The motoring TV presenter branches out to his first ever travel series.
James May has seen enough Japanese travelogues to know precisely what he didn’t want his own to be about. “My purpose in coming here isn’t to go to the tourist sites and go ooh, isn’t that lovely and ooh, isn’t that unusual?” he says, in the opening scenes of James May: Our Man In Japan.
“Which is why I decided not to start at the busy Shibuya junction, or cooing over Mount Fuji.” Instead, he begins his journey in the brutally sparse, snow-capped mountain vistas of the northern-most island, Hokkaido.
He’s got a point. In the past two months, there’s been a glut of Japan-based series on TV pumping out the tourist stereotypes of the country, from the cliche-ridden Japan With Sue Perkins to Guy Martin’s Our Guy in Japan, and Netflix’s Fab Five showing some cultural sensitivity with their inclusive mini makeover-series, Queer Eye: We’re in Japan, which aired in November.
May, 56, is most well-known for being one third of the Top Gear-turned-The Grand Tour hosts. Alongside Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, and despite being a presenter on motoring shows since 1999, this is the first time he’s ventured into the world of travel documentaries.
Not stereotypical travel show
“I was asked if I wanted to do a solo series of six parts,” he tells me, “And I really wanted to do travel because I’ve never done a travelogue before. Amazon [Prime Video] said yes, then I said I’d really like to do Japan. It’s a fascinating place and I wanted to know more about the country. We just knew we didn’t want to make it stereotypical.”
He decamped to Japan for a three-month stint earlier this year. The result is a surprisingly well-observed series that uncovers different and unreported sides to the country.
There’s a fascinating insight into the Japanese hobby of train spotting – each station in Tokyo has its own signature music jingle, and May meets the maestro who composes them – and May spends time in a workshop learning the ancient craft of making samurai swords. He also uncovers the competitive sport of snowball throwing and even has time to appear as a featured artist in an anime film, playing a barking dog.
‘We’re not trying to pass it off as serious socio-political investigation – it’s a bit of a lark’
The programme doesn’t completely avoid the more “zany” aspects of the country, however. There’s still the ubiquitous cat cafes, the obligatory mention of their high-tech toilets and coverage of a penis festival.
His presenting style is less abrasive than one of his outspoken long-standing co-hosts, as he goes for a Michael Palin-meets-Louis Theroux tact. He seems pleased by when I suggest this. “There are a few very subtle homages to Michael in there. I wore what we referred to as my Michael Palin jacket, so there’s a respectful nod to him and there’s an allusion to Joanna Lumley at one point too.”
“We approached it in a slightly jazz, freestyle way,” he says of his irreverent style. “It’s a piece of entertainment first and foremost. We’re not trying to pass it off as serious socio-political investigation – it’s a bit of a lark. It’s really difficult when you watch your own shows back as you just think ‘you’re an idiot’.”
About his collegues
After leaving Top Gear on the BBC for Amazon Prime, May and his co-presenters – Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson – were told by the tech giant that they could make a solo project each, alongside their motoring show The Grand Tour. Clarkson is working on a farm-based series, while Hammond is doing a popular science show. “Amazon have got loads of money,” confirms May.
“To be honest, Amazon are easy to deal with,” he says.”They don’t interfere, they’ve seen all the other stuff you’ve done and they’ve got the good sense to just leave us alone. And so far – unless they’re just being very polite – they seem to like what we’ve done. In reality, who the broadcaster is doesn’t make that much difference. When you’re making a show you’re making a piece of TV where it doesn’t matter whether you’re making it for your mates to watch one evening or for the whole world.”
Clarkson hasn’t yet watched May’s Japanese series, and May says he knows scant information about what his TV agricultural plan might be.
“Jeremy owns a farm, but he’s not a farmer,” he explains. “It’s something he’s been talking about doing for ages, tractoring and ploughing things – he’s just filming himself doing that. I don’t really know that much about Jeremy’s private life because I don’t want to.”
Clarkson recently surprised the public by recognising the climate crisis. After being stranded during a 500 mile boat race from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Vung Tau in Vietnam for the latest Grand Tour series. The three hosts ended up having to wade through the Mekong river system, which has suffered from droughts. He told the Sunday Times it was “a graphic demonstration” of global warming that he found “genuinely alarming”.
Seeing the climate change crisis firsthand
James May was there to witness it too. “Well I was never quite such as denier as Jeremy was. But it was quite shocking to see it close up. It was a little bit more complicated than just climate change, there were also issues of the rainy season hadn’t started yet, the locals were telling us this is really odd.”
Did they discuss the problem further between themselves? “We did talk about the issue, mainly about getting stuck. Because the big lake that we thought we would go charging across in our boats, we sort of limped across it constantly hitting the bottom. It should have been eight times the area it was.”
But Clarkson and co haven’t gone fully woke. Don’t expect an eco-vehicle episode of the gas-guzzling The Grand Tour anytime soon. May says, when I ask about producing a one-off green programme.
“Probably not. Jeremy’s very anti-electric cars. It’s something I’d quite like to do. And I’m quite interested in alternative energy. As I’ve got electric and hydrogen cars. I’m interested in it all from an eco point of view.”
He also tells me that he’s dabbled with vegetarianism a lot in the past. Something that he covers with his other new online project, The Food Tribe. So there’s the hope it might rub off on Clarkson eventually.
He adds, “I do wonder if in the future humans will have to start having a plant based diet. Just because we aren’t able to produce enough meat and we need to get more sensitive about how we treat cattle. But all these things could be wrong. It could be that we find a perfectly safe liquid fuel. That can run in internal combustion engines and we can artificially breed a type of cow. That wants to be eaten like in the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”. But you don’t know unless you try.
“I’m interested to see how it might all pan out in the future.”
James May: Our Man In Japan will be available on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 3 January
This article was firs published on INews.co.uk