The Top Gear trio of Clarkson, Hammond and May have been said to be cartoon versions of their real selves, performing in front of the cameras. But if James May seems perplexed by life, know that it is not an act; I once saw him staring in utter astonishment at a bus timetable in Hammersmith, as if it were written in hieroglyphics.
It is a very pleasant traveling companion in James May: Our Man in Italy (Amazon Prime Video), following his tour in Japan. The series is enjoyable, even if it meanders. At one point he sat down to lunch and found himself bombarded with classes, and watching this show is kind of like that: it goes on for quite a while, and just when you think they can’t fit in anymore, May is doing something else, like making a full English breakfast pizza or playing the Italian bagpipes. And it doesn’t really matter if you take a break and wander around and miss a bit, because May will still be there graciously doing her thing when you return.
Its avowed objective is to find out if la dolce vita really exists (secondary objective: “not to get fat”). May provides a certain level of wry detachment, regularly pointing out when the producer and director forced him into activity that makes him look like a yuck, the kind of thing Michael Portillo valiantly submits to once per episode of his story. travel on the railways. “Now viewers, we’re 20 minutes into this episode and I haven’t embarrassed myself yet,” he says, before obligingly doing that.
May also plays well with the “slightly tense English” vibe, like in the first episode when he has a crush on his very charming Sicilian guide, Claudia. Later, he is joined by an impeccably dressed young man named Paolo, calling him “that fashionable, gleaming-toothed clothes horse”. A running joke is that May just isn’t suave enough for Italy.
The series takes him from Sicily to the Dolomites. He drives cars, drinks a lot of wine, and generally gives the impression of a very pleasant man on vacation. When he describes Palermo as “modern and multicultural”, he takes it as a compliment. May said the show won’t do the same old travel show cliches about Italy. In truth, this is often the case. But it’s graciously presented, and the cinematography – courtesy of a generous budget from Amazon – makes it look fabulous.