The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Richard Hammond (“Top Gear,” “Richard Hammond’s Crash Course”)

Although the History Channel has done an admirable job of trying to bring “Top Gear” to America, there are many viewers who still view the U.S.’s take on the series as a pale imitation of the original UK version…and, yes, if you’re wondering, I am one of those viewers, thank you very much. Not that there’s anything wrong with Adam Ferrera, Tanner Foust, and Rutledge Wood in principle, but to my way of thinking, they can’t hold a candle to Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May. I mean, I’m not even a car person (and, boy, is that an understatement), but I’ve been enthralled by the adventures of Clarkson, Hammond, and May ever since I first discovered the series a few years back.

Indeed, I’ve found their presences so uniformly enjoyable that I’ve even followed them over to their various solo exploits. For instance, if you’ve never seen “James May’s Toy Stories,” head over to Hulu and check it out post haste…but, hang on, before doing that, perhaps you’d better watch “Richard Hammond’s Crash Course,” which actually makes its debut this evening on BBC America. I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Mr. Hammond during this summer TCA press tour, and we chatted about this new series as well as the one which made him a household name amongst automobile enthusiasts, not to mention various and sundry other topics.

Bullz-Eye: You’re all but ubiquitous on UK television nowadays, but how did you find your way onto TV in the first place?

Richard Hammond: I started as a radio host 24 years ago, in 1988. Local radio, a small station in the UK. I stuck with that for the better part of 10 years and eventually started doing TV. Car-related TV, because that was always my passion. And that opened into other types of TV, but I stuck with the cars as well, and then eventually auditioned for and got “Top Gear” when they re-launched it.

BE: Being a re-launch, I guess it was both a proven commodity as well as an unproven one, since it was all new.

RH: Yeah, it’d become quite old-fashioned and, as happened, it was taken off air because viewers had dwindled, but then it came back as an entirely new thing.

BE: Presumably you were pleasantly surprised when it took off as well as it did.

RH: Weren’t we, though? [Laughs.] Yes, but it wasn’t immediate. We were very lucky. We were afforded the opportunity to grow organically over time, because it was only a small show, so we could be allowed to evolve. We never set out to create the monster we created. We set out to make the best car show we could. That, honestly, is all we ever set out to do. And it was what it was, and it grew to what it became, and it found the appeal it found. We were just lucky. It was a perfect storm. The perfect combination of event, context, characters, appetite…it all came together.

BE: It’s very much a car show for people who aren’t even car aficionados.

RH: Well, we kind of do that to save the viewer the bother. We’re car geeks. I mean, I collect cars. I’ve got…oh, God, dozens of them at home, ranging from pre-war to immediate. But it has to have that at heart. We occasionally…not in recent years, but there was a time when we’d be asked quite regularly, “Are you really a car guy, or is it all put on?” You couldn’t pretend! But you don’t have to be a car fan to watch it, because cars, generally speaking, are fascinating to everyone because they affect all of us. Even if all you ever do is get in one to get a ride to school, they’re still part of your life, be it as a symbol, a means of communication, a means of transport, even as self-expression.

BE: What would you say has been the most fascinating aspect of “Top Gear”? You’ve been to so many countries, done so many things…

RH: Well, I’ve grown up there! I was 30 when we started, I’m 40 now. That’s a big period in a chap’s life! [Laughs.] Both my daughters have arrived since then. Lots has happened. It’s been a part of my life for a long, long time. That’s probably the big surprise. No, the bigger surprise is what’s happened to it! It still takes our breath away how big it’s gotten. We can’t believe it.

BE: At one point did you start branching out beyond “Top Gear”?

RH: I’ve kind of always done, because I’ve done the job for so long. It was funny: I won a Newcomers Award when I first started on “Top Gear,” and I stood there and looked at the audience and said, “I’ve done this for 12 years already!” [Laughs.] Actually, it was 14 years by then. But I’ve always done other stuff. I love television as a medium. I’m fascinated by it. I think it is important as a whole. It’s really interesting what it can do, how it works, what it has to say to us and about us. So, yeah, I’ve always indulged. I love cars, but I’m interested in plenty of other stuff. I’m interested in TV, hence when the opportunity came about to make TV in America with Americans for Americans… It’s kind of the home of modern TV, anyway, isn’t it? So why wouldn’t I want to do that, to take a job I’ve done for so long and come make it here? So it’s been really, truly interesting doing it. I’ve always done that.

BE: Well, you’ve obviously done more than a few shows beyond “Top Gear,” but how many of them were your concept pitches and how many involved the BBC saying, “We’ve got this idea for a show, we think you’d be a good host”?

RH: Um…I don’t know what the split would be. I really don’t.

BE: It is a split, though?

RH: Oh, yeah, yeah. There are shows that I take to them. There’s currently a couple in production at the moment that I’ve taken to them. Moreso these days that way ‘round. It’s just something that happens in your life in TV, I think. You reach a stage where, if you’re lucky, it affords you a platform, and you can then come up with an idea, knock on the right door, and say, “Hi! I’d really like to make this!” [Laughs.] And then you get through the door and get to make your suggestions.

