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The Grand Tour: Carnage A Trois Interview with Clarkson, Hammond & May

Clarkson, Hammond and May in France, what could possibly go wrong!?

Grand Tour
Credit: Amazon Prime

In this second Lockdown Special, the trio dive into the bizarre world of French car culture. On an epic road trip starting in the Welsh hills, they dish up a hair raising mountain climb, bomb defusals, propellor powered cars, helicopter stunts and the most thrilling race of their lives before reaching the English Channel for a jaw-dropping medieval climax. And a soupcon of French art-house cinema.

Given the flak the presenters have given the French in the past I’m already cringing at what may come out of Jeremy Clarkson’s mouth. Assuming he can be controlled or the editors are on their game we should hopefully be in store for another great Grand Tour adventure.

Carnage A Trois will air exclusively on Amazon Prime on Friday 17th December 2021.

All three presenters have been involved in a Q&A session which you can read in full towards the bottom of the article but I’ve pulled out some of my favourite ones for you to read below.

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Clarkson:

Do you admire a lot about the French?
The French shrug is something I admire very much when they can’t be bothered to help you. I’ve been stopped a couple of times by the French police, and you plead and beg, and they just shrug at you. They don’t care. So I very much enjoy France – always have. It’s one of my favourite places. I’ve holidayed there more than anywhere. And all of it, from the south and southwest, the Dordogne I went to most recently, Brittany, it’s all paradise. Paris is a bit weird, but there’s so many absolutely fantastic places all over the country. I love French wine, French food, and the French way of life. I actually like their belligerence. I admire the way that they don’t accept government edicts, and they burn the speed cameras. There’s much to admire.

Hammond:

How do you feel about the French?

Well, they’re very close, aren’t they? France was the first place that the Hammond family, 100 years ago, went on holiday abroad. I remember as a 10-year-old or 12-year-old, getting on the ferry, and thinking how they speak funny, and they’ve got funny money, and it’s amazing. So it always seemed exotic to me, even though it’s closer than some towns and cities in Britain are to where we lived. It’s a long way from us socially, and attitudinally. They’re different, aren’t they, the French, and that’s why it’s a great stepping-off point for the show. It’s not surprising, given that they are certainly different in many, many, many ways, that their cars are expressions of that.

May:

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The new film is about France. I’m told that of the three of you, you are the least keen on France. Is that right?

No, that’s complete b******s. Jeremy likes to say it because makes him sound better than me or something.

The weird thing is of the three of us, I’m the only one who owns a French car. I don’t think the others have ever owned a French car, but I’ve had three.

I have an Alpine A110 at the moment which is a posh Renault which I bought three or four years ago. I’ve had an old Citroën, and a very long time ago I had another old Citroën that only lasted a few weeks.

So the other two talk about how much they love France and French cars but I’m the only one who’s owned one.

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Full Q&A:

JEREMY CLARKSON Q&A

This film is very different from Lochdown, the last special, isn’t it?

Well, yes, we didn’t go anywhere, and there was no route. It’s more a documentary, if you will, than an adventure story. It’s very rare for us to say, “We’ve got a question to answer.” And it’s an interesting question. What is the matter with the French?

Why was that the starting point for you?

We tried to look at the quirkiness of French cars, really. We live in a homogenised world. Everything is the same, everybody eats at McDonald’s, everybody has an iPhone. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, there are reference points for all of us. And yet, the French, they don’t think like us – and when I say “us”, I mean the whole rest of the world. They have different rules, they have different regulations, and this is evident in their cars. French cars are, and have always been, odd. Even today, if you tell them they’ve got to make an ordinary, straightforward hatchback that will sell to millions of people all over the world, they’ll put the steering wheel under the dashboard or do something which is unconventional.

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As you say in the special, they also pretty much invented motor sports and are very good at it. There’s an interesting dichotomy there, isn’t there?

Oh, it’s not that they’re not interested in cars, they are. They just make them in a different way. But the strange thing is that neither Richard Hammond nor I – and we’ve owned Italian cars, Japanese cars, American cars, British cars, Swedish cars, German cars, obviously – have ever owned a French car. In all the years I’ve been driving, which is 45 years, I’ve never owned a French car, and neither has Hammond. Neither had May until very recently, but James is odd. In fact, some of us think he might be French. Although he doesn’t like the French. He famously said, “France is only there so we can drive to Italy more easily.” So that’s the strangeness of it. Why have I never had a French car? Why has Hammond never had a French car?

What were your preconceptions going into it? Did you think you would hate driving these French cars?

