Jeremy Clarkson is accused of punching a producer, but will the BBC sack its most controversial presenter, asks Dani Garavelli.
THERE exists – somewhere in the recesses of YouTube – a fuzzy clip of Jeremy Clarkson’s very first appearance on Top Gear. It dates back to 1988, a more innocent age, before all the stunts and daring road trips, and noising people up, when a rummage through boxes at the annual Beaulieu Motor Museum Autojumble was all the thrills and spills the programme had to offer. Clarkson is dressed in pale chinos, a dark blazer and a tie, and gives as good an impersonation of a frightened rabbit as a 6ft 5in man with shoulders the breadth of the (heavily congested) Blackwall Tunnel can. As he walks round a customised red Bentley, explaining how it has been transformed into a “two-door coupé”, there is no evidence of the boorish swagger the world has come to love/loathe from the BBC presenter. The tempest-tossed curls are present, if not correct, but there are, as far as it is possible to tell, no jokes at the expense of red Bentley owners or any other minority
In a second clip, some months later, flashes of pomposity are beginning to break through the dreariness of the format; moaning about traffic on his daily one-mile commute, Clarkson says he won’t take the Tube because he doesn’t want to be exposed to other people’s halitosis and armpits, but he passes up several opportunities to take cheap shots at obvious targets. Heck, he’s so damned hippy-dippy tolerant, he doesn’t even adopt a sneering tone when talking about the North.
Taking this road trip down memory lane is instructive; it makes you realise how much effort has gone into constructing the version of Jeremy Clarkson that exists today. I’m not suggesting that if you cut him open you would find anything other than “oaf” stamped through his middle or that “Jeremy Clarkson” is a parody in the style of Ali G, merely that it has taken years of work to shape his innate oafishness into the perfect blend of anti-establishment bombast and braggadocio that has turned him into an international celebrity and Top Gear into the world’s most-popular factual TV programme.
However you feel about Clarkson (and he has a similar polarising effect to Nigel Farage) it is impossible to downplay his influence on popular culture. Here is a man with all the grace of a rutting walrus, who hates and baits foreigners, and dresses as if he has raided his neighbour’s skip, yet, every week, millions of viewers ROFL as he and his liggers Richard Hammond and James May, make death-defying trips along the pot-holed mountain roads of some impoverished country (while many others switch over in practised disgust). And when, after a succession of last chances, the BBC finally suspends him for “a fracas” with a producer, the fall-out is so seismic it pushes the general election off the top of the news agenda and generates yet another debate over the right to offend (or the right to deck your subordinate for failing to organise a hot meal). When news of the suspension leaked out last week, Twitter went into meltdown; as all the lefties cheered, 800,0000 viewers signed a petition for his reinstatement and the prime minister broke off from sniping at the SNP to give his friend and fellow member of the Chipping Norton set his personal endorsement.
Clarkson’s success is, of course, founded almost entirely on his willingness to have a go at others: Koreans, Mexicans, gay people, the disabled are all fair game (though strangely he doesn’t have much to say about Muslims or Jews.) He has become the spokesman of the straight, white male – that beleaguered species whose sense of self-entitlement is being eroded by the liberal consensus. When he makes a pun on the word “slope” (both an incline and – hilariously – a derogatory term for an Asian person) Clarkson isn’t, as you might assume, behaving like a throwback to a bygone era, he is taking a stand against the tyranny of “political correctness”. By some sleight of hand, he has made his brand of bigotry socially acceptable, so that, in the same week David Cameron berated Farage for wanting to dismantle the UK’s race discrimination laws, he could call Clarkson “a great talent” without being aware of any internal contradiction.
Clarkson, then, is more than merely a TV presenter, he is a means by which people can identify their place on the left/right, libertarian/authoritarian axes. In years to come, when historians are analysing the so-called “culture wars”, they will be able to guess an individual’s world view – whether they drank prosecco or real ale, or read The Guardian or Spiked – by where they stood in the great Jeremy Clarkson debate of 2015.
All this places the BBC in a tricky position; on the one hand, the corporation is part of the very liberal consensus that Clarkson spends his time attacking. According to tabloid commentator Richard Littlejohn, director of BBC Television Danny Cohen has long been gunning for him and he’ll be the “toast of Shoreditch” if he sacks him. On the other, the BBC badly needs the viewing figures and income Clarkson brings. The corporation knows it long ago lost control of its creation. But can it really afford to cut him loose, especially when it must know there will be no shortages of offers elsewhere? Those at the top can go on saying “no star is bigger than the show” ad infinitum, but, by cancelling Top Gear while a disciplinary inquiry is being carried out, they are effectively admitting it can’t carry on without him. And they’re right. May and Hammond may aspire to Clarksonesque levels of offensiveness – Hammond once called Mexicans “lazy, feckless and flatulent” – but they are bumbling amateurs when set beside the great supremo.
