The Hamster Who Ruled The World: A Conversation With 'Top Gear's' Richard Hammond
April 16th, 2012 2:00pm EDT
When I get word that Richard Hammond wants to speak with me, I'm stunned. I'm to be on the phone with one of Britain's most loved TV personalities, who also happens to be one of my idols, a man I thought I'd never meet.
Calling Hammond just a TV presenter would be like calling Cal Ripken Jr. just a ballplayer. He has hosted enough television programs that he should probably have his own channel. He's best known for a decade of co-hosting Top Gear, but has also been seen on shows like Brainiac, Total Wipeout, and multiple series that bear his name, including Richard Hammond's Five O'Clock Show, Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections, and Richard Hammond's Blast Lab.
His latest brings him to America: it's Richard Hammond's Crash Course, a BBC America original that sees Richard given only three days to master the country's toughest vehicles, including an Abrams tank and logging equipment.
What makes Richard (affectionately known by fans as "Hamster") so remarkable, however, isn't just the fact that he's been on camera more than any of us could ever hope to be while talking about more subjects than any of us care to grasp. It's that he's truly an inspiring person. As I wrote in a column last year, he's done so many amazing things over the course of his career - but perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the human being that he is.
He's a devoted husband and father, well regarded by colleagues and fans, involved in charitable causes. He survived a horrific dragster crash that put him in a coma - and out of that, wrote a book that helped me through my near-death experience. With all that he's done, and how well he has done it, it's easy to see why he's so beloved.
For me, anyway. When we connect, Richard brushes the idea of his celebrity aside with endearing humility. "I try not to think about it too much," he tells me. "I must be very, very lucky, clearly. I get to do amazing stuff. I have a lovely life here in my little house, but I also get to drive all around the world. I'd like to say it's difficult and unpleasant, but it's not. It's amazing. Being famous is a byproduct of an amazing job. [What] people sometimes don't realize is you're not in it for that."
What he's in it for are the opportunities, the most recent being Crash Course, which premieres tonight on BBC America following the season premiere of Top Gear. It's a new venture for Richard in that it's an original for the stateside network, as opposed to Top Gear which is merely rebroadcast on the channel after its initial overseas airing.
"One of the reasons why I was so happy to do [the show] was I've done this job for twenty-four years, but I've never worked amongst an American crew," he says. "It's a really close working relationship; it has to be. They're so professional. They genuinely were. We would leave at seven every morning, work at a sensible pace all day, and then finish at six. I'd be in bed by nine."
He soon found that warm relationship extended to the people he interacted with on-camera as well. "People were so accommodating. Everybody's happy to tell you about their job. They'd love to talk you through it," he explains. "I'm guessing [the audience] will take away the same things that I did: the pride in which they show off the jobs they do day in and day out. The welcoming I got from people. It's a really interesting look on what goes on around you all day, every day in the US. It's an insight into American working people."
In the show's first episode, Richard journeys to Fort Bliss, where he is taught not only how to drive an Abrams tank, but work at all three positions on the tank crew. We see him in a simulator, on a practice range and finally taking a qualifying exam where he is allowed to make only one mistake.
What separates the series from others of its kind is the host. Richard brings his natural charisma to the job, but more importantly, he has an honest enthusiasm for not just the technical specifics of how to run the machines, but also what it's like for the people who operate them.
"It's based on surprise," he says when I ask him if anything was unexpected. "One of the things I had to do was sort of throw myself into the deep end in the American workplace. How difficult some of it was, how welcoming people were...there were a lot of surprises."
One big surprise takes place in episode two, where Richard finds himself climbing a tree to familiarize himself with basic logging equipment - never mind that he happens to be afraid of heights. I wonder then if having survived that horrible dragster crash has changed his perspective when it comes to fears and challenges. As it turns out, not really.
"It's told me things can go wrong," he explains. "Working on TV, you tend to think you're invincible. [The crash] would have made me more cautious except that I'm pretty confident. It takes [its] place as one of the big things in your life, and we all have them."
That sentence sticks in my mind. And here, when he certainly didn't have to, Richard takes a moment to talk with me as one trauma survivor to another, sharing that perspective of knowing you've gotten through something that you'll never be able to fully forget. That moment of empathy means more than I can articulate. It's just one more reason I have to admire him.