This is not like anything people have seen before from us, not as a special. It’s very much like items we’ve done in the past, like the one I did on Lancia versus Audiand it was very popular. James did one on Ford versus Ferrari, which was also very popular. James and I have looked at cars that are made by the communist bloc. People said they liked it when we’ve been a bit more sensible, and that’s what this is. There are moments of us three being as you would expect, but there’s a serious point to be made.

It’s got that studio feel about it, in the sense that you’re having a sensible discussion.

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Yes. Particularly in the restaurant where we talk about French philosophers, which is one of the most incredible things ever. We printed off a list of French philosophers. If you go to Wikipedia and look up a list of French philosophers, it’s basically everyone in France. It’s the longest list of people I’ve ever seen. If you wrote a list of fat Americans, it would be less long.

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Some of the French laws surprised me.

They’re amazing. By law, you aren’t allowed to send work emails at the weekend. And until Covid came along, you weren’t allowed to eat at your office desk – you’ve got to go out and do it properly. And if you’re a French baker, you can’t just close the shop and go on holiday, they must be kept open. Although, if there are two bakeries in a town, they can run a rota system so one can go on holiday and close the shop, providing the other one is still open. Ketchup is banned in schools, and until recently schoolchildren could drink wine with their lunch, because they don’t count wine as alcohol.

Do you admire a lot about the French?

The French shrug is something I admire very much when they can’t be bothered to help you. I’ve been stopped a couple of times by the French police, and you plead and beg, and they just shrug at you. They don’t care. So I very much enjoy France – always have. It’s one of my favourite places. I’ve holidayed there more than anywhere. And all of it, from the south and southwest, the Dordogne I went to most recently, Brittany, it’s all paradise. Paris is a bit weird, but there’s so many absolutely fantastic places all over the country. I love French wine, French food, and the French way of life. I actually like their belligerence. I admire the way that they don’t accept government edicts, and they burn the speed cameras. There’s much to admire.

We obviously have a long and chequered history with the French. How would you describe our relationship with them these days?

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I like to think of it as a bit like our relationship with Australia – like brothers. We take the piss out of Australians, and they certainly take the piss out of us, but we don’t mean it. I take the piss out of the French, but I don’t mean it because I like France.

You had a Citroën CX Safari, how was that?

It was a magnificent car. It is still the most comfortable car I’ve ever driven, by a country mile. It’s breathtakingly comfortable. There’s much that we all can learn from the way that thing was made. But the French people don’t sell their cars, they buy a car and run it until it’s scrap. If you have that mentality where you’re simply not interested in the second-hand value of your car, you will treat it completely differently. The reason we look after cars and get cross if someone scratches or bumps it is not because we have to mend it, it’s because we have to mend it because we will one day have to sell it, and it will be worthless if it’s scratched, or the bumper’s hanging off, or it’s missing a wheel. If you don’t think like that, if you absolutely think, “Well, I’m going to keep this until it breaks,” then you treat your car very differently.

I once attended a Land Rover press launch where we went on this incredibly difficult, tortuous mountain route from France to Italy in these Range Rovers. They said, “We’re going to follow in the footsteps of Hannibal and go up the Alps.” It was a very difficult thing, and the cars had been most impressive. We got to the top, and there was a family up there with a little Citroën having a picnic! In England, we’d never take a car up a road like that unless it was built for it. But they didn’t care if their little Citroën got scratched or dented, because why would you care? It moves around, it doesn’t matter.

So, we demonstrated that by taking three perfectly ordinary French cars on an off-road course in Wales up a mountain. And yes, damage was done, but they still functioned at the end so who cares? I don’t necessarily admire that attitude, but it’s noteworthy that they do think like that.

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There’s still plenty of larking about then?

There’s plenty of falling over and bashing, but in between there are moments when the three of us sit down and have sensible conversations. Also, the car race we have is the best we’ve ever done. Genuinely the best we’ve ever done. The French are extremely good at making hot hatchbacks, but there’s some debate over which is the best. We thought we would decide that in the crucible of motorsport, at Lydden Hill in Kent, which we love, which is a rallycross course. It was using new camera technology, and it looks amazing. It’s brilliantly shot, and very exciting. The thing about Lydden Hill is, even rank amateurs like Hammond and me can go completely mental. You can drive as fast as you like and you feel very safe.

Are there stunts as well as discussions?

Yes, there are a couple of stunts. There’s the Citroën SM, which we had to sit back and drool at because it’s so beautiful. There’s still plenty of us c*cking about. If you’re genuinely interested in why the French are different, there’s some interesting points made. And it looks beautiful. There’s lots of useful advice, like how to diffuse a bomb in the back of a BMW, for example.

This has been born out of necessity, but will it change the way you make programmes in the future in any way?