Meanwhile, Clarkson is sending out signals that he doesn’t give a fig. After his suspension, he changed his Twitter profile to read “probably a Top Gear presenter” and told reporters he was off to the Jobcentre. Why should he care? He knows he’ll walk into another show which will better “manage his talent” (thole his arrogance). Indeed there is some suggestion he may actively want to go. But there’s more at stake for the corporation, which will face a multi-million pound bill for episodes sold, but not delivered, and for the hundreds of people who earn their living making the programme.
Clarkson’s first job involved selling Paddington bears created by his parents Edward and Shirley, who raised their two children in a four-bedroomed farmhouse in the village of Burghwallis in South Yorkshire. They had spotted a niche in the market after making a couple of the stuffed toys for Jeremy and his sister Joanna. But if Michael Bond’s gentle story about a Peruvian immigrant given shelter in an accepting, cosmopolitan city made any impression on him, then he kept it well hidden. A more obvious harbinger of Clarkson’s future calling came when he was expelled from Repton School for drinking, smoking and “generally making a nuisance of himself”.
In the mid-80s, he trained as a journalist and co-founded the Motoring Press Agency, conducting road tests for local newspapers and car magazines, where he honed his acerbic style. But it wasn’t until he joined the Top Gear team in 1988 that he began to morph into his current shape. His laddish wise-cracks breathed new life into a jaded format and viewing figures started to rise to a peak of six million. When he left in 2000 – a couple of years after he suggested Hyundai staff at Birmingham Motor Show had eaten dog for lunch – they fell away again and the following year the BBC dropped the programme from its schedules.
But there was a still a demand for a show about men and their motors, so – in 2002 – they brought it back with Clarkson, Hammond and Jason Dawe at the helm. Now it was set not in a studio, but in the Dunsfold Aerodrome, an airport and business park in Waverley, Surrey. Out went boring monologues about new makes and models; in came features and gimmicks such as Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, the Cool Wall and, of course, The Stig. There were stunts, often involving a caravan or Morris Minor being destroyed from a great height. The humour was irreverent and edgy in an Oh-my-God-did-he-really-say-that kind of a way.
Nor was Clarkson’s naughtiness confined to his on-screen persona. Out in the real world he sailed close to the wind too. His love life was messy; when his first wife Alex Hall (who left him for his best friend) claimed they had rekindled their relationship after he married his second wife Frances Cain, he took out a super-injunction to stop it being reported, only to fall victim to the Streisand effect. Photographs of him kissing other women kept falling into the hands of the then Mirror editor Piers Morgan who published them despite Clarkson’s pleas. Clarkson and Cain split up last year.
The publication of the photos sparked a long-running feud with Morgan, which has seen blows exchanged in the real world (Clarkson punched Morgan at the British Press Awards in 2004) and on social media. When Americans raised a petition calling for Morgan to be deported for his anti-gun stance, Clarkson tweeted, “It’s taken us 40 years to get rid of [him]. Please don’t send him back.” And in the wake of Clarkson’s suspension, Morgan put himself forward as a potential replacement for his nemesis. Oh the bantz! Of course, in reality these two alpha males are mirror images of each other: both smug egotists, both shit-stirrers, both lovers of the sound of their own voices.
As with any long-running show which relies on shock factor for its appeal, Top Gear has had to continually up the ante, finding fresh targets to antagonise. The showdown with producer Oisin Tymon is the latest in a succession of scandals that have engulfed Clarkson, from calling Gordon Brown a “one-eyed Scottish idiot” to suggesting striking nurses should be shot. These culminated in the leak of the video in which Clarkson appeared to mumble the N-word while reciting the children’s nursery rhyme Eeny Meeny Miny Mo.
The Top Gear team also recently came under attack from an angry mob in Argentina after driving a car with the registration plate H982 FKL. Apparently, we are to believe this was not a deliberate attempt to annoy the locals, but a complete coincidence no-one picked up on.
On being challenged on his many faux pas, Clarkson’s default reaction is to affect a kind of manchild helplessness as if – as the unfortunate possessor of a male brain – he has no control over the words that spill out of his mouth. “I did everything in my power not to say the N-word,” he said. Yes of course you did. Yet still you said it.
Clarkson’s fate now lies in the hands of BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie – accepter of poisoned chalices – who is presiding over a disciplinary inquiry. If Clarkson really did lash out at Tymon, as newspapers have suggested, it’s difficult to see how he can keep his job. As Jonathan Ross found out during Sachsgate, even the greatest commercial assets can place themselves beyond the pale.
Should he (and the show) go, there will be as many grievers as gloaters of both genders. As his friend and executive producer Andy Wilman once said: “Top Gear is a journey into the male mind which I believe is a really, potentially very funny place because, let’s face it, not much happens there.” For some, his axing would be yet more evidence that Guardianistas and Feminazis are waging a war on the right of middle-aged men to wear denim and act like pillocks. But many less ideologically-driven fans will simply echo the sentiment expressed last week by Clarkson’s co-presenter James May: “He’s a knob,” May told reporters who door-stepped him shortly after the story broke, “but I quite like him.” «