7 Questions with… Richard Hammond: 'Big is astonishing… It just makes your jaw drop'

Richard Hammond is taking in his most mammoth TV show ever – Discovery Channel engineering series BIG.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 6 February 2020 - 3.47pm

At the hands of Jeremy Clarkson and James May, Richard Hammond has probably suffered more jibes about his height that any man alive.

However, that hasn’t put the Brummie TV presenter off hosting Discovery’s brand new engineering series – a show about all things big.

Hammond can expect a few jibes about size when he goes back to The Grand Tour as this project is all about celebrating the joys of the supersized and engineering giants.

With exclusive access to some of the biggest machines, constructions, stadiums and feats of engineering on the planet, the show is a celebration of architects, explorers and inventors who have pushed the frontiers of scale to new limits.

Watch Richard Hammond’s BIG from Wednesday, January 15th on Discovery – BT TV channel 322.

Richard Hammond reveals his inspiration for the series, the most jaw-dropping moments and some hefty challenges involved in shooting on a whopping big scale.

1.      How did the series come about? 

Richard Hammond's BIG Discovery

I love making engineering shows because I'm fascinated by the science and people behind some truly amazing feats. I’m not an engineer or a scientist, so I don’t mind asking the obvious questions - until we get it to the point where if I can understand it, anybody can! We used 'Big' as the theme, because it’s a different way of looking at engineering, and you can then ask how do things change when you supersize stuff?

Whether it's a container ship a quarter of a mile long or the longest rail tunnel in the world 2km under the Alps, or a massive hydroelectric dam, or an oil platform – once you get to a giant scale, how does that change how it works? And what is it like to live and work with?

 2. How did you decide what to include in the show?

Richard Hammond's BIG Discovey

We wanted to find cases that are interesting and that we could get the access to really explore. So riding an electric motorcycle 2km under the Alps to explore the Brenner Base Tunnel, which is the longest rail tunnel ever built - the access they gave us was amazing.

They let us detonate blasting to go through more rock and ride a tunnel boring machine to burrow its way through the earth, and stand where nobody has ever stood before.

Likewise with the C-5M Super Galaxy, the biggest military freight plane currently in service in the world. They let us be on board during air-to-air refuelling which when you’re flying a 400 tonne aircraft about 25 feet from another one at 500mph and 6,000 metres in the air, is kind of exciting! So it's all about taking us to different worlds that other people inhabit and work in.

3. What is it about huge structures and machines that captures our imagination so much?

Richard Hammond's BIG Discovery

It's a very good question. It does clearly since people stood and looked in awe at the Pyramids or a cathedral, generations after people finished building it. We are awestruck by scale because I think our brains tell us it's incredibly difficult for something to exist at that scale. You're asking more of the materials, how it interacts with the world, with gravity, with physics, and it just makes your jaw drop. 'Big' is astonishing, whether it's a building tall enough to be tall in terms of altitude, or a tunnel built under the ground.

4. What surprised you while making the series? 

Richard Hammond's BIG Discovery

Refuelling the aircraft was incredible as an experience. The pilot had just moved up to be an aircraft commander but she hadn’t done that particular type of fuel docking for about six months. It was manually flown, not on auto pilot and I watched her hands making these microscopic adjustments and thought the skill being deployed at that moment was just breathtaking.

Equally when clever solutions are found for problems – we filmed at the biggest car factory in the world in Wolfsburg and it’s just an amazing place. We met an engineer who was looking at the vast presses to find a solution if there is a problem with one. This has to be done without stopping and reassembling them because that would stop the production of the whole factory.

They'd seen this acoustic camera used for something else entirely and realised they could use it as a stethoscope to diagnose faults. That was just a really clever leap of imagination that all of us can follow, it's not that complicated. But I bet you if you left most of us in a room for a hundred years, we wouldn't come up with that solution to the problem.

5.  What was your favourite location?

Richard Hammond's BIG Discovery

I very much enjoyed filming the Kölnbrein Dam in Austria just because dams tend to be built somewhere wild by definition, and I’m always happier in the wilderness more than I am in the city. It was an amazing place to visit and it’s also beautiful. The dam is double curved because it’s incredibly thin and light for the volume and weight of water that it’s holding back, and it achieves that by effectively bracing itself against the rocks.

6. What were the main challenges you faced ?

Well quite often they’re not built to accommodate film crews. They are working environments, so getting from the top of the Maersk Container Ship down to the bottom of the hold because we wanted to film right at the bottom, was not an easy task! We had to lower cameras on ropes and tripods and climb down ladders. It took about two hours just to get there to do a piece to camera that took about five minutes. We filmed on an oil platform and that is not a place designed for a bunch of men and women to wander around carrying heavy filming equipment and talking. So it's a challenge definitely. 

7.  What was the most hair-raising activity you did? 

Richard Hammond's BIG Discovery

I do say to camera early on in one of the films one thing I forgot to take into account when making this show is that big quite often also means high, and I'm not very good with heights these days.

I'll fly helicopters quite happily but put me on a great big docking crane overlooking one of the biggest container ships in the world and my knees do buckle. But I didn't hide that; I quite enjoyed it! The directors loved seeing me walk out onto a glass platform 180 metres in the air at the side of a dam. In most cases as soon as I get there and look at whatever it is I've gone to look at, that takes over and I'm thinking about that rather than 'I'm too high up'.

Watch Richard Hammond’s BIG from Wednesday, January 15th on Discovery – BT TV channel 322.