We’ll see how this one is received, but there are plans to do something similar again. But for now, we can’t wait to get back to doing more big foreign travel. So, it’s tricky because everything’s so fluid at the moment. It takes six months to plan a foreign trip for us, and who’s to know what’s going to happen in six months’ time?

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Finally, have you been surprised at the reaction to Clarkson’s Farm?

It’s been a total crazy ride. I wanted to try and make it serious, and it’s completely unscripted. I never know what we’re doing in the morning when we start farming. I’m farming today, and the film crew isn’t here. They’re coming on Wednesday, and I have no clue what I’m doing on Wednesday, because I don’t know what the weather’s going to be like. But it has been extremely successful, and I’m extremely proud of it. I thought it would serve as a gentle disappointment to The Grand Tour fans, but everyone seems to like it. Little kids, grannies. Farmers absolutely love it. I set out to make the nuts and bolts of farming. This is what farming is like. It’s not a ‘crash, bang, wallop’ film at all. It’s me trying my hardest to learn how to farm, which I still am.

What’s the latest on Kaleb? How is he doing?

Kaleb is planning a new hairstyle, and he’s had his first c**k-up. If Google Earth take any pictures now, he’s going to look like a right plonker, because he missed a bit. Gerald thinks it’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened.

So you’ve got your own back on him.

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Oh, have I ever!

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RICHARD HAMMOND Q&A

This is a slightly different The Grand Tour, isn’t it?

It was our attempt at making cultural observations, prompted by the slightly provocative concept of ‘What’s the matter with the French?’. I loved that idea, it was such a good starting point for the show, but by the end of it, we come to the conclusion, “Oh, nothing.”

How do you feel about the French?

Well, they’re very close, aren’t they? France was the first place that the Hammond family, 100 years ago, went on holiday abroad. I remember as a 10-year-old or 12-year-old, getting on the ferry, and thinking how they speak funny, and they’ve got funny money, and it’s amazing. So it always seemed exotic to me, even though it’s closer than some towns and cities in Britain are to where we lived. It’s a long way from us socially, and attitudinally. They’re different, aren’t they, the French, and that’s why it’s a great stepping-off point for the show. It’s not surprising, given that they are certainly different in many, many, many ways, that their cars are expressions of that.

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What is their attitude towards cars? Why is it so different from ours?

For them a car is purely a functional thing designed to get them from where they are, to where they need to be, to do whatever it is they want to do, whether that’s have lunch, conduct an affair, or whatever other French things there might be to do. I tell a story in the show about when I was 17, I was on an exchange trip, and they had a son the same age as me. I was with this nice French family, sitting outside in the sunshine – inevitably, which is already alien – and they brought their son a brand-new Fiat Panda. I was from Birmingham, I’d never even seen a new car, let alone knew anybody who owned one. Here was a 17-year-old kid who had a brand-new Fiat Panda, and his kid brother, who was about the age of my kid brother, was sitting on the floor flicking bits of gravel at the side of it because he liked the noise. And it was going, “Dink, dink.” Every time he did it I was like, “Argh,” because I would have kicked his head off. But he was just like, “Oh, it makes a nice noise when the paint comes off.” A completely different way of viewing it, which is something we wanted to drill into on the show.

Tell me about the sequence where you take the cars off-roading. You look like you’re having a lot of fun.

Of course we had a lot of fun, on and off-road. We’ve all worked as journalists, don’t forget, and often they’ll take you on car launches, so when manufacturers are launching a new car and you’re writing for the Whitby Bugle or whatever, you get invited to go to wherever it is and go to the launch, and often it was in France. And it’s absolutely true, you can be in the latest heroic, all-singing, all-dancing, big, grunty brute of an off-roader, and you’re battling through hell and high water, and you’re thinking, “This is it, I am now going where nobody has ever been before,” but when you get to the top of the mountain there’s a French family in their ordinary family car having a nice picnic, and then we’ll drive back down again.

Because it’s just a car, isn’t it? There hasn’t been a French off roader. In every other nation, everybody’s made one, but to the French, they already have an off-road car. “My car goes off-road, why would it not?” You can’t argue with that. I think they might be on to something. It was one of the many lessons we learned when actually, we set out to have a laugh at their expense and then realise, “Oh, they’re right.”

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Let’s not forget, the origins of motorsport lie in France. It’s a weird thing. It’s not like they’re not enthusiasts. They are. And yet, at a domestic and personal level, the most foul, ill-mannered, disgusting thing you could do is clean your car on a Sunday morning. They’d be horrified. “What are you doing that for? You should be doing something more worthwhile, like having an affair, or drinking wine.”

