EXCLUSIVE: The Grand Tour showrunner Andy Wilman has revealed how Amazon’s motoring show stayed on the road during the coronavirus pandemic — despite having to cancel a major shoot in Russia and falling ill with the disease himself.
The executive producer was speaking to Deadline as Amazon Prime gears up to launch the next Grand Tour special, A Massive Hunt, which was filmed in Madagascar last year, but was edited at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak, during which Wilman was laid low for 10 days after contracting the illness.
He delivered the episode to Amazon in early summer and it will premiere on December 18, featuring Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May on some of the most treacherous roads they have ever encountered, in cars that had some heavy-duty modifications. Hammond, for example, replaced the wheels on his Ford Focus RS with tank tracks.
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But, as always with Wilman and co, they’re thinking about the next adventure and, after being forced to cancel their Russian road trip in March because of the pandemic (losing “hundreds of thousands of pounds” in the process), the motoring show stayed closer to home. The team recently wrapped a 10-day shoot in Scotland for a film that will ultimately fill the Russia-shaped hole in their Amazon duties.
Wilman said recording the episode was an experience unlike any other, with the presenters and production team having to observe strict Covid safety protocols laid down by Amazon — protocols that, he admitted, would usually frustrate Clarkson, Hammond, and May in any other circumstance.
“Amazon has got the protocols and you’ve got to adhere to them. If you lose the money, it’s all down the drain. We were all really grown up about it,” he said. “We’re not slapdash on health and safety as we’re all still alive after 20 years, but those kinds of processes, we usually groan and roll our eyes. But we thought we’ve got to do this because if you follow them, you’ve got a chance of making it to the end.”
A mobile testing unit was established to serve the production team, staffed by specially-trained medics. Or as Wilman described it, a “Scooby-Doo van with three boffins in it.” He explained: “They were really tough on us. On the third day, we started to get a bit slack and revert back to muscle memory, so I jumped in someone else’s car. The chief medic guy, f***k did he bollock me, to bring us back into line. But it was what we needed.”
Some £50,000 ($67,000) was spent on coronavirus tests, he added. They were all swabbed at the end of each day and got the results at 11PM that night. If the results were negative, they were clear to continue filming for another day. No positive test results were returned for the main team during the shoot and Wilman said the daily dose of good news “gave us a bit of a zip.”
He called the show a “rolling bubble,” which unlike some static shoots, meant producers and presenters engaged with the outside through necessities such as gas station stops. “Everything was a lot more measured and disciplined,” Wilman continued. “The sound man would put on all the nuclear Chernobyl gear before he mic-ed up the presenters, whereas normally they would be sharing a fag. It was all in the detail.”
Overall, he was proud of what was captured and admitted that, in some respects, the Scotttish adventure marked a return to their Top Gear roots, when UK-based shoots were a mainstay. “Scotland was tremendous. In adversity — a slight element of backs to the wall — we’ve got a really great film. If you don’t have Madagasgar or the Mekong River… it makes you work harder. We don’t leave as much to chance, you set up more scenes and that is like going back to the old days,” he explained.
The Scotland special will premiere next year and then The Grand Tour boys have another two specials to make under their existing Amazon contracts. Wilman is exploring further UK shoots in the current pandemic climate, but is still hoping to remount the Russia special and other overseas trips. Beyond the next two films, he said there remains an appetite to continue working with Amazon.
“They’ve got to want us and we’ve got to want to,” he said. “There’s still plenty of petrol left in the tank. As long as people want to watch, and as long as Jeff [Bezos] wants to go “here’s a few quid to do it,” then we’re all good to do it.”
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