Of course, any conversation with Richard would be incomplete if we didn't also discuss Top Gear, which will begin airing its eighteenth series before Crash Course tonight. Fans of Richard, James May and Jeremy Clarkson will get to see them tackle NASCAR and a race involving a mobility scooter, among other things this time around. (The show has previously brought us airport vehicle racing, amphibious vehicles that weren't exactly and disastrous drivetime radio, just to name a few highlights.)
This season also boasts appearances by the likes of Ryan Reynolds, Michael Fassbender and the reigning Doctor Who, Matt Smith.
In British television, where most shows get through maybe three series at best, eighteen is practically unheard of. The series shows no signs of slowing down. I ask Richard if he can even fathom how much life Top Gear has left in it.
"I really don't know. Nobody does know," he says, telling me that everyone would be involved in deciding when it's time to call things quits. "We didn't set out thinking, 'Let's do this show, it'll be huge.' We just set out to make the best car show we could and that's how we still operate.
"I'm proud of working on anything with a good team. The proudest moments always come when you're on a team and everyone is good, whether it's running the camera or the sound. It happened on Brainiac and it happens on Top Gear."
One of the hallmarks of the series has become the presenters' dislike of caravans. It's Hammond who has the biggest loathing of them; entire segments of Brainiac were devoted to their utter destruction. Between that and Top Gear, how many caravans does Richard think he's wiped off the face of the earth?
"It's just broached a hundred, I think," he guesses. "I worked on that awhile back and it was sort of ninety-eight and we've done a few since."
At the time we're talking, the American version of Top Gear is almost ready to wrap up its season. Given how maligned the stateside version is, and since I've had the opportunity to visit the set, I feel almost obligated to ask Richard for his thoughts on the spinoff series. Certainly his opinion matters to the die-hard fans of the original, who are some of the History show's loudest critics.
"I think it's great. They've got the right team there," he says, referring to hosts Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust and Rutledge Wood. "It's really difficult starting any show when there's already one working. To try and measure up to that, when we've had ten years at it, is impossible. You have to grow. When we first started Top Gear, nobody took any notice at all."
Now, of course, it's a completely different story. Top Gear is one of the most popular shows in the United Kingdom, if not across the world, and Richard has become a celebrity without a doubt. "It's a really weird thing," he admits of the show's massive popularity. "You do the shows you do, and go to work. It's a really strange feeling, but it's obviously tremendously gratifying."
With everything on his resume, from Top Gear to science and engineering shows and even Richard Hammond and the Holy Grail, is there a show Richard can't do? Surprisingly, yes. "Cooking," he says with a laugh when I ask him to name his weakness. "I won't be hosting a cookery show."
And despite that long list of accomplishments, he's still got plenty on his career wish list. "Of course there's more stuff to do. I love doing live TV; I really enjoy that. I want to act one day. That'll be clearly self-indulgent, actually. I can probably allow myself a vanity project. And then we'll see."
In the meanwhile, he'll continue to be one of the hardest-working people in British television. In addition to his presenting work, Hammond is active in many charitable efforts, having co-hosted Sport Relief in March, and as a supporter of The Children's Trust and efforts for the Leeds Air Ambulance, which helped to save his life after the Vampire crash. "It really can in the simplest way make the difference between making it or not," he says. He also works with charities associated with brain injury, having suffered one in the crash which led to that fateful coma.
That's why Richard Hammond is one of my idols. I envy him for having what must be the most fantastic job on the planet (and then a half-dozen more). I admire his courage and tenacity, that he's a true survivor. But not only did he survive, he then turned around and gave back to the people who helped him get there. He accepts his fame but his happiness is in his family and friends.
And he's calling from the other side of the Atlantic, taking time out of his busy schedule to not just talk to me, but truly converse with me, and put me at ease when I trip over my own tongue while trying to articulate how much I look up to him. He is honestly one of the sweetest, classiest people I have ever had the pleasure, and in this case I would certainly say the honor, of meeting.
Whatever Richard does next, there's no doubt that he'll continue to give us things to talk about for a long time, and deservedly so. If there's ever anyone who ought to be spoken about, it's Richard Hammond, who proves that good guys sometimes do finish first.
My thanks to Richard Hammond for this interview! Richard Hammond's Crash Course premieres tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on BBC America, following the season premiere of Top Gear. For more on Richard, you can visit his official website, Facebook and Twitter.
(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.
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Photo Credits: BBC America