BE: So was “Crash Course” your pitch, then?

RH: No! “Crash Course” was from them to me. BBC America Worldwide Productions were looking for their own shows to make, and because I enjoy a smaller profile from “Top Gear” over here, the idea came up and they pitched it to me. We’ve developed it for me. It’s come a long way since the first conversations. Yeah, that’s the great thing about making TV: coming up with ideas, molding ideas…it’s a very collaborative process. Or it should be, anyway. And that’s great. I’ve really enjoyed that process and watching it evolve.

BE: What was the most challenging episode of the first season of “Crash Course” for you?

RH: In the first season, probably using the dangle head processor in the woods in Oregon. It was just bloody impossible to use that machine. [Laughs.] It was really difficult! And, annoyingly, the woods opposite of where I live, I have a run around those woods, a five-mile trek that’s very uphill and downhill and very wooded, and they’ve been logging it, and there is a dangle head processor being used. And every time I pass the thing, I have a little shudder of remembrance of how I grappled with it. So that was the hardest one in that season.

BE: What was the one that surprised you by being easier than you anticipated?

RH: Well, none of them felt that easy to me, to be honest. [Laughs.] None of them, really.

BE: What can we expect from Season 2?

RH: For Season 2, we’ve completely changed it, and I’m delighted. Using the vehicles was a great idea for Season 1, ‘cause there’s a logic to my being there to host it on BBC America. For Season 2, they’ve let me just hang it now on the people and the jobs themselves, so it’s not vehicle-dependent, which is great. So the variety we’re covering is everything from stand-up comic to Harlem barber, stuntman to snake wrangler. It’s right across the board. Which is great, ‘cause it means you can take a look at a whole load of American jobs, from cowboy to whatever, some of them iconic and symbolic, some of them less so. Some of them modern and very different. And that’s really fascinating to do. Bloody hard work on occasion, a bit scary on occasion, but amazingly good fun.

BE: Yeah, with all due respect, I don’t necessarily look at you and see “cowboy.”

RH: I’d like to be a cowboy! It was quite good fun. I can ride a horse reasonably well. [Laughs.]

BE: I wanted to ask you about a few other things from your back catalog. First of all, what was it like working with Justin Hawkins of The Darkness?

RH: He’s fantastic. God, that’s awhile back! [Laughs.] That was great fun. It’s great when we get good guests on. When we first started making “Top Gear,” we said, “Does anyone want to be on our little car show?” And nobody was particularly bothered. Now, when Hollywood rolls up now and again, it’s amazing!

BE: Who was the most surprising guest you pulled for “Top Gear”?

RH: It’s very surprising when people like Tom Cruise throw themselves at it. It’s, like, “Hang on a second, you’re an industry in your own right!” [Laughs.] Okay, they might come on to publicize their show, but then to actually be bothered to really throw themselves at trying to get ‘round the track… I mean, Sir Michael Gambon, dignified, advancing in years, a well-respected actor…he nearly flipped the car! Which is staggering. So, yeah, we’re constantly surprised by our guests.

BE: As far as drivers go, which celebrity driver turned out to be better than you anticipated?

RH: Oh, I can’t even remember, to be brutally honest, ‘cause it happens so often. [Laughs.]

BE: Can you talk a bit about the experience of interviewing Evel Knievel?

RH: He is…was…amazing. It was intense. The really moving moment was when we were in the car, driving ‘round his hometown of Butte, Montana, talking about his childhood, and we passed the streets that he grew up on, and he was talking about riding around on his bicycle with his friends. I said, “Well, Evel, this is really weird, ‘cause when we were kids, I spent all my childhood riding ‘round on my bicycle with a piece of cardboard in the spokes, pretending to be you. What did you do? ‘Cause there was no Evel Knievel!” And he said, and this is God’s own truth, that he used to ride around on his bicycle with a piece of cardboard taped so that it resonated in the spokes like an engine, pretending to be…Joey Chitwood, I think it was, who was a local stuntman. And the idea of Evel Knievel doing exactly what I did as a kid…it was genuinely moving. Y’know, he was…he could be difficult, yes. But he was one of the world’s first sort of global commercial symbols based on a personality. He was right at the forefront of that kind of thing, and I think he was both the beneficiary of it and in some ways the victim.

BE: Yeah, from the clips I’ve seen of the interview, you walk away respecting his accomplishments, but he comes off more than a little bit bitter.