Tell me about the aesthetics of these cars. There was a couple of very handsome ones, but a lot of them were designs that we would find slightly peculiar.

Yes, that’s the strange thing, isn’t it? Parts of the world that are far from one another will often look at one another and not quite get the aesthetic, because it performs to a different set of rules. And I get that, but France is not very far away and yet their rules governing what is aesthetically pleasing in a car and what isn’t results in some challenging looks from us Brits. Yes, a few of their cars have been a bit weird, but some are spectacular – the SM that I drive with Jeremy further on through the show is an extraordinary car. But even that, sculptural and beautiful as it is, it’s a bit challenging when you first look at it.

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Your car had three seats in the front, didn’t it?

Yes, a two-seater sports car with three seats, suggesting peculiar things like maybe if I want to take my wife and my mistress out at the same time for dinner… I simply don’t get it. It’d be nice if there’s two of you who want to take somebody else in the car for whatever reason that might be, and you’re French, who knows? You can. Which could be handy, one day.

What did you think of it generally?

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I admire it for its simplicity, its lightness. There was a lack of power, I’m not going to lie, but it was a very old engine, an ancient engine that they kept reinventing. But it had a certain joie de vivre. It was a jolly, happy little car.

For fans who enjoy cars getting knocked about, how would you describe this particular special: does it have plenty of that?

Yes, very much so. I did some French parking, which resulted in, ahem, some damage to it. It was weird filming that, because there were people in a restaurant watching and I went to park in a French fashion, and they didn’t know what we were doing. They obviously thought, “There’s that little fella off the telly, he’s clearly gone mad,” because I was destroying cars up and down the road. I ended up on my side at one point, inevitably, but we did that all in a very sort of French way, which is just, “This is nothing, put it back on its wheels and it still drives, it’s a bit bent and wobbly, but that’s character, so it doesn’t matter.”

Has it changed your attitude towards your own cars?

I don’t treat them like I was French, but it’s changed my attitude about the French. I get it. That’s why, in Paris, it’s a sea of small, moderately powered, usually grey, hatchbacks with dents on every single panel. Because if there’s a gap that you see to park, and you’re not sure if your car will fit in, there really is only one way to find out. And so they do.

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Some of the facts that you come up with about the French are marvellous. The laws are extraordinary, like how 35% of music played on radio has to be French pop music.

You must have noticed that if you’re listening to the radio in France. I don’t want to be all nice about the French, because while it’s a loving tribute to the French in its way for their avant garde thinking, equally it’s interesting that they have to force them to listen to French music. If 35% of music on French radio has to be French, you just have to change channel every now and again. Even the French must do that, unless they oblige you legally to listen to it.

What else do you admire about them? Which of those facts stands out?

I like the way they handle it when they’re given a regulation they don’t like, which is largely ignore it, or just say, “No, we’re not doing that.” They superglued all the wheel clamps so they couldn’t be used. They’re good at saying, “No, we don’t like that law. It’s stupid.” And you’re not allowed to drink alcohol at lunchtime – unless it’s wine or beer. I don’t know what you’re not allowed to drink at lunchtime. Absinthe, perhaps? Maybe that’s too much at lunchtime. Otherwise, knock yourself out. Literally.

And children were allowed to have alcohol at school until the eighties …

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I encourage that, that’s amazing. Say goodbye to those long, boring afternoons. If you could sit down to a triple physics lesson with a nice beer buzz on, you’d feel much better, wouldn’t you?

How would you describe the relationship between England and France? Is it a mock hatred? Is it affectionate?

No, it’s a bit spikier. It’s like the relationship we have with the Australians, where we take the piss out of each other and we abuse each other when we play sports, and the South Africans as well, and the Welsh. And we all enjoy that. But the French … I mean, we were at war for ever such a long time, we’re not quite at the fully jocular, pat each other on the shoulder level yet. We can’t do that. We don’t have that robust and rugged relationship. It’s still a little bit edgy. If you go to France, where I holiday most years, my French is appalling, but I get by. Anywhere in the north of France, they understand because it’s the equivalent of somebody walking up the road here and saying, “Good morning, where would I for to buy the meat?” and I work out, “Yeah, I know what he wants,” and I point him in the right direction. If I do this in northern France, they’ll explain in French and I get by. But in southern France, they just look at me in disdain like, “I have no idea what you are saying.” You know full bloody well I’m trying to stumble through your language. I put the key ingredients in there. Butchers, directions. You can send me there. But no, they won’t, because there’s… I don’t think it’s animosity, it’s that we both puff our chests out, the French and the English, when we encounter each other, and we become very entrenched in our ways. It’s quite sweet, though. I like it.

