TV COLUMN: The Grand Tour, Westworld, I’m A Celebrity

James Waller-Davies

James Waller-Davies

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Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his view of some of the recent events on television.

Yes, he’s back. It’s hard to remember a new television programme that got so much media coverage as Jeremy Clarkson and Co’s new The Grand Tour (Amazon Prime), especially considering that most of the UK television audience won’t actually see it.

As career moves go, punching a producer might not be up there with the best of them. But that’s in the old analogue television world of the BBC, where it loses you your job.

Not so in the shiny digital world of online streaming, where the reward is a mega-bucks production budget that blows the lack-lustre Top Gear re-boot out of the water.

The Grand Tour is visually stunning. You can do a lot with nitro-boosted production values and Amazon have thrown the kitchen sink at this and it shows. It’s super-cars in hyper-realism. It’s the car show David Attenborough’s team would make if they weren’t following a three-toed pygmy sloth on a date.

Add in the tried and tested male banter – Clarkson’s bet on a McLaren P1 being the fastest or the others could knock his house down was a highlight – and this is a sure-fire winner for Amazon Prime and all the promotion they’ll need for the next six months.

For the three amigos of Clarkson, May and Hammond it amounts to a whacking great dollop of self-indulgence. Its every lily is gilded; a Faberge egg of a television programme. If anything, it’s a bit too much of everything and saving a bit of the budget for the editing wouldn’t have hurt.

Of course, what it does do is shine a light so strongly that the BBC’s beleaguered Top Gear is cast into the shade of the past. The Grand Tour is the future of television. Top Gear is the past, in every way.

Watching them both, you get to understand how silent movie stars like Harold Lloyd must have felt when sound and colour came along.

No doubt the BBC will flog the dead horse of Top Gear one last time before sending it to the knacker’s yard to make the glue for that other BBC relic, the Radio Times.

Westworld (HBO) is yet another sensation hiding behind a paywall and once again HBO – they of Game of Thrones, Band of Brothers and The Wire – continue to demonstrate the limitations of terrestrial funding and distribution models.

Paywall and online streaming are going to hit traditional television models even harder than satellite did in the 1980s and 1990s. Paying out cinema-sized production budgets and playing to global audiences, the scale, vision and reach is going to dwarf traditional single-state models.

Westworld’s calibre is evident on every level. The writing is excellent. The casting is superb, with A-listers such as Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris. It looks slick and has an intellectual sophistication which takes it beyond mere high quality disposable junk-food TV.

Yes, HBO knows its audience. Its formula of stylised violence, intrigue and a regular topping of sex and nudity is a formula that works – but what they also do is tell long stories well, which is perfect for long, multi-season programming which pulls in advertising revenues by the bucket-load for its broadcasters.

Westworld is part of a new genre of ‘cine-TV’, cinematic-television, which generates the feel of occasion associated with a night out at the cinema but with the convenience and comfort of home-viewing. It is, like it or not, the future. But what’s not to like?

Back on regular TV, I’m A Celebrity (ITV) – once a sensation in its own right – now looks like a parody of every celeb reality programme ever made put on a reclaimed set of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

The celebrities are now so obscure, they carry an on-screen credit every time they speak, just to remind us who they are.

Presenters, Ant and Dec, who surely now have enough awards to build a Trump-style wall to keep themselves clear of such banality, look bored to tears. This is now the worst of British television, has-beens clinging like limpets to their fading past triumphs.

The ‘age of the celebrity’ is over on television – it’s now the ‘age of the global mega-star’. Terrestrial TV is really going to have to up its game if it’s going to compete with the brave new world of global digitalisation.

I’m A Celebrity is not a TV programme, it’s a museum. A walking, talking theme park of the past. It has more in common with Westworld that it could possibly imagine…just for all the wrong reasons.