Review: James May’s 20th Century

James May's 20th Century

In the UK: Tuesdays, 8pm, BBC2

Funny, isn’t it? It used to be that BBC2 was chock full of educational programmes. Well, that and Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes films, re-runs of The Invaders and the only halfway decent sitcoms on tele.

Now, if you do find anything educational on – and unless you’re a night owl, it’ll be pretty tricky – you can usually guarantee two things about it

  1. It’s produced in association with the Open University
  2. It’s hosted by Adam Hart-Davis

Times have changed again though. Hart-Davis has defected to the History Channel, which means a brave new host is needed. That host is Top Gear‘s James May. You know, the least interesting one.

To be fair to May, he’s not uninteresting – he’s just less interesting than Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond. Not always though: it’s much more fun watching him talking about the requirements of a light aircraft in flight than hearing Richard Hammond whine about it not going fast enough. And he did well with Oz Clarke on that wine tour of France, which is being repeated from Wednesday this week.

It’s just that left to his own devices, he’s rather like that guy you meet at parties who’d really like to explain the bore-radius of the fuel injection system of a Mini Metro* for the whole of the evening.

James May’s 20th Century is much like that. Large chunks of it are May going on at length about cars. Ostensibly about the engineering and technology revolutions that occurred in the 20th century, it’s mostly just a chance to play around with bits of machinery. You might learn a bit of engineering history, although not much, but it’s really just an excuse for May to play with some toys and prattle on about double-declutching, et al.

All the same, he’s simply not enthusiastic enough about what he’s seeing. Close your eyes and you can imagine Hart-Davis saying most of the same lines. But he has passion for subjects, whereas May has a quiet, stuck in a back bedroom perusing blueprints while frightening the neighbours kind of adoration for these things.

At two episodes per evening, the show is going to cover the 20th century relatively quickly. Lots of toys, not much education. Not worth your time, I suspect.

Next time, hire Clarkson.

Here’s a YouTube clip

* Car enthusiasts can deduce from this statement that I know nothing about cars. They’d be right.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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