What do you think the French will make of this film?

God knows. But actually, I hope they take it in the way it was intended, which was to set out to answer the question, “What is wrong” – from our point of view – “with the French?” And then we discovered that actually many of their points seem to be right, but you see that happen on screen. You do see that unfold for real as we go through the special like, “Wait a minute, they might be on to something.” We genuinely didn’t set out to flatter – when have we ever set out to flatter? – but we accidentally stumbled across something we’ve discovered that the world must know; it turns out the French have a point. It’s almost the subtitle to the show. It turns out they might be on to something.

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We see you drive a car with a propellor…

That was fun. Again, very French, they offered a solution to motorising a car. It had an internal combustion engine on it, but it powered a propeller rather than driving the wheels through a prop shaft and drive shafts. Some French person thought, “Yep, a propeller-powered car, don’t see any problems with that.” More incredibly, hundreds of French people then said, “Yes, I’ll buy one.” I got to drive it, and it was utterly terrifying. It was really quite alarming with this big blender proceeding down the road ahead of me.

It seems astonishing that you were chosen to drive that, with your history.

I suspect it was more that I volunteered because I’m an idiot and wanted to have a go, and then set off and did. But yes, granted, with my somewhat accident-prone history, it was a surprise. I think the owner of the car was more surprised than anyone.

There were several scenes with the three of you just chatting, as if you were in the studio.

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A bit of it felt like that, yes. There was a series of events and happenings, often linked with us chatting, which felt a bit like the old show. I quite like it when we get to do something and then reflect on it and chat, and then we’ll go off to do something else so we’ll talk about that before we do it. I rather enjoyed that aspect. We can talk bollocks ad infinitum, there’s no doubt about that, because we love our subject, we’re very passionate about our subject, we’ve been working with our subject for decades, and we’re immersed in it. So, we do have opinions, we do have experiences to share, we do have insights to offer, and to discuss and to slag off, and we can argue about the subject because we know a bit about it. It was fun to have the opportunity to do that again.

Having done these two lockdown specials, are you going to change the way that you work from now on?

You know, I’d like to think we might. I think we will have learned, and I think we will take a lot from it. Being honest, we’re not brilliant at learning. We’re pig-headed, stubborn, and ignorant, but it might be that we will take some stuff from this forward. I’d love to think that we would. I’d like us to find those opportunities to chat about it because we must never forget that’s what people like. Everybody watches Bake Off, but who really cares about baking? What you’re watching is people who are good at something and into something, and the thing we need to remember about our show is that actually what you’re watching is three blokes who know something, and when we talk about it, when we have those conversations, things come out of those conversations that wouldn’t have done if we’d had that in the office. Maybe some of that will carry forwards, I don’t know. I’d like to think it would, and both of these specials could act to the benefit of the bigger specials when we get back on the road properly and The Grand Tour becomes once again grand.

When we’re in the action, in the thick of it, sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re talking about something that matters to us and that we can shoot the breeze about and enjoy. I had a great time doing these two shows, they were lovely to make. I mean, lockdown generally has been s**t, but one of the benefits of it is going out and making this show, which I’ve really, really enjoyed.

What does the future hold for The Grand Tour?

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I don’t feel like giving up yet, I’d love to keep going. I like the subtle reinvention we’ve gone through which was forced on us by these two smaller scale specials. They’ve reminded us that while it’s great to go charging after the big moments and stunts – and I’m not speaking out of turn, we all felt the same – sometimes it’s nice to remember that this is a fascinating subject. And also, let’s not forget, we’re specialists in a subject that’s undergoing a massive sea change, which means there’s never been a better time, it’s never been more on people’s minds, there’s never been more to talk about, than right now.

JAMES MAY Q&A

Carnage a Trois feels quite different tonally to TheGrand Tour specials of the past. How would you describe it?

Well, I’ve done things like the Cars of the People documentaries, and on The Grand Tour studio shows I did quite a few of the pieces about the history of cars or astronauts and things like that. We all did a few, but I particularly like that sort of thing. So I enjoyed making this.

I don’t think we consciously thought about it beforehand but it’s got a slight ‘magazine’ format, as we used to call it. It’s a series of related films about French cars joined together by a narrative arc. I suppose it has a slightly old-fashioned feel.

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It’s not one adventure. There isn’t much of a journey in this one. It’s the first time we’ve done a special like that ever, not going from one place to another place: we’re simply driving around in order to investigate the subject. We might have stumbled across a fantastic original idea without us realising it!

It’s not at all contrived. It’s pop history with opinion. With a cheesy gag and a prank at the end, of course, as we always do.

