Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May attend a screening of ‘The Grand Tour’ season 3
He says that while he has things in common with Richard Hammond, he and Jeremy Clarkson are “completely different”. Had they been at school together their paths would not have crossed.
But he was quick to point out he owed his TV success to meeting the pair.
“I do occasionally think about what my career would have been like without them,” he muses. “But not too much because I don’t think it would have been too great.”
May, 56, had several false starts, including Channel 4’s Driven, but was then asked to audition with Hammond for the revived Top Gear with Clarkson in 2003 and the show took off.
“It’s almost 20 years ago that I started doing the TV stuff. I had been writing for car magazines and travel magazines but if I’d have stuck with what I was doing then I’d have been struggling by now. It might have been like some of the early stuff I did, but I wouldn’t have lasted.”
Their Top Gear journey on the BBC ended in scandal with an infamous catering malfunction and Clarkson’s sacking.
The trio were then caught up in a TV bidding war, reforming for Amazon Prime’s lavish, successful, Grand Tour.
James was thrown to the ground and suffered concussion after hitting his head on a rock
“This is a long running partnership now – it just won’t die. A third of my life spent bickering with those two. Not a great legacy, is it?”
May says that for all their on-screen banter, the Three Amigos genuinely do not get on, and their success, he believes, is because they’re so unlike each other.
“People always say what is the secret?” he says. “Actually the secret is that we actually don’t like each other, in the true sense. If we were all at school together we would never have met. I have a bit in common with Hammond. I can share some sort of enthusiasm with him but me and Jeremy? We’re completely different.”
May was “delighted” to have had four months away filming his own Amazon show, Our Man In Japan, before their latest adventure in Cambodia.
May reveals the Grand Tour co-hosts do not get on
“It’s no secret that we don’t particularly socialise but in the days when we were making Top Gear, we were in each others’ pockets because of the nature of the job. When we came together for the second Grand Tour special we’d saved all our needles and our frustration and we had this massive ball of it to deal with. It made it very entertaining.”
This year’s offering may be their funniest yet. In the first of four films the trio dispense with cars to take three craft down the Mekong river in Cambodia. Far from “messing around in boats”, the outing became a real-life drama.
“It was never relaxing,” he reveals. “It was knackering – and then terrifying.”
The jokes and mocking were put aside when they hit a storm in the South China Sea and had to evade huge container ships.
“I think it was worse than I realised. As I had no perception of when you’re in danger in a boat, as opposed to a car, I thought, ‘Well this is just rolling around and the nose is poking out, but this is a boat and it’s designed to float. So things will be fine’. But that was wrong. Later they said ‘The folding seas could have pushed you under and that would have been that’.
His camera boat left him when it started to sink but he did not lose hope. “I knew where I was going because I have a pilot’s licence and understand navigation. But at one point I was just bouncing around, thinking, ‘I’ve just got hang on’. I don’t think I had time to fear for my life, because I was just heaving things and swearing. When I was half across the bay, I thought, ‘You can’t turn back’, and a bit of me was thinking, ‘Have we been complete ****wits here?’”
It’s one of the few times in Top Gear and Grand Tour specials when all three appear to lose control of the situation.
“With cars I never really feel in danger because I’m in control. I’m naturally quite cautious and methodical. But I wasn’t in control of the sea. We were being pretty stupid doing that, that’s genuinely stupid not pretend stupid.”
After 13 days of filming, he was wiped out. “I was absolutely shattered,” he says. “I slept for two days. I would wake up for a cup of tea and then go back to bed.”
May falls from a horse in Patagonia while filming
Despite “not liking each other”, the trio have another two specials to film so the banter will continue for the foreseeable future.
“Officially we’re signed for four specials, two more to film,” he says. “After that, who knows? We like doing it. If we’re still alive, and have the strength.”
Grand Tour is one of the few shows where presenters can be rude to each other. It’s like “a cartoon” says May, with Hammond again targeted for being short. “You can be shortist with people you know and who give as good as they get. We say Hammond is short, we mock him, but we don’t really mock short people.
“We mock Jeremy for being gangly and awkward because he was assembled incorrectly. I wouldn’t say that to someone who had a disability. I’m allowed to say it to Jeremy because he’s horrible back.”
● The Grand Tour Presents: Seamen is on Amazon Prime Video from Friday.