The Grand Tour and Top Gear have always blurred the lines between scripted and spontaneous action, with mixed reactions from both the media and the shows' fans. Some news reports have slammed the more obvious fake stunts, claiming that the show feels too forced, while fans love the hosts' hilarious antics, with some even calling for their shenanigans to be made into a movie.
When viewed with skepticism, though, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the entirety of both shows is fake. It’s true that some stunts are carefully choreographed but the synergy between Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May also creates plenty of genuinely spontaneous and humorous moments.
Of course, there have been attempts by both the Top Gear and The Grand Tour hosts to film shows entirely unscripted, such as when they traveled in Croatia. What it proved is that some degree of planning and scripting is necessary when putting together a show for TV and that the right amount of entertaining moments don’t just happen randomly.
Clarkson, Hammond, and May are excellent presenters and amateur actors—at best—but it’s clear that most of their banter is not scripted and this remains one of their strengths. It would be easy to write an article pointing out the obvious scripted moments on these shows. Instead, we have focused on points within each episode where there has been a deliberate attempt to deceive the audience in some way.
It’s not really a secret that the newer format of Top Gear has struggled to gain traction since the spectacular departure of Clarkson, Hammond, and May. The new hosts were clearly out of their comfort zone during early episodes, with the BBC forced to use a laughter soundtrack to cover up the frequent awkward silences when jokes fell flat. The BBC was quick to deny this after eagle-eyed fans on social media pointed out the sounds of hysterical laughter, even when the audience was completely deadpan. This was backed up by previous audience members who couldn’t believe how much laughter was added in to the edited show.
During Season 14, Hammond, May, and Clarkson bought cheap four-wheel-drive vehicles and attempted to drive to Chile via a road famous for its narrow, winding path and sheer drop-offs. One of the most dramatic moments of this episode occurred when Clarkson met a car traveling in the opposite direction on one of the narrowest sections, with the edge of the cliff crumbling underneath his wheels. A Top Gear cameramen revealed that the scene was scripted. If you look at the scene carefully, you’ll notice Clarkson is actually facing downhill and not climbing, as they were supposed to be doing at the time. The crumbling rocks were filmed after the scene due to the different camera angles they wanted to use.
The Vietnam episode was one of the best episodes produced. Watching the trio battle with chaotic South East Asian traffic as they traveled the length of Vietnam by motorcycle was hilarious. At the start of the journey, in Da Lat, upon learning that they could only afford to buy motorcycles for the journey, Jeremy Clarkson confessed that he had never ridden one in his life and struggled to get it to start, stop, and travel in a straight line. The problem is that back in the 1990s, a much younger Clarkson used to host a show called Clarkson's Motorworld, where he was seen riding a motorcycle in Vietnam with no such issues.
One of Top Gear's most famous scenes was when Jeremy Clarkson drove a three-wheeled Reliant Robin that rolled over onto its side whenever he attempted to turn a corner. Clarkson later revealed in an interview that he asked the Top Gear mechanics to alter the car so the Robin would roll over every time he touched the steering wheel. The health and safety team originally didn’t want to go ahead with the stunt but later agreed, giving Clarkson a small hammer by which he could break the glass in case he got trapped. Clarkson admitted that under normal circumstances, the Robin wouldn’t have rolled over while cornering unless a rugby team pushed it over.
The Hovervan showcased the Top Gear trio's love for bad ideas and chaos. After mating a Ford Transit to a hovercraft, the presenters went about causing as much anarchy as they could along the River Avon. In one stunt, they soaked diners at a riverside restaurant, with the powerful propeller blowing away their tables. The customers appeared furious, with some of them even shaking their fists in anger. However, shortly after the stunt, one of the actors who had been hired to play a restaurant patron revealed on his blog that the scene was staged. He revealed that Clarkson had to drive past the restaurant several times in order to successfully drench the dining area.