It’s weird because I don’t really like old cars. I like modern cars, but the history of cars is actually the history of civilisations and nations and people and passion and aspiration and all those other things we like to talk about. I enjoy that stuff.

Although it was a bit sobering because we were talking about the Renault Avantime which was a fairly radical car in its time and I remember working on a magazine when that car was launched, so that made me feel a bit ancient. The cars we’re talking about in the show aren’t historic cars – well, they are, but from our own working history, and that brought home to me that I’m a bit old.

There are several scenes with the three of you just standing around chatting about cars: did that feel a bit like old times?

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That’s a very good question because I’m not sure I noticed whilst it was happening but when I saw the whole thing edited together I thought, ‘Oh, there’s an old Conversation Street type vibe about that’.I hope viewers will enjoy that.

The new film is about France. I’m told that of the three of you, you are the least keen on France. Is that right?

No, that’s complete b******s. Jeremy likes to say it because makes him sound better than me or something.

I once said France was there to make it possible to drive to Italy but I was actually having a go at Jeremy for being one of those rather predictable middle-class bores, thinking they’re French.

The weird thing is of the three of us, I’m the only one who owns a French car. I don’t think the others have ever owned a French car, but I’ve had three.

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I have an Alpine A110 at the moment which is a posh Renault which I bought three or four years ago. I’ve had an old Citroën, and a very long time ago I had another old Citroën that only lasted a few weeks.

So the other two talk about how much they love France and French cars but I’m the only one who’s owned one.

What do you think of France as a country?

Well, I’ve been there a lot. I have friends who have houses there so I go there and basically live off them in the summer because I don’t have a house there.

France is a big place and there are many aspects to it. Paris is very different from Marseille, which is very different from the countryside, but I’ve generally had a very nice time there.

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The French chauvinism about the business of being French is a bit ridiculous, and it’s not very modern or sustainable, but I do quite adore them for their slight bloody-mindedness about that.

The French are definitely French, and the Italians are definitely Italian, and that’s what makes them interesting countries to visit, I think.

What’s our relationship like with France these days, do you think, after years of battles and bloody history?

Crikey, that’s an enormous question. Yes, historically, it has obviously been pretty bloody. But we’ve also been allies quite a few times and more recently, I think the relationship between the French and the British has been pretty good.

There’s been a couple of sticking points recently: Brexit probably hasn’t helped their opinion of us and there’s been this stuff about fishing boats.

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But on the whole, it’s the closest country to Britain so we’re bound to have an interesting relationship with them, and I don’t actually think all the historical stuff about Waterloo and Agincourt and World War Two are terribly relevant to most people these days.

The film contains lots of great facts about France and some of their mad laws. Did you know all of them?

Yes, although I’m never entirely convinced because although there are some mad laws, I’m not sure the French stick to them. The laws are slightly arcane and I’m not sure how well observed they are. But the fact that they exist at all is interesting.

There’s one about the fact a third of music played on French radio has to be French. Now, anybody who has spent years going to France for car launches is very familiar with that particular law. You’ll put on the radio and you’ll get a song by The Police then one by Eminem then Je Suis Un Grand Frite or something. And it’s always terrible. I think even the French would have to agree with me when I say the French can’t really do pop music. No Europeans can do pop music.

You mentioned the French’s bloody mindedness earlier. Do you like their attitude?

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The French are very good at being French which is infuriating at times. Their arguments for not conforming to certain rules are not always convincing because we do live in a modern multi-cultural world, but they have this insistence that being French is important.

If you took the same attitude in Britain to being British, you’d probably be dismissed as a bit of a dodgy nationalist or fascist. For the French it’s just part of being French and we think, ‘How wonderful’, but I’m not sure how wonderful it is.

Tell me about the car you drive in Carnage a Trois?

So, this is what the French did: the Renault Espace wasn’t the first people carrier but it was the first one to be really popularised and it created a sea change in our attitudes towards cars in Europe. It wasn’t a minibus, it was a car.

And then they had this idea; When you have a saloon car, you can make it into a slightly posher, slightly more indulgent saloon car by giving it two doors and fastback and we call that a coupé.

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So, they took the same idea, but they did it to an MPV. They took what was pretty much the most practical car on sale anywhere in the world and turned it into one of the most useless. But in doing so they made it I think, incredibly stylish. I still think it looks quite modern and quite fantastic.

Some aspects of it didn’t quite work. I mean, the interior doesn’t quite work. The doors don’t open properly, the engine isn’t actually quite big enough in such a big car, but as a sort of statement I just thought it was absolutely brilliant.

And it was so extravagant to totally debase everything the Espace stood for by turning it into a fantastic-looking, useless car.

