James May, one of the Top
Gear hosts who has been given the nickname Captain Slow by his two
in crime on the popular BBC car show, brought his unique style to
in 2007, James May's 20th
Century. In this six episode program
he looked at the inventions, innovations, and ideas that made the last
so unique. From long distance air travel
to replacement body parts to the invention of the teenager, James May
amusing and rather distinctive trip through the 1900's.
The 20th Century was a time of unprecedented advancement
and innovation. When it began man wasn't
capable of powered flight, but by the end we'd not only sent probes to
reaches of the solar system but even put a man on the moon. Tracing just how, and why, mankind has
changed over the last 100 years can be a somewhat daunting task but TV
personality James May is up to the task.
The thing that's so appealing about this show is that James takes
a different approach to the subject, that has been done many times
before. He takes what could be a dry and
dull overview of the 20th Century and makes it entertaining
amusing by tracing how certain inventions changed the way we live. For example, he looks at how the world has
become 'smaller' because of the airplane and car, but could television
advancement that's had the most impact on bringing the world closer
together? In one episode he makes the
argument that necessity isn't the mother of invention, instead it's war. He also looks at the phenomena of the
teenager, a creature that really didn't exist before the end of WWII.
James May's presentation style is what makes the show so
enjoyable. He still has the wide-eyed
of a kid as he looks at fighter planes and satellites that are about to
into space, but he also has the same refined air about him that works
on Top Gear. Most of all, he just has
fun. When discussing a popular
motorcycle that teens could drive in England without a license do to
size (a vehicle that his mother wouldn't let him have because they were
dangerous'), he recalls a high school buddy who claimed that you could
do 60 on
one of them. James was never sure
that claim, so he gets a cycle and a radar gun and sees just how fast
travel (and confirms that his friend, whom he names on air, was a liar). It's stunts like that which make the show so
The show is very British-centric, mainly focusing on how
inventions and idea affected the UK.
When he discusses how important transatlantic air travel was, he
talk about Lindberg, rather a pair of UK aviators who took off from
crashed in Ireland a short while later.
Since they'd traveled over water however, they technically were
first to fly over the Atlantic. (I wasn't
too convinced by the claim.)
The show is also aimed at more general viewers and isn't too
rigorous in its approach. While there
were a few new facts that I hadn't heard, in general I knew everything
covered in the show. Even so, the
program was interesting because of some of the stunts and gags that the
pulls. For example, I knew it was hard
for WWI pilots to bomb the enemy and that they weren't very accurate,
seeing James trying to drop bags of flour on a target from only a few
feet, and missing horribly, was eye opening.
Overall it's more entertaining than educational, but there's
wrong with that.
This series arrives on three DVDs, each in its own slimline
case. The three cases are housed in a
The stereo soundtrack
is fine for a documentary. It's not
incredibly dynamic but it doesn't need to be.
Solid and serviceable.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks very good. The
lines are tight and there's a good amount
of detail. I didn't notice any
compression artifacts or other major flaws.
The third disc is devoted to extras and the good folks at
Athena have included all three episodes of James May's Big Ideas, a
series May created in 2008. In this show
James strives to see if any of the science fiction concepts from his
have become a reality. He looks at real
prototypes of jet packs, flying cars, examines how far the field of
has developed, and finally looks at new sources of energy.
It's a fun show that's an excellent
There's also a biography of May as well as a small viewers
guide included with the discs.
It's hard not to like James May. He's my
favorite Top Gear host, and his mix of enthusiasm,
refinement, and knowledge
fits in well with this show. Though it's
not terribly educational, especially for someone who lived through a
of the 20th Century as this reviewer did, it's still a lot
fun. It gets a strong recommendation.