EXCLUSIVE: After Amazon launched the first in a series of special episodes from The Grand Tour team, the streamer is preparing to send out Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May on solo missions.
May will be the first out the traps with his travel show, James May: Our Man In Japan, in which he spends three months exploring the Asian country from top to bottom. It premieres on January 3, 2020.
Made by British production company Plum Pictures, May told Deadline why his adventure is a “lark” to be enjoyed, rather than a serious historical or cultural endeavor.
The presenter also discussed his vision for the future of television, the benefits of spending less time with Clarkson and Hammond, and why he would never launch a TV production company.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deadline: How did your Amazon series James May: Our Man In Japan come about?
James May: I can probably admit that we did pitch it to the BBC many years ago, and they rejected it, and then took Sue Perkins. I was very hurt. But I mean, I’ve been to Japan quite a few times, always with work, and I really loved it. And I said to [my director] Tom [Whitter], “The travelogue I do, we could do that for Amazon and I still would love to go and find out about Japan.” To be honest they couldn’t really stop us. They said I could have a six-part series, so I said, “Right, I’m going to Japan.” Okay? As it turned out they’d liked it as an idea a lot, so off we went.
Deadline: You Grand Tour boys have spoken about the creative freedom that Amazon affords you, and that clearly extends into your solo projects as well?
May: Yes. I mean, they don’t interfere. I think they sort of have the good sense to let us do it our own way and they know… I mean, it’s not as if we’ve ever made any telly before. We know broadly what we’re doing. So yeah, they didn’t interfere at all. They did come out and visit us while we were there, but I think they just wanted a trip to Japan to be honest. And so, yeah, they left us to it. They watched the programs when we’ve made it, they make a few suggestions, and sometimes we tell them to “sod off” and sometimes they’re quite good ones. So it’s a nice relationship.
Deadline: You spent three months out there? That feels like a long time for a travelogue…
May: Yes. We planned it for three months, and it was definitely a good plan to be honest. But in our defense, when you watch it you will see we cram a lot more scenes into each episode than most travelogues do. And we did do the whole country from top to bottom, and we hadn’t done one before so we had to build in a bit of leeway. I think if we did it again now we could probably be a little bit tighter and more efficient, but not much to be honest. We didn’t slack.
Deadline: Do you think that goes back to the point we were making around kind of editorial freedom, the budget that Amazon can give you — that gave you the opportunity to spend more time and immerse yourself more?
May: Yeah. The budgets are big but don’t forget, a lot of the budget has to go on production stuff that maybe isn’t such an issue to address with broadcasters. For example, it’s in 4K which means more complex camera and sound kit, more complex editing, more data, and more memory space and more processing of it afterward to make it a global product, dubbed and subtitled and all that other stuff. So the actual budget for making the show, spread over three months, it was a nice budget but it wasn’t like we were sleeping on yachts or anything like that. We just did it like tourists. We’re not extravagant people, you know? We’re very grounded.
Deadline: You mentioned Sue Perkins doing Japan earlier this year for BBC One. I mean, these are very familiar formats for viewers. Why do you think they work? What do you think the ingredients are that make them tick for audiences?
May: Well, that’s a very good question. I don’t really know. When I watch travelogues it’s because I sort of like history, and culture and scenery, I suppose. The idea of a travelogue is that you’re supposed to take the viewer with you so they can have the experience vicariously through you, because going to Japan for three months is something that most people aren’t in the position to do, and we’re very lucky that we can. So, I suppose, the idea is, that when you watch the Japan travelogue you are going to Japan through the magic of television.
And I think ours is a little bit different because it’s quite free-form and it’s quite sort of jazz. It wasn’t manicured in any way, quite a few arguments may get on air and a few cock-ups and so on. So we told it like it was. We filmed with a tight-knit crew and presenter making their way across Japan, and what you see… I mean obviously, we arranged to do certain things and see certain people, but some of what you see is just happenstance.
