Rob and Rylan’s Grand Tour review – one of them has a formidable mind, but which? | Television & radio

In a country where so much of society is still bisected along class lines, many have a very particular image of a clever person – and it’s roughly Stephen Fry. A grand-seeming Oxbridge-educated man with a posh accent and an interest in art and opera, who can recite passages of classic literature. Rob Rinder, the criminal barrister, broadcaster and host of Judge Rinder, fits well into this mould and loves all things “high culture” and intellectual pursuits. He is, as his co-host Rylan Clark says, “one of the cleverest blokes I know”. Meanwhile, Rinder says Clark “doesn’t know his arts from his elbow”. However, over the course of the three episodes of Rob and Rylan’s Grand Tour, Clark emerges as the brilliant mind, with levels of intelligence, wit and profundity that may have been overlooked because there remains a perception of what a clever person is like.

The pair position themselves as an odd couple from different sides of the tracks, being good mates, both going through “painful divorces” who, despite their divergent interests, have decided to embark on a journey that represents a fresh start. The series follows them through the “hedonism” of Venice, the Renaissance feast that is Florence and the baroque glory of Rome, replicating a journey made by Lord Byron, 200 years after his death at just 36. But as the series reminds us, this was not just a journey that Byron made: many of the “poshos” of the era would journey to Italy as a rite of passage, a form of cultural education to establish themselves as erudite individuals who understood art, history and the ways of the world.

We first see Rinder in Venice aboard a gondola, wanting to take in the historical traditions of the city. Clark is in a glitzy speedboat and is a little intimidated by all the art and opera ahead. But while Rinder is moved and fascinated by the galleries, concerts and archaeology of this and the other two cities, his response comes across as a little more shallow than Clark’s reflections. When discussing Caravaggio, castratos or the Colosseum, Rinder always seems to give the prototypical clever-person answer, while Clark connects to his surroundings on a molecular level, seeing in ancient ruins existential questions that connect to his own mortality and desire to achieve greatness.

Clark also brings a gorgeous vulnerability to the screen. Not only is he dealing with heartbreak, but also with the lingering insecurity of having been an object of ridicule in his early career. It’s a truly remarkable journey that he has been on, having first come to public attention as the runner-up on Signed By Katie Price before being labelled a “joke act” on The X Factor and finally hitting his stride as a presenter on This Morning, Big Brother’s Bit on the Side and Ready Steady Cook. But even if he is best known for being a larger-than-life camp icon who pokes fun at himself, it has become clear over the years – and is further illuminated by this programme – that Clark is an extremely smart and talented man who should not be underestimated.

The relationship between Rinder and Clark proves surprisingly sweet and tender, too. Although they often fall back into the clever one/silly one shtick, they seem to hold each other in equally high regard. Clark has little ego around the gaps in his knowledge and soaks up what Rinder tells him about the historical significance of the places that they visit. Rinder also gazes at him adoringly when Clark interprets what the Botticellis hanging in the Uffizi or the Venetian mask worn during the carnival symbolise to him.

While Rinder and Clark seem quite transformed by their journey and time together, ending the trip with their hearts a little less broken and open to the possibility of finding love again (albeit with an iron-clad prenup), what’s most interesting about the programme is how it challenges our perception of Clark. For centuries, the Grand Tour was undertaken by those who more closely resembled Rinder, people with the right sort of class and education, unlike Clark, who was a “ginger kid from a council flat in Stepney Green”. But it is lovely to behold where that kid has ended up, see his formidable mind absorb the glories of the journey Bryon once embarked on and watch his confidence bloom in the Italian sunshine.

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Rob and Rylan’s Grand Tour aired on BBC Two and is now on iPlayer.

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