Ex-Top Gear man Richard Hammond: 'You never know what to expect'
Ex-Top Gear host Richard Hammond is back with Jungle Quest. But which was wilder - the Amazon or working with Jeremy Clarkson? Jeananne Craig finds out.
As an eight-year-old boy, former Top Gear host Richard Hammond received a book which was to spark a "lifetime obsession" - but not with cars, with nature.
The West Midlands-born petrolhead was gifted a children's Encyclopaedia Of Animals, fuelling a passion for wildlife and photography and, more recently, inspiring his latest documentary, Richard Hammond's Jungle Quest.
The Sky 1 show sees the presenter trek through the Amazon rainforest in the hope of spotting and snapping some of the creatures he read about as a youngster, from the three-toed sloth to the pink river dolphin.
It's been an eventful year for Hammond, whose time on Top Gear came to an end after co-presenter Jeremy Clarkson was sacked in March for reportedly punching a producer (though the pair, along with James May, have since signed a big-money deal to front a motoring series for Amazon Prime).
So did dealing with wild animals have any similarities with working with Clarkson?
"In many ways, yes," says Hammond, laughing. "You never quite know what to expect."
Indeed, as the star, known to fans as 'The Hamster', made his way through the depths of the jungle and the mighty Amazon River, he soon learnt that the reality was quite different from his childhood dreams.
"Physically, I'm used to travelling to some fairly wild places, I've done that in various contexts over the years through work. But it was a particularly challenging environment," says the 45-year-old, fresh from a motorcycle ride near his Herefordshire home.
"Also, technically, to take photographs in it, because it's very demanding visually and physically on the cameras, and then the pressure of having to produce images."
There was added stress for Hammond because his Jungle Quest images were going on display - at the school in Herefordshire that his daughters Izzy and Willow attend, along with another one in the family's nearest village and at the junior school Hammond attended in Solihull.
"I've spent 27 years as a radio and TV presenter, most of which time is spent compensating for your own inadequacies by talking a lot, but these were going to be standalone still images that people would judge, without me next to them to make excuses for them. So I was quite nervous," he confesses.
Hammond's work has taken him all over the world, and he says he misses Izzy and Willow and his wife Mindy "dreadfully" when he's away.
"If I have a quiet moment, I daren't look at my telephone because it's full of pictures of them and it'll make me sad," adds the presenter, who has also hosted documentary series Planet Earth Live, children's science show Blast Lab and adventure game show, Total Wipeout.
"We all love each other very much, we're very close as a family, and my going away reminds us of that closeness," he continues. "Let's not forget my primary duty is as a father and a husband, so when I go away, I accrue experience and stories and I bring that back and share it with them and that's great."
Now the presenter - who sustained a serious brain injury in 2006, when the jet-powered dragster he was driving for Top Gear crashed on a airfield in Yorkshire - is keen to go from one Amazon to another and reunite with his old pals.
"I'm just very, very pleased now that things are settled," Hammond says of the furore over Clarkson's sacking.
The new show - which Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos has described as "very, very, very expensive" - will be "new, better, bigger, bolder", according to its host.
"It's given us exactly the charge we needed to revitalise and reinvigorate. Creatively, it couldn't be any better," Hammond adds.
"It will be our show, it will be beautifully made and we're going to throw everything we can think of at it."
He's also excited to be part of the "new world of television", creating a project for a streaming service, rather than a traditional broadcaster.
"It's a television show in a world where television is undergoing a tremendous sea change; it's probably never been more exciting than this."
When asked how he thinks newly signed Top Gear host Chris Evans will fare, the enthusiastic presenter is diplomatic, but less effusive than usual. "We'll see, won't we? I'm sure he'll make a great job of it."
And will he still be tuning in? "Ha ha," he responds, laughing. "We shall see..."
Richard Hammond's Jungle Quest begins on Sky 1 on Wednesday, September 16