TV Review: Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel, BBC Two, Sunday 23 December, 9pm


I’d watched James May’s programme about girls’ toys from yesteryear (or at least a bit of it) earlier in the evening, which was mildly diverting, and in a bid to stave off present wrapping and cleaning up my flat, I decided to watch Richard Hammond’s programme about Evel Knievel to keep the Top Gear theme going (I hadn’t actually watched Top Gear, but there was a sort-of logic to my TV watching last night).

While we’re still talking about toys, I did have one of those wind-up Evel Knievel toys as a kid. Not necessarily because I though daredeviling was particularly cool, but because everyone else seemed to have one. So I’d never been impressed that much by people who jump over buses on motorbikes, and I’d always thought there was something slightly odd about people who did. Half way through this entertaining and poignant documentary, Richard Hammond said something rather prophetic just before one of Evel’s young protégés was about to risk life and limb on his latest jump: “It doesn’t necessarily make you wonder about the people who do the stunts, but about the people who watch them.” Couldn’t agree more old son.

Hammond travelled to Butte, Montana – a faded, slightly knackered old mining town at the heart of the American Midwest. Evel Knievel was Hammond’s childhood hero, and his excitement at meeting him was quite touching. He was his normal, bouncy hamster self as he bounded over to meet him, but he was met by a shell of a man – a man who was seriously ill and struggling for breath. But Evel was determined to show Hammond around his home town, and it was clear that he was still a proud man.

Of course, the documentary was given extra poignancy because, as we now know, that Evel had died a month or so after filming. During the film it was clear that he was not a well man, and the realisation that his invincible childhood hero was just as mortal as the rest of us hit Hammond hard. Helping him from the car and rushing the man to hospital took its toll on Hammond, and it’s no wonder.

When Evel felt strong enough to meet him, Hammond wanted to discuss some of his most famous moments – the first big jump that put him on the map at Caesar’s Palace (he broke a hip or something), his Snake River Canyon jump (failed) and his visit to London and a blockbusting show at Wembley (where he smashed his pelvis). It was clear that Evel didn’t like much looking back at these near-death moments, and didn’t like Hammond’s questioning about the effect his career had on his family.

It was clear that Evel had not warmed to Hammond, which was a shame. You also sensed that Hammond asking questions about family and career was something he felt he could bond with Evel over. A scene where Hammond read aloud an interview from an issue of Penthouse with Evel revealed a lot. The interview quoted Evel’s wife, who said that she tries to be strong for her husband but is a nervous wreck every time her husband goes to work. Seeing that Hammond almost lost his life a while back, reading out the interview clearly affected him.

With Evel becoming more and more elusive, and cutting interviews off more and more frequently, it was left to archive footage to show us what kind of man he was. And, not to speak ill of the dead, he seemed to me not that nice a person. We saw how he started riots, spouted off about communism and education, found God and how his career was finished after he beat someone up with a baseball bat. By all accounts he was a volatile chap.

In among the footage of Hammond getting to grips with his cockroach-infested hotel room and the daredevil-turned-preacher who now jumps for Jesus, the thing I really liked about this show was that Hammond took a refreshingly non-arse-kissy approach to interviewing his hero. No doubt that Evel was an extraordinary but flawed man, and Hammond, as the film wore on, became more and more aware of this. Good broadcaster is Richard Hammond.

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