James May was born in the 18th century in the British city of Bristol. He studied music at university, although secretly he was thinking about old motorcycles. In his career to date he has been sacked from Autocar, let go from Driven, and relieved of his duties at CAR magazine. He previously presented Top Gear and is now one of the presenters on The Grand Tour, pending dismissal. He lives in London where he likes playing the piano, going to the pub and dismantling carburettors, often all at the same time.
How does series two of The Grand Tour improve upon series one?
“Series 2 of The Grand Tour is an improvement on series one, because we operate a policy of continuous improvement, like most manufacturers of soap powder. We reserve the right to upgrade and improve our product accordingly, and it’s to your benefit, the viewer.”
And tell us a little bit about where you’ve been?
“Series 2, we have been to Mozambique, Colorado, I’ve been to Spain, specifically Majorca, which is where Jeremy Clarkson allegedly got pneumonia, just before he got pneumonia in Ibiza. I have also been to New York, I have been to Germany, I think, and I’ve been to the Cotswolds. I prefer Germany.”
Tell us some of the challenges that you have set one another that we will see in the forthcoming series?
“I think the greatest challenge that we have had to face in the new series, is continuing to work with each other for another series, which is an enormous challenge. But that aside, we’ve had to drive in some quite interesting conditions from dusty things to very icy, snowy things with precipitous drops, very rough roads, very bad terrain, very, very bad cars and really atrocious language.”
What went wrong and what went really wrong in the course of these challenges?
“I would say things that went wrong – we’re still doing it. Things that went really wrong, I nearly got drowned at one point, sort of my own fault really. Richard Hammond had a little bit of an off and hurt his ‘knee-knee’. Jeremy Clarkson got pneumonia, that was nothing to do with doing The Grand Tour, that was just general decrepitude. Things that went wrong also include several breakdowns, Richard Hammond, again, fell off a motorcycle. I didn’t have anything particularly disastrous this time round.”
And is everyone alright now?
“I’m alright now, Jeremy Clarkson remains an arse, the bout of pneumonia and his hospitalisation doesn’t seem to have killed that, despite it being an excellent opportunity to work on it. Richard Hammond is seven millimetres shorter than he was on one side.”
Can you take us through what, to you, are some of the funniest moments when you look back at the last year or so?
“Oh funniest moments. I mean, it’s quite a funny job making The Grand Tour, because if we didn’t find it funny, we wouldn’t be able to do it really, it would feel incredibly tragic for people our age, but I had quite a funny moment believing I’d lost my brakes going down a very slippery, very steep slope in an old Jaguar. I hadn’t actually, the warning lights had come on, but actually they worked, but it made no difference unfortunately, because we were going down a very steep, very icy incline. But it was quite funny at the time, especially for the other two.”
“Then Richard Hammond falling off his motorcycle is actually quite funny. I didn’t see most of it, because I wasn’t close enough to him, but I’ve watched it on the film afterwards and I slightly regret missing seeing it live. It’s a bit like having not been at the 1966 World Cup and only watching it on a blurry black and white telly.”
“Not that Amazon is blurry because it’s in 4K and of exceptional quality, and they also do books, DVDs, music and more!”
When you were going down a hillside thinking you had no brakes, did your life flash before your eyes and what did you see?
“It did and it was disappointing to be frank.”
At what point in the last 12 or so months have you found yourself most infuriated or annoyed with your co-presenters?
“Oh God. So, I would have to…well, in order to say when I was most infuriated by my co-presenters in the last 12 months, i.e. during the filming of series 2, I would have to pick a particular day on which I was with my co-presenters that I found more infuriating than the other days on which I was with my co-presenters. I’m not sure I can identify that particular day, to be honest, I’m sorry.”
Was there a moment in which you proved your superiority, intellectual or otherwise, over your co-presenters?
“There was a moment when my superior…my, sort of, intellectual stylistic humanitarian superiority over my co-presenters was aptly demonstrated, yes, and that was every time I walked into the room.”
From the cars that you have driven this series, what stands out?