I hadn’t driven one for a very long time so I was actually quite pleased to be reunited with it even though mine was quite a tatty and smelly example.

Did you have fun doing the off-roading?

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Yes. When I was a lad, my uncle lived up the Pyrenees in France and had a Beetle and a 2CV and a Renault over the years. He lived in the hills, right up not even a gravel track, but a proper rocky road route. And the things that went up that road best were the simple little French cars. We British get terribly concerned about having a capable off-roader like the new Range Rover: these great big heavy cars with incredibly complicated and sophisticated computer-controlled suspension systems. But actually, a small, light French car with front wheel drive will do it best.

They don’t even get scratched really but even if they do, why would you worry about it? It’s like worrying about your trainers having a scuff. Who cares? Life’s probably a bit too short.

If anybody is worried that this film is just going to be three men sitting around talking b******s, can you reassure them there’s plenty of action too?

Oh, I think it’s definitely still The Grand Tour. This is possibly, by our standards, a fairly grown-up The Grand Tour, but that doesn’t really mean much does it? It’s still, first and foremost, a bit daft.

And there’s still plenty of mickey-taking. I think most people expect that. We’ve been doing it such a long time. I think The Grand Tour and the three of us doing stuff in cars may have almost become a comfort to people because – well, it’s not quite a sing-along, and I don’t think we’re so predictable that people know what’s going to happen – but they know which side to take. It makes for very easy viewing because you don’t have to wrack your brain to get it. You just go, ‘Oh, right, it’s The Grand Tour, I know roughly how it goes.’

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How does the French attitude towards cars differ from the British?

It must be odd when French people come to Britain and see a normal mid-sized Peugeot or Citroën on the road because they must think, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s supposed to look like’. Theirs are always smashed up.

It’s probably rooted in their having had a revolution and egalité and all of that stuff, but the French see cars the way I see a pair of jeans. It’s a personal effect, and it has to be broken in.

I’m a bit too precious about cars but having made that film it has made me think, ‘Why? Why do I do this? Why don’t I have nice cars and not worry about them being clean and shiny and not getting scratched? Why don’t I just have a slightly beaten-up Renault Clio and not give a s**t about it?’

It would be very liberal to have that attitude, as being French is about liberty. It would be liberty of the soul to not worry about your car.

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It’s true of Italy too. When you come to Italy you never see a Ferrari, you rarely see a Maserati. The vast majority of people just drive perfectly ordinary cars. I mean, so do British people but you do see posh cars and sports cars in Britain, whereas in France and Italy having a car is like having a shopping bag. It’s just a thing that you sort of need. They appear not to care. They do care about motoring and what the car offers and represents, but they don’t care about the object itself.

Did you go home after making the film and change the way you look after your own cars?

Well, I’m still thinking about it. Funnily enough I’m filming Our Man In Italy and I was talking to someone about this yesterday: I said it’s not like I’m going to go home and stop caring about my cars. But I might go home and sell my cars and just have a Fiat Panda or a Renault: A European or Japanese, small, basic car, and stop thinking about it.

If I were to continue doing TV shows about cars, it will gradually become not about the car but about what the car represents and what problems it throws up. I mean, this is very topical at the moment. We’re totally rethinking how we dispose of them, how we power them, how we own them. Everything about cars is being rethought.

If you look back historically, every time we challenge the car, all the car enthusiasts become terribly exercised and say, ‘Oh no, lead-free petrol is going to destroy cars, catalytic converters are going to strangle our engines, safety regulations are going to make cars undriveable’, but that’s actually not true. The car improves every single time.

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The car is being challenged at the moment far more vigorously than it ever has been before, but it will become a better thing and a better experience as a result. I’m absolutely convinced of it. I’ll bet you all my cars! So that’s an interesting area.

It sounds as if you are planning a re-set of your career …

I’m starting to think about resetting myself. I don’t know if I’ve got the courage.

The thing is, I’ve never been into going to car rallies or anything like that. I probably shouldn’t admit to it, but the car is a fantastic place to be alone. It’s like you’re in control of an abstract film which you view through the windscreen, and you direct it by moving the wheel and pressing the pedals but you’re creating this sound and landscape that is just yours. No one else is seeing it exactly the same way you are.

What do you think the future holds for the show in a post-Covid world?

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We fought against it for a while because we were as guilty as everyone of thinking, ‘Covid will be over in a few months and then everything will just go back to normal’. But here we are, and it’s still going on.

These last two films have reassured me in a way because stripped of the exotic location and the massive scenes and the incredibly arduous journey in beach buggies or across mountains or deserts or whatever, we can still turn out perfectly good films.

