Richard Hammond is swinging for the fences with Richard Hammond’s Big. The Science Channel series takes viewers within the most massive projects on Earth, with engaging insight that only the Top Gear and Grand Tour alum could give. This is adventure on a massive scale, and engineering like most TV viewers have never seen it before.
We spoke with Richard Hammond to discuss the excitement – and the challenges – that come with making a TV series on the biggest possible scale. Plus, why is Richard so passionate about engineering and science? And how does he make his series so easily accessible to audiences who may know nothing about either one?
Check out our interview with Richard Hammond below, then catch an all-new episode of Richard Hammond’s Big tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Science Channel. And if you missed last week’s series premiere, where viewers got to go inside the Volkswagen Mega Factory, you can stream it online here!
Nerdophiles: Richard Hammond’s Big is the latest of several science and engineering shows you’ve hosted over your career. So where does your interest in the field come from? What makes it fascinating to you?
Richard Hammond: I don’t know directly. Probably it was sparked by my grandfather on my mother’s side. He was a coachbuilder, so he built cars the old-fashioned way, at a place called Melanin in Birmingham. They built beautiful old cars. So he could work metal, wood, anything. [My] fascination for how things are made was probably born there. And I think it’s just natural human inquisitiveness to see how things work and why they do what they do.
The joy is, because I’m not a qualified engineer, I’m not really useful in any way. But as a commentator and an observer, I’m not burdened with dignity and reputation to uphold. So I can ask stupid, dumb questions quite happily, which means I can drill down into subjects so that I understand it. And if I understand it, anybody can, because my aim is always to take an audience with me so they understand things a little better. On a human level, that’s deeply satisfying.
NP: Where did the specific idea for Richard Hammond’s Big come from? Was it simply wanting to do something on this grand of a scale?
RH: Partially that, but I was also in conversations with Discovery as well. They love engineering and factually-driven programs, where the stuff you’re talking about is really interesting. We’re always looking for ways to get into that; new doors to access that material.
For this, [the idea] was to look at engineering from the big perspective. What happens when things are super-sized and scaled up? How does that change not just the engineering, but the human experience of it – whether that’s at the design and building stage, or the working with it stage, or living near it. This was a new way into it.
I think, as a result, we’ve made a new kind of engineering show. It’s about the hardware, yes, but it’s predicated on the people that work with it. The organic part of it. So it’s about people.
I should also say that it’s a great time to be talking engineering and celebrating engineering and engineers. Whatever pickle we are in right now, climate-wise, it will be the engineers that solve it for us.
NP: What kinds of production challenges come along with a show on this level? Were the health and safety meetings especially interesting?
RH: The health and safety is based on my own reputation (laughs), but also, it’s access-based. [Richard Hammond’s Big] is only as good as the people we get to talk to and the things they’re prepared to show us and places they’re prepared to take us. That was where a huge amount of effort went in: identifying the subjects that had within them sufficient story to drive a long program, but also access to it, where, by the end of the show, you’ve had an all-access ticket to places you would never normally get to go and see things you would never normally get to go and see.
We often find that we get a certain amount of access, where they’re generous with the cool structures and machinery and introduce us to fabulous collaborators and engineers. On the day, when you’re talking to the man or woman in charge [of] whatever it is we’re looking at, they get so into it – their work and their job – that they give us far more than we ever anticipated. That’s happened on every show. We gained access to the very top of the very tallest building in the world in Dubai. When we went to see the C-5 Super Galaxy in Delaware, they let me crawl up areas that you wouldn’t normally get to do. So by the end of the show, you should feel like you have a special access to this thing.
We weren’t just given a chance to see the machine or the place. We got to do stuff. We filmed on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and they let me right down to the base of the deck of one of the underground submarines there. I could have done billions of dollars of damage if I got it wrong, but they let me operate the submarine, which was incredible. They trusted us.
NP: Even though you’re not an expert on these particular topics, has your past experience presenting shows like Engineering Connections and Brainiac helped you to prepare for Richard Hammond’s Big?
RH: Yes. But I also think just in terms of the work, in terms of televisually bringing these things to light, that experience does help. The team has all worked on programs like this. This is a new type of program, a new approach to engineering-focused programming, but they’ve worked with me on similar projects, and therefore, we know how we can show scale, how you can show depth, show the story behind whatever it is that we’re examining. So we’re primed to make this. We’ve pulled together a fabulous team of engineers and I think that shows an edge.
NP: Anything that you want Science Channel viewers to know as we head into the rest of the season?
RH: Every episode has its own flavor, because every episode is based around a different thing, and with it comes a whole world. In the case of the Brenner Tunnel – which is underground between Italy and Austria and is the longest in the world – we met the tunnellers, and that’s a whole breed of people that works globally. They all know each other; it’s a small world. They’ll work on different projects all over the globe, but quite often under your feet, sometimes thousands of feet or kilometers or miles. The insight into that world was tremendous.
When we were working on the Kölnbrein Dam in the Austrian Alps, [it] is basically a huge wall, but it moves, it rolls, it shifts. And there’s a team dedicated every single day to monitoring it to make sure it’s behaving as it should. Every episode has its own key moments as defined by what we’re making the show about.
NP: Did all that worldwide travel make shooting more complicated, especially since you usually have a busy schedule with your other TV projects?
RH: It was a complicated show to make, which is why I’m particularly proud of the boys and girls that made it. It was ambitious. We’re trying to take on the challenge of filming and working in sometimes hostile and difficult environments, making it about people who are very focused on their job, but don’t necessarily want a TV crew hanging around them. It’s a lot of charm on their part to get us access.
NP: The people watching Richard Hammond’s Big won’t have that first-hand experience; their access comes through you. So is there anything you want TV viewers to come away with?
RH: The sense that it’s our right to be interested in these things. Again, that partly stems from me not being an engineer, so the program isn’t about how much I know about these things. It’s about taking you on a journey to uncover what they are and how they work and how exciting they are. And to that end, total success for me would be people taking anything and talking about it to their mates. Every episode has those moments; just interesting nuggets of information and insight.
Equally, on a slightly deeper level, if anybody watching thinks “wow, engineering! I want to go that way,” then that’s amazing. I think engineers will be our future. A new breed of engineers are going to be needed as we face challenges going forward. And if anybody watching this thinks “I could find a role for myself in there,” then that’s brilliant.
NP: That’s something that’s been overlooked about your career, too. You’ve helped further science education for a lot of people, whether it’s teaching us not to put Christmas lights in the microwave on Brainiac or explaining some of the world’s engineering challenges. What’s one piece of advice that Richard Hammond would pass on to his fans?
RH: Above all else, it’s the importance of engineers and engineering. I think that’s what [Richard Hammond’s Big] is about: celebrating the work that the men and women we meet in the show do. I think they’re a really important breed of people.
New episodes of Richard Hammond’s Big air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Science Channel.