“Various supercars like the Honda NSX, some old Jaguars, some very modest cars like the VW GTi, which is the smallest car VW makes, but in, sort of, hot form if you like. And actually, I was particularly fond of that car, because I’m a great fan of small, simple cars. I always have been and I like the fact that it’s made into an interesting…car that, sort of, stimulates an emotive, a visceral response if you like, sort of, noise, feel, sensation, smallness, checkability, but without actually being ludicrously powerful. It’s not really a fast car, it gives the sense of being a fast car. Driving it is an event, it’s a performative thing, a bit like music, it’s not actually about volume or the number of instruments, it’s about performance and the little GTi does that superbly I think.”
“I think the two I drove that I thought that about, were that and the Kia Picanto GT line, which is the hottest ship in the Picanto line-up. So, I enjoyed both of those, but I also loved driving the Honda NSX because it’s very advanced, it’s got a fantastic hybrid system, it has a quiet mode, it seems very civilised, it seems very enlightened compared to, say, my Ferrari. I’m not just saying that to say, ‘I’ve got a Ferrari,’ but I have and it’s a bit old school, really.”
Were there any feats of engineering that you came across, that were particularly striking?
“Well, if I could continue to talk about the NSX, if we’re going to talk about engineering. I think there is something very, very clever about the hybrid system… Now, you have to remember that Toyota started working on the Prius in the 60s, they were very far sighted, they started working on the drive train in I think 1968, long before anybody was worried about the environment or anything like that, it was really more about how to fill in the gaps and the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. It has a lot of flaws, it has reciprocating motion that has to be turned into rotary motion that’s turned back into reciprocating motions that operate the valves and so on.”
“Combining it with an electric motor and a battery was a way of ironing out those inefficiencies and getting more out of the fuel effectively, that’s what it was all about. And then it turned into something that was designed to reduce the impact of the internal combustion engine, because of emissions worries, but then when you put it into something like the NSX, or indeed the LaFerrari or the P1 Maclaren, or the Porsche 918 that we had in series one, it’s then about increasing the impact of the internal combustion engine, because you end up with a smaller engine, say, with turbo chargers to make it more efficient, downsizing which is a trend, but you add the hybrid system to extract more from it, but without turning it into a monster.”
“That’s why I think the NSX is fascinating, because I know a lot of people think, oh well, it’s a bit boring, it’s a little bit mainstream, it’s a little bit soulless, but it isn’t. It has the soul of ingenuity of humanity in it, because it’s clever, it’s civilised, it responds to the, sort of, mood of our times, I think. It’s still a supercar, we still want excitement, you can get it out of the garage silently.”
What would Richard and Jeremy say to what you’ve just said?
“They’d probably say I was going on too long or something like that. Jeremy doesn’t like the NSX for reasons that I haven’t quite got to the bottom of. I’m not sure Hammond has driven it enough to form an opinion yet.”
If you could change one thing about your co-presenters, one per person, what would it be?
“I’d swap them both for other co-presenters.”
You’ve now had two series of travelling widely, do you have a favourite place?
“If I had to choose a favourite place… I wouldn’t like to, because everywhere is fascinating for some reason or other. But if I had to choose a place I found particularly reprehensible, to do with series 2 specifically, of The Grand Tour, I’d say probably the Cotswolds.”
The series goes all round the world. Do you find that you’re recognised more and in a different manner to perhaps what you were a few years ago?
“We are recognised round the world and it always comes as a bit of a surprise to be honest, because I, sort of, forget. I’m not saying this as an attempt at false modesty, but I forget what we do and that it is actually seen all over the world. So I’m slightly surprised when people come up and say hello to me in Hammersmith, which is where I live. If people come up to me and say hello in America, I’m surprised, if somebody comes up to me in the middle of a desert in the Middle East and says, ‘Hello, Welcome in my country Mr Slowly,’ I’m absolutely baffled. I think, ‘How on earth do you know who I am?’ It still amazes me. But at the same time, it’s quite flattering and occasionally you get a free drink out of it.”
The Grand Tour Series 2 will be available on Amazon Prime Video at midnight GMT on December 8th. If you don’t have Amazon Prime subscription, you can sign up for a free 7-day trial at PrimeVideo.com.