And, as I’ve said many times, Amazon Prime Video is a global platform. So, if you’re watching this in India, where we are quite popular, Scotland is as exotic as India is to Britons.

And have you been watching Jeremy’s farming series?

I have, and I quite liked it. I’ve never really been that into farming because as far as I can see, it’s just big gardening, but I watched the first few episodes then I got a bit distracted and then I came over here to start filming Our Man in Italy so I haven’t seen it all yet, but I thought it was pretty good.

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ANDY WILMAN Q&A

This film is full of facts about cars and France. It’s almost educational, in a way.

Well, we are capable of that! The four of us realised that we can’t keep doing road trips, so we thought we’d try something a bit more structured with a bit more info. It’s more of an essay than a road trip, and I think that element will divide people. It means it feels really good every time someone loves it.

What’s the theme?

This is the second of our UK double bill of lockdown specials. Obviously, we still couldn’t go abroad, so we’re still in the UK. We did a good job in Scotland, but this time we wanted a different approach.

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“What on earth is the matter with the French?” is a phrase that came out by accident when we were trying to think of a theme. It was one of those meetings where you’re going, “No, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t work…” and at some point somebody went, “Oh, for God’s sake. In a minute we’re going to be doing “What’s the matter with the French?” There was a pause as everyone went, “Hang on a minute … It was one of those happy accidents. We all started laughing because we knew it was going to work. It became literally what you see, which is a philosophical exploration of French car culture, but with car crashes and explosions.

Why was looking at French car culture so appealing as a subject?

If you’re generalising, Italians make the most amazing supercars, Americans make big muscle cars, but the French are plain weird. This weirdness means they’re the most entertaining in terms of the cars you can get. With this comes great stories and entertaining cars that are so leftfield that you don’t find them anywhere else. Crucially, their car culture is linked to French character, which we all adore. The combination of their bloody-mindedness, the fact they don’t give a s**t and do what they want, together with the fact that their cars are weird and interesting because they take their own path, is brilliant. It’s so beautifully linked to the French attitude to life of, “We’re going to do this – and if you don’t like it, f**k off.”

What sort of things do you look at in the film?

There’s a wealth of stuff. We looked at French behaviour, and how they don’t care about their cars, how they’re inverted snobs – they’re snobs about people being snobbish about their cars. We love that attitude. We love their hot hatches, and we’ve got one of the most exciting races we’ve ever done – and we didn’t see that coming. What they give you is close racing, and everyone can go to their skills. You don’t need to be Formula One driver. It was close racing on a loose surface, 20 laps, and everybody was at the top of their game.

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Then we do a bit of off-roading and smash the cars up a bit. But we didn’t go up there to put some dents in cars and go, “This is hilarious, we hit a tree.” We went up there to use it as an entertaining device to go, “I wish we could be like the French with that attitude to car ownership.” If we were like the French – “It doesn’t matter if your car has a dent, why are you getting so worked up?” – it would be epic in terms of not worrying about anything. Some of the sequences are tongue in cheek, but they were all underpinned by making a point about the French. We had so much fun doing it. It meant that every section and every scenario was focused on a point, whereas with a road trip you are organically just bumbling along.

The guys were having a lot of fun, it seems.

Yes, they were having a hell of a lot of fun. They liked the topic – everyone buys into the French. There are very few things they all agree about in motoring – there’s about three cars that they all go, “Yes, we all like that car” and likewise, topics. But they all agree on the French, and French car ownership, and French cars. Once you’ve got that, it’s great fun. They’re also delivering actual facts, which is a nice treat as you’re not having to rely on comedy. We’ve taken this approach to a lesser degree when we used to do smaller films for the studio shows, but we’ve never done an entire special like that.

It almost felt like being in the studio without being in the studio.

There’s an element of that because the way we’ve done it in this film we make a point about a car, then they sit down having a chat somewhere and talk about that point: that would have been the bit when you cut back to the studio.

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Are there any stunts in this series?

There’s some big stuff in there, yes. We built another amazing French device, a giant trebuchet, which came in handy. Some of our philosophical thoughts involve stunts with helicopters and dynamite…

What are your plans for the future of The Grand Tour?

The immediate future is that we’re now hoping that, as much as we’ve enjoyed doing these lockdown ones, we’re getting our passports out of the drawers again, and we’re off to foreign climes. That’s what our focus is on now.

Have these two smaller lockdown specials changed the way that you do The Grand Tours in the future? Has it made any difference to your outlook?

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The French one has, yes. The Scotland one was a proper old-school road trip, but the notion that we can do something completely different … I like the sound of that. We’ll see what happens.

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