Go BIG or go home, Richard Hammond

Published: 3 February 2020 - 5 a.m.
By: Nikhil Pereira

Richard Hammond is amongst the most popular television presenters of this generation. Hammond worked his way to Top Gear fame having started out his career in journalism and radio.

“I never thought that I would end up on Top Gear when I drove out of the audition, which was a piece that I had do with Jeremy. When I did get it [presenting on Top Gear] little did I know it would be more than 20 years of my life and grow to be the biggest factual entertainment show the world has ever seen,” Hammond tells Digital Studio ME exclusively.

Hammond isn’t synonymous with only Top Gear and branched out into presenting several science and entertainment series over his three decade career. He’s currently producing BIG — a new engineering series that explores the world’s biggest structures and machines — for the Discovery Channel.

Hammond was in Dubai to film one of the episodes that would cover various engineering and architectural aspects of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — from its construction to its maintenance. “I’ve visited Dubai in the past for car-related shoots but this is a completely different way to see the place,” says Hammond upon visiting Dubai for the first time in three years.

“The fact that the Burj Khalifa is built on sand and not clinging on to a lump of granite is making me look at Dubai in a way that I have never seen it before. As a visitor it’s easy to forget that all of what’s built in Dubai has been done so on sand,” he adds.

“I love making engineering shows because I’m fascinated by the science and people behind some truly amazing feats. I’m not an engineer or a scientist, so I don’t mind asking the obvious questions — until we get it to the point where if I can understand it, anybody can. We used ‘Big’ as the theme, because it’s a different way of looking at engineering, and you can then ask how do things change when you supersize stuff? Whether it’s a container ship a quarter of a mile long or the longest rail tunnel in the world 2km under the Alps, or a massive hydroelectric dam, or an oil platform — once you get to a giant scale,” Hammond notes.

Chimp

BIG is being produced by Discovery in association with Chimp — a production company set up by Hammond himself. The formation of Chimp drew inspiration from one of his passions in life – automobiles – combined with the sea-change in the world of content creation.

“I find the correlation between cars and programming fascinating. Just like the car, the television is undergoing a fundamental change,” says Hammond. “The internal combustion engine is rapidly changing — not being phased out just yet — but other forms of propulsion are joining it. The entire concept of the automobile as a mode of transport is evolving rapidly — it has gone from being a novelty to become culturally defining. Similarly the TV has gone from being a novelty that we were able to view grainy images on, to a culturally defining piece of kit in our homes. It too is undergoing a sea-change as the car both in terms of production, distribution and consumption.

“For me now to have founded Chimp on 30 years of my own experience and to pull in people to a point we have got a healthy mix of experienced professionals and incomers into the field. The excitement, sometimes naivety, is beneficial because it challenges the manner in which experienced people like myself do things.”

Hammond is buoyed with the impact he is having on newcomers and recalls his early days and the impact people had on his life in the 1980s, when he first started his career.

Hammond reveals more information about his team. He says: “The production crew that worked on BBC’s Top Gear, we employ at Chimp. They are also the same crew that worked on The Grand Tour, they are phenomenal story tellers and passionate about what they do,” he says.

On the impact social media platforms such as YouTube have on traditional forms of content production and transmission, Hammond says the emphasis on quality has increased over the years.

In the past, tt might have been “okay” to put out sub-standard quality content so long as it was being done.

Today several independent content creators have made their voice heard on various platforms, but more importantly the ones that have been successful have championed a cause in a niche.

“A lot of it has been up for grabs and a lot of it has been grabbed by some brilliant content creators considered thoughtful and creative. Sometimes that space has been captured by more opportunistic land grabbers. It will sort itself out over time,” Hammond says in response to the level and quality of content creators on YouTube.

He adds: “The phrase ‘Content is King’ has come back in a big way. This was happening in the TV industry 15 years ago before content generation and distribution veered into it. There was a technology revolution with the kit we used to make TV shows. It’s no longer enough just to say ‘we have the ability to film high quality content that’s suitable for editing and broadcast’, because kids could do it on tiny cameras and edit it on home PCs. Today you can film on your phone in 4K, edit on your tablet and distribute it quickly.

“That means the value lies in the idea, the creative. I wouldn’t want to be a big facilities house right now — running a business founded on kit that’s worth $10m because that would be outdated in a week. Craft is still very relevant and this day and age, it’s not only about the level of kit and equipment. For a while shabbier video was acceptable but it has evolved more to a point that the pictures and sound needs to be good. And our attention spans are not diminishing to 30 seconds — I don’t believe that. There is still room for short and long form video.

After Jeremey Clarkson, James May and Hammond ended their 20-plus year run as presenters of BBC’s Top Gear, the trio signed up with Amazon to produce The Grand Tour.

They also have a separate venture called Drivetribe — a digital media platform that includes a website and widely popular YouTube channel. The latter has over a million subscribers and a total of 121,207,722 views since its inception in 2016. It’s most popular upload has over 10 million views.

The fourth season of The Grand Tour was released on December 13, 2019 — and it’s unsure whether a fifth is on the horizon. As for the future of Hammond’s production company Chimp, “I’d love to stay with factual entertainment — when it comes to the sort of shows that I envisage Chimp to work on. I’m not there to present my take on stuff but to tell facts behind the marvellous professionals who make it possible,” Hammond concludes.

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