That’s the great thing about going to a fascinating country, just doing normal things like checking into a hotel, that makes it into the film. Going to the shops, that’s in the film. That stuff becomes interesting because it’s sort of slightly challenging and it makes you rethink everyday activities. But we don’t get terribly bogged down with this sort of thing and looking at historic temples and traditions. But life isn’t really about traditions. They’re there, and they’re picturesque and they’re nice to look at, but actually if you went on holiday to Japan you’d spend a lot of time just wandering the streets of Tokyo, looking in the shops, and noodle bars and you just soak it in. You just absorb the experience. It’s not a study tour, this. It’s not an academic exercise, it’s a lark.
Deadline: The Grand Tour sounded like it became quite an all-consuming endeavor until you made the decision to kind of switch things up a bit. Has it been nice spending some time doing your own thing?
May: It’s been very nice spending less time, certainly. Yes. I mean, historically I always used to do my own stuff back in the Top Gear days. It was always very intense to be honest and I was younger then, and we just used to work all the time and fit things in around Top Gear schedule. I mean, the Amazon show, once we starting making Grand Tour, in some ways, that was even more creative because we kept upping the standard and upping the production values. And the film would take longer, and we’d go further, they would take more planning, and there wasn’t really time to do our own stuff. So this new arrangement gives people the best of Grand Tour, which is the specials, which is what everybody likes, we know that. And it allows them the added benefit of seeing us individually — imagine that.
Deadline: I spoke The Grand Tour‘s executive producer Andy Wilman and he said that you guys feel more creatively refreshed not spending so much time together…
May: I think that’s absolutely right, because when we did the Seamen… that was the first time I’d seen Jeremy [Clarkson] since the previous year. I mean, I hadn’t seen him for three or four months, which was great. But then when I saw him I thought, “Oh no.” But actually, it did mean we had a sort of store of banter, if you like, and I hate that word by the way. But we had it all sort of stored up ready to sort of fire broadsides at each other. It was quite refreshing.
Deadline: And you’re working with your director Tom again for Our Man In Japan. You weren’t tempted to go your own way or the way of Richard Hammond and set up your own production venture?
May: No. I’m not a businessman. Hammond is quite good at this sort of thing. It’s not in my skill set. I think that’s the polite way of putting it. I am shit at it.
Deadline: But you can get people to do these things for you…
May: I know, but you always think that, “Oh, you can get people to do them for you. You can employ someone to do production. You can employ someone to do your legal stuff and your office admin.” But then you become responsible for people, you’ve got to have a building, you’ve got to worry about cash flow and there’s none of your mind left to do the thing you’re actually good at, that you hope you’re good at, which is making a TV show. So I’m not really sure what the benefits of having a production company are. I mean, if it becomes very big then you’re not being on telly, you’re making telly and it’s business. But I’m not really very interested in business. It makes my teeth hurt.
Deadline: You get control of rights, but that’s becoming an increasingly blurry picture these days with the streaming services…
May: Very much so. I’ve been making stuff with Plum Pictures for 10 years or so. And in the old days we would…. When you’re making stuff for a broadcaster you hand it over and they show it a certain number of times, then after that you’re free to sell it, which we do. We sold Man Lab to Australia, and Japan, I think, and Germany and so on. And you can still make a bit of extra money out of the back end and pay off some of your cost.
It’s different with Amazon because they effectively buy you out because they’re already worldwide. But then they’re a bit more generous with the cash. So yeah, I don’t know. If you’re saying, “Would I be slightly richer if I had a production company?” Maybe, but I could also be flat broke and lose the house, and I just don’t care that much. Good luck to Hammond with his. He seems to be making it work, but I don’t envy him in the slightest.
Deadline: What is it about the relationship with Plum that’s worked and served you well over the past decade?
May: Well, when I was first looking for someone to work with, it was actually my agent who knew the people who ran Plum. They used to work for the BBC and then they set it up. I went and met them and I thought, “They seem like nice blokes.” And they liked the idea and they’d got some other ideas. And then I just carried on. But they are a nice bunch. It’s quite a small company. It’s very personable. There aren’t any horrible, massive egos in it. There’s just people having a nice time making decent telly. That’s all I really want to do. I’m 57, I’m too old to be ambitious. I’m quite a simple bloke these days. I need feeding, and a moment for self-expression, and then I’ll go and lie down again and that’s it.
Deadline: Do you think there’s ever been a better time to be making television these days?