The original Top Gear hosts were not quiet about their hatred for caravanning and in Season 6, they embarked on their own caravanning holiday to find out why caravanners are naturally annoying. The episode featured plenty of the usual bickering and minor car troubles, with the episode coming to a close when Clarkson ‘accidentally’ lit up one of the caravans while attempting to cook some chips. A crew raced into the shot as if it were a real emergency, but it was later confirmed that the whole scene had been set up to create the illusion of a dangerous situation.
Like everybody else around the world, we waited on the edge of our seat when, in Series 13, Jeremy Clarkson announced that The Stig was finally going to be unmasked. Prior to the big reveal, The Stig was seen setting a new lap record on the Top Gear test track in a Ferrari FXX before joining the hosts in the studio. As the audience worked themselves into a frenzy, The Stig removed his helmet to reveal that he was none other than Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher. Following the episode, the BBC would not confirm if the episode was just a stunt or not—but it later came out that Ferrari would only allow Michael Schumacher to drive their FXX, which inspired the phony reveal.
Another badly kept secret was how much the hosts of Top Gear hated electric cars, with Jeremy Clarkson on record several times flaying the technology. But for some reason, the Tesla team though it would be a good idea to have the outspoken host review their latest model. During the review, Clarkson showed the Tesla running out of charge after just 55 miles, far short of the claimed 300-mile range. Top Gear even claimed the futuristic car broke down, overheated, and suffered brake failure. However, Elon Musk himself addressed this, stating that the vehicle's own logs showed the battery never dipped below 20% during filming and that the employee who delivered the vehicle to the Top Gear set had read the script prior to filming.
During the filming of their Christmas Special in Argentina, Top Gear inadvertently sparked an international diplomatic row between England and Argentina by displaying a license plate on their car that may have referenced a conflict between the two nations. As a fallout, there were several violent protests, with viewers being shown scenes where the hosts escaped an armed and angry mob and the police harassing them as they left Argentina. However, a BBC crew member admitted that the trio had left Argentina by plane and the police were actually escorting and helping the Top Gear crew the entire time. The end of the episode was filmed to look like a Butch Cassidy parody but they weren’t actually forced to leave the country as had been suggested.
Jeremy Clarkson has claimed to have performed all his own stunts for years but one famous incident proved otherwise. During their test of the Lamborghini Murcielago in 2008, the episode shows Clarkson driving the car, followed by cut-aways to the speedo as the car reached its top speed of 207 miles per hour. An insider at the BBC later admitted that during the filming of that episode, the driver of the high-speed Italian supercar was actually a professional Formula 3 driver. They went on to explain that more often than not, a small handful of professional drivers are used to get to the high speeds or dangerous footage due to budget and time constraints.
In Season 3 of The Grand Tour, the hosts tested if pickups from Europe were as capable as those from Japan. To do this, they devised a set of tests based on various historical scenarios. Numerous scenes were scripted in this episode but the one we are concerned with is the civil war segment, when the hosts pointed out that pickup trucks often used as weapons platforms during civil unrest. To test this, they competed against each other by aiming at targets while driving around an abandoned village. While the weapons looked real and some kicked dirt up, if you look closely, the barrels are too small and by examining the scene carefully, it’s obvious that they are actually blanks.
When The Grand Tour first launched, it really struggled to find its feet and carve out its own identity. From the second episode in Series 1, we see the hosts take a departure from their proven formula of doing stunts and reviewing cars. Instead, they travelled to Jordan to try and join the Special Forces. In one scene, Jeremy Clarkson doubts the weapons they are using fire live rounds and aims at a car to demonstrate, shredding it in the process. One of the crew members has since revealed that there was no way the show's producers were going to let the hosts anywhere near real action so the scene was done by a real Special Forces soldier who was kept off camera.
During Top Gear, there were accusations cast that the hosts did little of the driving themselves and that has since been proven by people who worked on the show. However, eagle-eyed viewers of Episode 8 in Series 2 would have noticed one shot where Hammond looked a bit out of sorts. During the episode, he was supposed to be driving a brand new Jaguar XKSS around France. However, Hammond had had his second major car accident before Season 2 commenced and the producers and the show's insurance company limited how much driving he could do on the show. To overcome this, they had a special mask made while a stunt driver performed most of the driving in the open-top sports car.
