong as well.
The circumstances looked tough even for your standards.
That first night when we slept on the lake in Cambodia – well, I stayed in a worse hotel in Turin once, but it was bad. There’s nothing more irritating than people saying, ‘You’re like Bear Grylls, you say you camp out there but you actually go and stay in a hotel’. I urge people to go on Google maps and see if they can find a hotel we could have gone to. Neither us nor the crew got a single second of sleep.
Can you describe it?
It was like sleeping in a fly-infested and extremely noisy oven at 400 degrees; if you filled your oven with every insect in the world, and then got in there with a pile driver and a deranged dog. You’d also have to crap your pants for the smell. That’s why we get so irritated when people say we stay in five-star hotels. It would have taken us about five hours to get to anything that approximated a hotel.
It’s not like you had a lovely dinner before settling down for the night either…
We dined on tarantula, grasshopper, crickets but the truth is it’s actually quite nice that stuff. The seven-day egg, however, I drew the line at that. The food in Cambodia – it’s close to what life will be like under Corbyn so we’d better all get used to eating that.
And there wasn’t a wheel in sight?
We have done these trips before in lorries and on mopeds and Hammond’s been on a dog sledge in the past so it’s not the first time we haven’t used cars, but it is the first time we have used something without wheels. I think most people who are interested in cars will be interested in the boats we chose because, let’s be honest, they were pretty spectacular. Most people know the story of the PBR [Patrol Boat Riverine] and its impact on the Vietnam war. That is the boat they used in Apocalypse Now. I think everybody is familiar with the boat, you just don’t see them anymore so it was quite nice to take one back to the part of the world for which it was designed. Hammond and I had V8s – properly big engines. He had 800hp and I had 750hp but then James turned up with something that looked like it had been owned by a rather dodgy vicar: an old wooden toy from 1939 which makes it nearly as old as he is.
Who made the better choice?
Mine was specifically built for that part of the world and there was no doubt mine was the best in the first few days because it could run in six inches of water and the others couldn’t. But it had no steering at low speeds and it stopped working every time it ran over a weed and the river was full of weeds. What were the Americans thinking of?
And yours was not very suitable when it came to navigating through the floating markets…
No, because it had no steering, I caused chaos. There were five different things you had to do to make it steer and then it took 20 minutes to respond to anything you did.
For anyone who is a fan of these specials and likes watching you crash into stuff, does this feature the most crashes ever?
I don’t think anybody is going to be disappointed – there were a lot of crashes. As Hammond will point out to you, boats don’t stay where they are, they wander off. There was an enormous amount of crashing into things. I had six accidents before we even started. There are no wheels on the bottom of our vehicles but other than that, it’s the same stuff. We play jokes on one another, crash into stuff, try our best to get it right and not manage it. I just don’t know how we manage to get so much wrong because we don’t set out to get it wrong. When you pull up at the Cambodian customs post you don’t think, ‘I’m going to cock about here and make mistakes on purpose’ because they could very easily make life very difficult. There are 70 people to get across and it.
The Grand Tour presents: Seamen will be available on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 13th December 2019.