May: Television has been fantastically democratized. There are more channels than, obviously, than there were when I was a kid. And anybody can make TV because we have things like YouTube, and Vimeo, and so on. You can make TV with your camera. It’s not exclusive anymore and there are no real exclusions to doing it.
It must have been quite a heady time in maybe the ’70s or the ’80s, where for the few people who were in TV, life was extremely rarefied, glamorous and very enviable. But the modern world is better and always has been. So I think the fact that TV is more accessible both as a viewer and a creator has to be a good thing. It must be.
Deadline: Can you think of a time where there’s been so many mouths to feed and so much demand for content?
May: Oh no, nothing like it. I mean, plus it sort of seems to be increasing exponentially by the day. I’ve always just sort of posited that the inevitable outcome of all this, is that at some point in the future people will make TV shows for one other person, exactly like they send Christmas cards or emails. Because everybody will have a crack at it and everybody will have an exclusive thing to watch.
But then other bits of TV will still survive. Like Amazon’s done a big deal with football, and things like live sport, news, political debates since we’ve got an election going on. That sort of thing will always be what they call the appointment to view. People love to talk about the appointment to view. And that will remain true of a general election, an assassination, the World Cup final, people landing on the moon. That will still be true. That will still be broadcast and I don’t see how that can ever change.
Deadline: Do you manage to keep up with the pace of things to watch? What do you like to watch?
May: No, I don’t get anywhere near it. I’m always amazed that people have time to watch lots of TV. Obviously, I watch Amazon all the time. We watch a bit of Netflix. I’d like to say that I watch Netflix occasionally because my other half is a bit of a Crown fan. I watch a lot of YouTube because I’m interested in amateur TV and I really like make-it vids, as they’re called. I’m very into watching history, and aviation, people making things out of wood or metal, painting in watercolors. There’s a Japanese bloke I follow who paints watercolor pictures and shows the process. I spend a lot of time awake in the middle of the night, and I’m generally watching the telly on my iPad, and YouTube is a big chunk of it.
Amazon doesn’t know this yet, but I’m going to propose to them that among all their TV strands like live sport, drama, factual entertainment… there should be a strand for the new Man Lab — People making and doing things and it can be dead straight down the line. I don’t see why people wouldn’t watch that because it’s very popular elsewhere, why shouldn’t it be popular on Amazon?
Deadline: Do you think that’s something you’d like to be involved personally? Or just something that you’d like to float an idea on?
I want to make things and build things and film it with my old building and making mates like Simmy (Simeon Oakley). That would be great, they would be mad to turn it down.
Deadline: So is that something you’re genuinely going to pitch in the short term?
May: At some point in the future, I will pitch something along those lines. We’ve got a whole stack of semi-formed ideas, me and Tom, the director, that are sort of drifting about, that we’d quite like to have a go at. I’m getting on a bit and I hope I will have the good sense to retire with some dignity left. But maybe I can fade away gently, restoring a greenhouse or something like that.
Deadline: What is next for you? You’ve just filmed The Grand Tour Madagascar special. Have you got your next project for Amazon lined up? Or are you going to be doing more with the BBC after Big Trouble In Model Britain?
May: I haven’t heard anything from the BBC for a while, so I don’t know. But at Amazon, they want to see how popular Japan is because that’s the way the world works. There are possibilities of doing another travelogue. We’ve still got more Grand Tours to do, obviously. That’s quite big stuff. I might try a few ideas on them. Somebody is interested in me writing a cookbook at the moment, which is a ludicrous idea, but I might do it.
Deadline: Have you got your next destination in mind? Where’s the country you’d love to go to?
May: I don’t know. I think everywhere is interesting, but a part of me would quite like to do England, since I actually know what I’m talking about, but Amazon says it’s not very interesting. And I think well it is if you’re, say, Japanese or Chinese, maybe England would be interesting. Or America, but they’ll probably want me to go somewhere a bit more challenging. Bits of Asia, other bits of Asia, South America, Australia, maybe. I mean, I’ve never been to Malaysia. There must be lots to look at there. I’m not that fussy. I’m not a fussy person.
James May: Our Man In Japan premieres on Amazon Prime Video on January 3.