Top Gear Adventures: Volume 2 Review

"This is the end..." Putting away Radar Love and Bat Out Of Hell, Top Gear dig out an album full of psychedelic classics and three motorbikes and, in the words of the challenge presented to them, try to do in eight days what the American army failed to achieve in ten years...get from the south of Vietnam to the north. And so, with Richard Hammond on a Russian-built Minsk, May wearing a colander and riding a Honda Cub and Clarkson on a Vespa and protected by a bucket, it should be reasonably plain motorcycling. They should do for Ho Chi Minh City what the mods and rockers did for Brighton albeit without the Quadrophenia accompaniment.

Oh, but it's never that simple. Clarkson spends what seems to be the first four days out of the eight available to him learning to ride his scooter. The sun rises and sets while he fails to get more than a yard away from the curb. All three bikes need to be stripped down and rebuilt at least three times daily. A willing but very amateur workforce get busy with their spanners and wrenches on the roadside while their riders look on aghast, sometimes at the makeshift repairs and, at other times, meals that seem to consist of snake meat washed down by snake blood vodka. Hammond chooses to eat nothing but rice for his stay in Vietnam. The boys buy one another inappropriate gifts, Hammond gets his bike painted a bright pink and Clarkson takes a tumble. May, as is his way, does nothing remotely interesting. But as a warning not to get too excited, which, in the case of May, isn't necessary at all, the producers pull out their backup motorbike. It's a minibike painted in the Stars and Stripes and playing Springsteen's Born in the USA. It's as inappropriate a bike as can be.

The second of these two adventures takes us to Botswana, where, with a small amount of money, the boys are challenged to point out to the X5-, M Class- and Range Rover-driving gentlemen and ladies of Surrey that it's possible to make their way 1,000 miles across the country in two-wheel drive cars. May picks himself up a Mercedes-Benz 230E, Clarkson a Lancia Beta Coupe and Hammond a 1963 Opel Kadett, all of which are in less that showroom condition. With a build quality that is second to none, May eases the Mercedes away from the start line without so much as a slipped clutch but does less well at guiding himself out of trouble. Before May can even stammer out an apology on behalf of the BBC, he's off for the border with Zimbabwe. Clarkson is even less fortunate. Lancia might have a rally heritage but Clarkson clearly picked a car that was built when the rally experts were otherwise engaged. The engine fizzes with leaking water, the bonnet barely closes and, when it does, it shorts out the battery. But the Lancia wheezes to life, as does Hammond's 40-horsepower Kadett, and they're soon on their way.

At first, this isn't a problem. Hammond names his car Oliver while James finds that everything on his car is working but for a single knob. And no, that's not, unlike his colleagues, how I'll be referring to James May. Jeremy, meanwhile, has almost as much fun listing all of the things on his car that aren't working, which are so plentiful that he doesn't even bother including the cardboard that is placed between the bonnet and positive and negative terminals on the battery. But then the tarmac runs out and what seemed to be good choices on a well-constructed road are less so on dirt tracks. Things get even worse when they're presented with the first of a series of challenges. Having to drive their chosen cars across the Makadikadi salt flats, the Merc and the Lancia dig deep into the thin salt crust before May and Clarkson throw out the seats, doors and every other unnecessary part of their car. But the producers warn them against going too far. As with the stars'n'stripes bike in Vietnam, a Volkswagen Beetle lurks not far behind.

These adventures are typical of those on Top Gear. Where they succeed is in the banter between the three hosts as they struggle with cheap cars, a lack of parts and no road signs. But that would await them should they ever venture to Dublin. Botswana differs on account of it taking them into places where roads are as much a fiction as fairy stories. Neither adventure is, though, as funny as their two efforts to build amphibious cars, neither down river nor across the Channel, not even when the Vietnam trip takes a turn for the same when they have to convert their bikes into boats to make it across Ha Long bay to a bar. And in spite of their best efforts to bring a touch of Attenborough to proceedings, particularly in the sunrise and sunsets of Botswana, they're let down by their tendency to become distracted by the combover of a nearby tourist. But such is the way of men.

