James May:’ We are not in a race with Chris Evans’ Top Gear’

The TV presenter on filming his new Amazon motoring show, putting things back together for BBC4 and doughnuts

It feels appropriate that James Mays new BBC4 show should be about putting things back together after they have been taken apart. The BBC is doing something similar with Top Gear after Jeremy Clarksons axing last year, while May, Clarkson and co-presenter Richard Hammond will front a new motoring demonstrate on Amazon Prime.

Mays BBC4 demonstrate, The Reassembler, in which he puts back together a lawn mower, an electric guitar and a telephone, is likely to be his last hurrah for the BBC given the scale of his is committed to Amazon.

The Amazon thing is going to be very complicated and it takes up a huge amount of time, tells May. The trio and executive producer Andy Wilman signed a three-year deal with the on-demand broadcaster last year worth a reputed 160 m, with Clarkson on 10 m a series, Hammond and May on 7m each. May tells the numbers are all bollocks. The figures arent right and anyway they dont devote us a great big container of fund and say, heres your fund go over and expend it. They give it to us bits at a time.

It is massively expensive what we are doing, for reasons that I hope will become apparent when you see it. We are doing it over three years and there are going to be 30 -plus long episodes. So no, we havent all been out and bought a yacht. Ive got a new pair of trainers, thats the only difference in my life since I started working for Amazon.

That and the tan, thanks to May and his fellow presenters filming in the Caribbean and north Africa for the as yet untitled Amazon show. May confirms it will begin in the autumn, with each running likely to be 11 episodes, maybe more. It will be scheduled albeit not in the traditional sense so wont be immediately available to binge-watch.

It will also leave the TV studio behind, disappointing followers of the cool wall but an exciting prospect for fans of Top Gears sumptuously filmed locating shoots.

May says they are inducing more episodes than they did in the latter days of Top Gear and it is logistically more complicated … We are making a series of TV cinemas and we dont have a base.

Top Gear used to take over pretty much all our time and that is true now, worse actually, he adds. And by the end of the three years Ill be dead anyway.

May first discussed the idea for The Reassembler several years ago and had all but agreed to do it before signing up with Amazon, along with another series of BBC2s Cars of the People. I couldnt say, oh Im not going to do it now because Ive gone off to attain myself rich with Amazon. That would have been appalling, he tells. I like putting things together and I find it very difficult to believe that other people wouldnt be utterly fascinated. A more rational part of me accepts that a lot of people are going to think its utterly dreary.

James Mays new BBC4 prove

Each episode features May in a workshop, faced in the first instalment with 331 parts of a petrol-engine lawn mower. Ten hours later 30 minutes of TV, including interspersed archive clips it is rebuilt. Its not quite slow TV the phenomenon which won BBC4 two of its three Royal Television Society awards last week but it has an old-fashioned, meditative feel about it, an arty side project before his Amazon blockbuster. May is Captain Slow, after all.

I dont actually know what the budget was but speaking from a strictly selfish point of view it wasnt a very well paid gig, he tells. It was the TV equivalent of the contents of your 2p and 1p jar shaken out and used to buy something nice. Whats the rule, if its not successful its art? This is definitely art.

We meet a few days short of a year since Clarkson was fallen from Top Gear after a damning internal report into his fracas with producer Oisin Tymon. He was followed out the door by Wilman, Hammond and May who said it would be lame to do Top Gear with a surrogate Jeremy.

I recollect thinking at the end of 2015 on New Years Eve, Im actually quite glad to see the back of that one, tells May. 2015 was a bit complicated and had some very traumatic bits in it.

It also, he tells, had some instead deserty bits in it where reference is aimed up cooking shepherds tart on YouTube. It wasnt as traumatic as having to go to war in Afghanistan, it was just a bit trying. I didnt want to hurl my life and career away.

May briefly considered taking a few years out or knocking it on the head and becoming a teacher, but reality intervened in the form of a global bidding war for the services of the three presenters who turned Top Gear into a 50m BBC brand.

People still wanted us to keep doing it so we had a duty to, he tells. And you didnt want to be the one who didnt keep doing it, it would have looked churlish and mean spirited.

Theres a lot of politics in television and a lot of in-fighting and all that sort of stuff but in the end we are purveyors of entertainment, he adds. Spectators are not really bogged down in whos doing what and who detests who and whos doing best in the ratings. They watch television to be entertained.

The rebooted Top Gear returns to BBC2 in May, with Chris Evans presenting it with Matt LeBlanc. It has already demonstrated controversial, culminating in the doughnut episode near the Cenotaph which had Evans apologising unreservedly.

That was probably a little bit ill-judged, tells May. Has he ever doughnuted around the Cenotaph? I have driven up and down that road yes but no, I dont do doughnuts. Its inappropriate where you are do it in my view.

It was maybe a little unwise, ill-advised, he adds. Once they got to the point where they had to reinvent it, they had to have the balls to reinvent it altogether, which is what they have done.

He missed Evans comparing the former Top Gear trio to Zippy, George and Bungle from the childrens prove Rainbow. Thats quite good actually. Zippy? Thats Hammond. Is Bungle nice? Ill be Bungle. Jeremy is George. A bit of good-natured sparring is great for everybody. But he plays down the fact that Evans will be on air before them. We are doing it carefully, it will be ready when its ready. For once, we are not in a race.

May is a firm advocate of the BBC. It would be a shame if the BBC didnt exist, once it disappears you are able to never have it back, he tells. Some people have got it in for the BBC for no apparently good reason. The Amazon lot are perfectly reasonable, level-headed people who simply want to attain TV programs, I dont think they are the enemy of the BBC or the other way round.

Its not a war, these things can coexist. We can have Amazon and Netflix and the BBC and BT Sport and people can make choices, thats what modern life is all about, he adds. We are in the middle of a massive experiment, there will be a shakedown and we will see what comes out. I wouldnt be surprised if the BBC was still in it, but they wont be alone.

Just before Christmas May violated his arm where reference is slipped leaving a eatery and, unable to do much with it in a sling, spent six weeks making an Airfix model, a 1/48 th scale Grumman F4F Wildcat. I wasnt genuinely significantly drunk, he remembers. I went down with a massive wham. People always say if youve been drinking you simply bouncing. Well I didnt, I went down with a loud cracking noise and that was that.

The Reassembler will air on BBC4 at 9pm on 4, 5 and 6 April

Curriculum vitae

Age 53

Education Oakwood comprehensive school, Rotherham, Lancaster University( music)

Career 1999 presenter on early incarnation of Top Gear 2003 rejoins for second series of Jeremy Clarkson reboot 2006 Oz& Jamess Big Wine Adventure 2007 James Mays 20 th Century 2009 Toy Stories 2010 Man Lab 2014 Cars of the People 2015 signs Amazon Prime deal

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