james May Man Lab as reviewed in Phantom TollboothThe Top Gear front man tries to restore men to their former glory

Studio:    Acorn Media
Time:      156 Minutes
Format:    Region not stated

The premise of this short TV series is simple: after 10,000 years of forging progress in science and the arts, in just one generation “man has been reduced to a feckless, bed-wetting, parmesan-shaving imbecile, who revels in his own uselessness.”

So who better to bring dignity and manhood back to the hairier gender than a Top Gear presenter?

James May is the more cultured of the three, and his two series on toys and on a century of inventions were superb in their research and presentation. Here, though, we get a more tongue-in-cheek, May-lite version of what he does, as he presents a ‘how-to’ magazine programme full of helpful hints on all the things that men need to recapture their former glory days – such as how to woo a lady by being a minstrel outside her window.

Believing that chaps need a proper environment, he begins this mini-series with tips on constructing a manly milieu. In true Top Gear fashion, it means avoiding exercise of any kind, so the team divides the studio into discrete workshop-styled areas, all linked by a toy train that does the carrying (as long as the object being moved is no bigger than a banana) and even brings toilet roll to the loo. We see how to make a kitchen island with a concrete worktop, how to make a stainless steel bar and a private cinema, as well as the short film that it features.

As it rarely touches the historic content of his earlier shows, and is too fast-paced to be at all practical, Man Lab is just an excuse for some diverting entertainment. It is at its best when May learns how to de-fuse a World-War Two bomb, which is filled with silage in case the de-fusing fails and some action is required. Other outdoor projects include building a rocket, making a helicopter-borne gun to attack the wasps that ruin summer sandwiches, trying to navigate using a compass (and a dog), and learning to duel with pistols and swords.

With a Celebrity Man Task feature in each of the three episodes, May tests his friends’ abilities to wallpaper around a door, change a tyre and build a flat-pack cabinet, all against the clock.

This is easy-going fare for a lazy winter Sunday afternoon and, for the full experience, should be watched with a pint on the table.


Derek Walker