Still, there's rather too much of Clarkson and his production team playing things with such dramatic licence that even Steven Berkoff might have suggesting toning things down a little. All the talk of death on the Makadikadi seems to be exaggerated given that their coupes and executive saloons are accompanied by a crew capable of putting the average Formula 1 team to shame. Meanwhile, African Stig, who emerges from a straw hut in a Botswanan village wearing leopard skin, bones and a loin cloth couldn't look any more of a cliche of deepest, darkest Africa had he danced around a giant pot of boiling water into which he was threatening to cook Clarkson and company. Were it not for his helmet, African Stig might well have had a bone through his nose. The Vietnam adventure is much the same. The Top Gear crew don't actually eat dog but mention it at almost every meal. On the other hand, they do tuck into snake washed down with snake blood vodka. Hammond, on the other hand, chooses to eat nothing but rice for the entire trip. At least he does so on screen but may have had some lowly member of the crew cooking steak and chips in the back of one of the Top Gear Land Rovers. May, meanwhile, has all the presence of one of the coin-tossing spooks in Most Haunted. Or, just as it's only the influence that a black hole exerts on other bodies in the universe that makes it possible to spot them, May would go unnoticed were it not for the gags that Hammond and Clarkson make at his expense.

May knows his place though. As does Hammond. Top Gear has, since its return, been about Clarkson. Both destinations were chosen on account of Clarkson having recently been on holiday there and while this doesn't really lend him an advantage, he is so clearly in command of things that Hammond and May are probably coughing up their pocket money to Clarkson just to have anything like as much screen time as 'the boss'. Happily, many of the Clarkson-isms that one might expect are included only on the Deleted Scenes, such as his saying that if rabbits were that clever, they'd have invented spaceships, but there's still plenty of the big man on these two discs. Perhaps more than enough for this viewer but regular Top Gear viewers would be unlikely to complain. Still, no matter how predictable Clarkson may be at times, he's not Tiff Needell and for that we should be glad.

The Vietnam adventure is the seventy-five minute version shown over Christmas 2008 while the Botswana trip fits within the normal sixty-minute length of an episode of Top Gear. Both episodes look very good indeed, with the Botswana trip having the added bonus of the team landing at beautiful-looking locations just as the sun sets and a very full moon rises behind them. Unlike the heavy rains of Vietnam, which make for a land so green that it might rival even Ireland, the Botswana adventure is lit by a lovely orange glow throughout, with this being handled very well by 2 Entertain's production of this DVD set. It sounds good too and while the episodes may not have the same polish as a typical episode of Top Gear, sometimes on account of the crew having to put down their tools to push May or Clarkson out of the mud, it sounds fine. What problems there are in hearing the dialogue are on account of the cast trying to hold conversations over walkie-talkies while driving through such clouds of dust as would cripple another car.

The main extra on the Vietnam special is a Commentary with series producer Andy Wilman, episode producer Alex Renton, director Phil Churchwood, sound editor Russell Edwards and cameraman Ian May. The good thing about this commentary is that, without any input from May, Hammond and Clarkson, this reveals what goes on behind the scenes. That might sound very dull indeed but given that there is always the suspicion that the key to Clarkson and company making it all look so easy is a great deal of effort by the crew before the cast actually arrive. And so it proves with Alex Renton, in particular, describing what was done in the ten days before the rest of the crew arrived and, as the trip north begins, how much effort was needed to grease the wheels of this particular production. This is followed by a set of Deleted Scenes, which begins with an extended sequence of the boys trying to buy a car (and, in Hammond's case, a John Deere tractor) with their fifteen million Vietnamese Dong before taking their bikes to an airfield where the Stig's communist cousin, who is dressed in red, completes a set of challenges on them. James May gets a challenge all of his own in which he has to compete on his Honda 50 Super Cub against two cows. Finally, there is a Production Gallery.

The second disc also offers a Commentary with Andy Wilman, episode producer Roland French, director James Bryce, Russell Edwards and Ian May and does equally well at revealing what goes on behind the scenes. It improves on the Vietnam commentary on account of it being recorded after it, which gives the contributors something to work off but also on account of the crew having enjoyed the shoot much more. And in spite of the subsequent hoo-hah about the environmental damage inflicted on the salt flats, this commentary explains exactly how the crew made their way across the Makadikadi and how they were guided in doing so. Like the Vietnam disc, this commentary is accompanied by a Gallery and a set of Deleted Scenes, which includes Clarkson's disappointment at the amount of wildlife that he's seeing, May's confusing the Kalahari with calamari and Clarkson's critiquing of the reference book that Hammond packed for the journey.

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