James May has always seemed something like the odd man out on Top Gear. It's not that he doesn't belong on the series — in fact I think that the three men they have as hosts complement each other perfectly — but he comes at cars from a completely different direction from the other two. Whereas Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson will ogle an engine for how large it is and how much horsepower it can deliver, May is the guy entranced with exactly how it manages to deliver so much power. He doesn't love cars based on what they can do, how they look, and how exciting the finished project is, but rather how it was all achieved, the nuts and bolts as it were. He is a man entranced by the notion of the differential and how it makes a car corner more than the actual cornering.
It is for that reason that I was a little trepidatious sitting down to watch James May's Toy Stories last night on BBC America. The concept behind the series seems a simple one – May examines an old-school toy that he quite enjoys and then builds something of a monument to the toy. It all sounds well enough, but my question heading into the show was whether May's love for minutiae would draw in an audience or whether his tendency to delve a little too deeply would alienate all and end up making the show feel more like a lecture.
Last night he was playing with a one-time British but now French toy, Meccano. It's a construction toy, similar to an Erector Set (in fact, though this wasn't always the case, Meccano currently makes Erector products). And that, perhaps, is why I shouldn't have been worried at all.
Let me take a step back and explain. For several years my daughter was in a playgroup in which three fathers would get together with their children (one apiece). There were the usual sorts of kids' toys present, but on a semi-regular basis it would be the fathers who would sit there playing with the Legos or Mega Bloks or marble run sets, building various structures (it's not easy doing nicely curved structures with Mega Bloks). A great time was had by all (the kids had tons of other toys to play with even if the Legos were off limits one week).
What Toy Stories is, more or less, is that playgroup writ large. May and the producers behind the scenes – he made it clear in the case of last night's episode that it was the producers behind the scenes – come up with an idea for what to do with the toy. For Meccano, they built a bridge in Liverpool, which was the original home of the company. No, they didn't build a toy bridge, they built a real bridge out of a toy. At the end of the episode, May had to actually traverse the bridge; it's a feat that would have been far more impressive had he not had a harness attached to him to prevent him from falling should the bridge have failed to support his weight.
Having recently moved, my daughter and I no longer attend her old playgroup, but watching James May's Toy Stories I couldn't help but think about what a great time that group could have had trying to build a structure that could actually support one's weight out of Mega Bloks. The series is really intended for the kid in all adults, and as such works quite well. I have to say that I would have appreciated it more had it been an hour longer. My initial fear of it being too dry turned into slight disappointment that it simply didn't focus enough on the nuts and bolts; I don't feel as though they went into quite enough depth with the construction and an accident that took place which almost derailed the endeavor. However, May and company have put together a show which certainly made this reviewer want to go out and buy a million Lego blocks to build something truly incredible.
Article first published as James May's Toy Stories: Playgroup for Big Kids on Blogcritics.