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.

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Game Review: “Forza Motorsport 4″

Jeremy Clarkson’s opening monologue for “Forza Motorsport 4″ explains that the car guy is an endangered species. Chased out of his natural habitat, cut down by laws and regulations, and ostracized from society at large due to his love of speed and adrenaline, he remarks that the only place left, the final frontier for this endangered species, is in the virtual world with “Forza 4.” The question then becomes if the virtual world can recreate the enjoyment of the physical one.

If you are judging by visuals alone, “Forza 4″ comes close. Crisp, razor sharp resolution and detailing highlight the unique aspects of every car in the game. This differs from “Gran Turismo 5″ since only a few “premier” cars got the high resolution treatment in that game. Also, there is the “Auto vista” feature. Here, you can take a painstaking look inside and outside of a variety of cars, taking in the minute details rendered in jaw-dropping detail.

Having a pretty face is one thing, but offering entertaining gameplay is a different matter entirely. Here, the “Forza” experience really starts to pull away from “GT5.” First off, you don’t need to be a car guy to enjoy the game. Game settings are adjustable from beginner to simulation levels so you can be comfortable in whichever level you fall under. Second, “Forza” doesn’t beat you over the head with technical bureaucracy. There are no license tests, long loading times, or a never-ending bog of petty races to get through before you get to the good stuff. Just hop in and drive.

Plus, you can drive whatever you want, wherever you want. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, muscle cars… nearly everything under the sun is available to you. You also don’t even need to race. You can take photos, create paint schemes, and participate in a multitude of other activities. Just like in the real world, you don’t necessarily need to be a speed freak to enjoy the hobby, but it does help.

When you do start driving, “Forza’s” fantastic physics engine really starts to shine through. Developer Turn 10 took simulating the cars so seriously, in fact, that they contacted Pirelli to be able use their tire simulation software for the game. This is the same equipment F1 teams use to develop their tires, so of course it is insanely accurate.

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