RH: Well, yeah, he had a hell of a ride. It wasn’t always a bed of roses. What I liked about that documentary – and I’ve done it since with another one, with Stirling Moss – I didn’t deliver my opinion on him at any point, nor did I try to. I tried to give them both a platform from which they could show you, the viewer, who they were, and you can form your own opinion. And I think that’s important when I make factual shows. Straight up factual, not like “Crash Course,” which is immersive and reality. That’s about me and my take on it. When I make straight up factual shows, I want to show you what I’m there to present. That’s why we call them “presenters” in the UK: because I’m presenting something to you. I’m then arming you with information and context, so you can better understand what it is. You form your own opinion. Never am I standing there saying, “Look how much I know about this,” or, “Look how funny I can be about this.” What I’m saying is, “Look, this is interesting. If I tell you this about it, it’s even more interesting.” And I think for awhile, certainly in the UK, factual TV rather lost its way. And I’ve been working very hard to keep saying, “No, the facts lead. Is it interesting? Do you need to dress it up with some character host, telling you more about themselves than the subject? ‘Cause if you do, don’t make it, there’s no interest.”

BE: Is there anyone else in the field whose work you particularly respect?

RH: Factual, or broadly across TV?

BE: Factual, in this case.

RH: Well, there’s the likes of (David) Attenborough, because he just makes…he just tells you interesting stuff. He doesn’t give you his judgment. I’m making quite a few natural history shows at the moment, because it’s a passion of mine that goes back as far as cars, to when I was a kid, and I’m having a great job doing it. And that’s what he did. And still does. He’s never given his opinion. They’re not opinion things. It’s simply a fact. And I love making factual shows, where the facts lead. And if it’s not so interesting and compelling that you immediately run to the bar afterwards and tell friends about it, then don’t make it.

BE: One of your other efforts was a program which revolved around the Holy Grail.

RH: [Laughs.] Yes, it did…and that’s another that was awhile back!

BE: It was. I bring it up mostly because I was wondering if you were familiar with the book that Rat Scabies of The Damned wrote a few years back (Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail).

RH: I’m familiar with him, of course, but not with the book. I’ll have to check that out! Yeah, that was quite awhile back that I did that show. It was highly educational, though, that’s for sure. One of the first sort of educational BBC shows I did. Good fun.

BE: And on the slightly less educational side of things, you also served as host for “Total Wipeout” in the UK.

RH: [Laughs.] I loved those shows, because it was so unambitious in its intent, and at no point was it saying, “We’re gonna change somebody’s life and make them into a pop star or make them a million pounds.” It was just people doing it for the love of it, to show their kids or families or workmates that they could do it. I loved that show. I put more thought into the script of that show than anything else I’ve ever worked on. I loved the ridiculousness of it. In this day and age, there’s never been a less cynical and exploitative show than that. It’s people who choose to do it not for the money but for the glory…what glory there is. And that’s great to watch.

BE: Have you ever run the course yourself?

RH: Yes, but I cheated. [Laughs.] I wore a wire. But I gave it away that I cheated. I let it be known that it was all pretend.

BE: I know we don’t have much time left, but I wanted to at least touch on the whole Vampire experience, as far as how it affected you.

RH: Oh, the crash, you mean? It’s behind me now, six years ago, but it was brain damage, which is a horrible way to hurt yourself. My heart goes out to anybody with ADI – acquired brain injury – and it happens to a lot of people, from kids falling off bicycles to soldiers getting shot at to idiot television hosts crashing at 320 miles an hour. [Laughs.] But it’s now been filed away in my life as one of the formative experiences, along with meeting my wife, having children, buying a house…all the things that make you who you are. It’s a long business recovering from such a thing, because it makes you have to reevaluate everything about yourself, and the only thing with which you have to reevaluate it at the time is the thing which itself is damaged. So it’s a hard thing to come through. But it’s part of me now, as with the other things.

BE: Having been in an accident myself, albeit one decidedly less flamboyant, I’m curious if you had any hesitation about getting back behind the wheel right away.

RH: No, but it’s made me look at risk, as I always have done. I haven’t changed that. I have a beautiful wife, two beautiful daughters than I love more than life itself…I’m not going to risk not being there for them. I’m not going to risk selfishly. So I do evaluate everything I do. It’d take a brave TV producer to put me in harm’s way now, also because there’s a lot more paperwork involved now. [Laughs.] So we’re very careful. I want to walk away at the end of the day.

BE: Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t necessarily get the love you thought it deserved?

RH: By viewers, do you mean?

BE: Or critics, I suppose.

RH: Well, either way, I think the answer is “no,” because I think I’ve been really lucky. The things I’ve really thrown myself into… [Hesitates.] That’s not to say I haven’t made turkeys, ‘cause I’m sure I have. [Laughs.] But if something’s not very good, you don’t expect it to do well. But, no, I’ve never gnashed my teeth and wanted to scream at an audience, “What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you like that?” That’s never happened. I’ve either known, “Yeah, you’re right, that’s not very good,” or else it’s been well received, in which case it’s gotten what it’s deserved.

BE: Lastly, how many more years of Clarkson abuse do you anticipate taking?

RH: Well, first of all, it’s mutual. [Laughs.] We have to put with one another, all of us. I’ve spent more time with those two great, gangly oafs than I have with my wife over the last ten years, probably, so we’ll continue to endure one another’s company on “Top Gear” as long as we’re asked. There’s no plans to part ways at the moment.