In Season 2, the hosts of The Grand Tour set off on a race around New York City to see who could get to Niagara Falls the fastest. To achieve this, the trio set a course that would see them using cars, the subway, and planes—and this is where things get complicated. In one shot, Jeremy Clarkson called up the airline JetBlue and asked that Hammond and May be bumped down from business class to economy. Now, you may be thinking, do they even have business class on short domestic flights? In actual fact, the plane they took on their flight, the Embraer 190, is too small to configure for business use and it appears the scene was faked because JetBlue sponsored the episode.
One thing The Grand Tour hosts excel at is generating headlines and when they crashed through a Dubai shopping mall in what looked like a tank, sending frightened shoppers in all directions, headlines covering the event were seen all around the world and social media lit up. However, the tank was actually a 700-horsepower Ripsaw all-terrain vehicle and the stunt was carefully choreographed and paid for. Before the scene commences, you can hear a director off-camera call, "Action!" The Ripsaw is claimed to be the fastest tank in the world and is powered by a 6.6-liter Duramax engine.
The third episode of Series 1 saw the hosts embark on an epic road trip through Northern Italy. As the hosts headed towards the city of Vicenza, viewers saw Jeremy Clarkson send out a tweet giving away Richard Hammond's location, urging their fans from Italy to meet with him and try and slow him down as much as possible. As Hammond headed into the city, right on cue, a large crowd of hundreds of people were there to greet him. However, a quick look over Jeremy Clarkson's feed shows him tweeting about the incident the day before it happened and setting up the stunt at least 24 hours in advance.
In the same episode as their Italy stunt, James May and Richard Hammond got to light up Jeremy Clarkson's house following a bet that Clarkson lost about whether a McLaren P1 was faster than a Porsche 918 and a LaFerrari. It wasn’t and Clarkson looked shocked and upset. This gave Hammond and May the option to do whatever they wanted to the house so they demolished it in spectacular fashion. But, as is often the case on The Grand Tour, things aren’t always what they seem, and it turns out the demolition was planned and Clarkson had already made plans to build a three-story mansion where the building once stood.
The Car Park Racing segment was lauded as being the best segment in The Grand Tour's history, with many calling for it to be a regular episode on the show. Hammond and May made their way to Dunstable and pitted employees from two different companies against each other in a premade race course in the office buildings car park; they even held time trials to find the fastest two drivers. The segment was entertaining but we noticed that the employees, Steve from Sales and Nick from Accounts, look remarkably like professional stunt drivers Niki Faulkner and Maruo Calo. In fact, Mauro later confirmed via social media that he had taken part in the episode.
Following the Tesla incident on Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson took to having a team of lawyers with him every time he test drove an electric car—but James May obviously didn’t get the memo. During filming in Switzerland, the trio arranged to enter a hillclimb race. Clarkson and Hammond drove to the event but James May turned up with his electric car, a Rimac Concept One, on the back of a truck. When asked why he wasn’t driving to the event, May stated that his car didn’t have enough battery range to drive the 200 miles to the event. Two things wrong with this are that the Rimac has a range of 205 miles and the hillclimb event was only 63 miles from their hotel.
Jeremy Clarkson is not a man to mess with when he’s hungry and a scuffle over catering was cited as the reason he was sacked from the BBC. When The Grand Tour's host arrived in Switzerland, they checked into the luxurious Park Weggis Hotel, which they discovered was also a wellness retreat. In a later scene, viewers saw Clarkson eating a salad, complaining about food and sulking because he couldn’t order a drink. But a check of the hotel reveals that it is attached to a restaurant called The Park Grill, which does indeed serve steak and drinks, so Clarkson was faking his orneriness.
Sources: The Guardian, Gizmodo, and Grand Tour Nation.