Jeremy Clarkson is more than a belligerent television presenter—he voices the grievances of millions. And a coming Tory government won’t diminish his supportby John Lloyd / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
September saw the results of the Plain Speaking Personality prize, a public poll carried out by a brandy company. X-Factor judge Simon Cowell came runner-up, and Jeremy Paxman and Sharon Osbourne joint third. The winner was a figure pre-eminent in the public’s consciousness as the Man Who Speaks His Mind, alone in a desert of political correctness and cowardice masked as tolerance: Jeremy Clarkson.
Clarkson’s celebrity is based on journalism; geeky, scruffy, oily car journalism. But he has turned that unlikely beginning into a platform for fame. His hugely popular vehicle Top Gear started its 14th series in mid-November. But zany and dramatic as the programme can be, it was only a launch pad. For Clarkson now represents a larger constituency: the seriously pissed-off-with-Labour part of England which has not spoken yet, but will in the next election. It is a world where the walking-on-eggshells demeanour of many public figures is mocked, and ministers are steamrollered for hypocrisy, weasel words and corruption with a collective retch of theatrical disgust. A friend of Clarkson’s, who spoke anonymously, said that in his right-leaning suburb “everybody loves his fight against the euphemisms, the correct-speak. I went into a pub, and overheard a conversation in which three blokes were saying: we wouldn’t have anyone else for prime minister.” Last year a petition on the Downing Street website to give him the top job attracted around 50,000 signatures, while in a 2009 YouGov poll Londoners demanded Clarkson (or Alan Sugar) as their mayor.
The popularity of Clarkson’s political views stands in marked contrast to his own attitude to politicians. At a press conference in Australia in February, he called Gordon Brown a “one-eyed Scottish idiot.” Then, after a break of some five months, he followed up by saying “Gordon Brown is a cunt” during a recording of Top Gear. BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow then “had a conversation” with Clarkson, but the official statement—as opaque as any diplomatic communiqué—said only that “she holds both the programme and Jeremy in high regard. After the recording she and Jeremy had a discussion about the programme as controllers and presenters often do.”
Clarkson, meanwhile, seems to have adopted the motto of Repton, his Derbyshire boarding school: porta vacat culpa, literally “the gate is free from blame,” or loosely “don’t blame us” for our students’ subsequent behaviour. Yet Repton, with that smear of hypocrisy necessary for good marketing, flouts its own adjuration: Clarkson was expelled from the school, but is always included in the list of distinguished old boys. He is a star, and everyone—from Repton through the BBC to the masses yearning to breathe free of one-eyed Scottish idiot cunts—wants a piece of him. And when Britain takes a likely turn to the right at the next election, will Clarkson’s brand of angry conservatism find an even wider audience?
Clarkson was born in 1960 in Doncaster, to Eddie and Shirley Clarkson, whose small business struck it lucky in the production and marketing of Paddington Bears. After his expulsion from Repton (for “generally making a nuisance of himself,” says his mother) he worked for his parents’ firm as a salesman, then as a reporter on the Rotherham Advertiser. His Yorkshire upbringing has not made him a romantic about a county whose sons are often fiercely loyal. A friend says of him that “he is quite conflicted about Rotherham and his past,” and cites a programme he did in which he rubbished his birthplace. He now owns homes in London and the Cotswolds; his accent has little trace of his origins.
His breakthrough came from a column he began writing in 1985 for Performance Car, a monthly dedicated to fast driving. It was here that his now-familiar style first developed: one rooted in his own foibles, victories and defeats; the whole effect boosted by a comic exaggeration, which takes routine incidents and gives them an epic quality. When describing the purchase of a bike to get him to and from his favourite pub, he describes his cycling as “a good deal less stable than a nuclear power station with Ray Charles at the controls.” Expecting a Ford Cosworth for review—a turbocharged version of the Escort, or Sierra—and instead receiving an inferior model, he writes that “the pain of not getting a Cosworth hurt: it hurt in the same way as a Sherman tank would hurt if it ran over your legs.” His style plays into and has probably contributed to the inflation of language over the past three decades—minor inconveniences are now disasters and small gains “brilliant”—the language of celebrities, public relations executives and television presenters.
The inventiveness of similes aside, Clarkson’s method serves also to distance himself from the person or event that he is aiming at. Since a car reviewer’s disappointment cannot be in the same league as one whose legs are crushed by a 30-tonne tank, he is able to have it both ways: he can indulge in violent, often scornful exaggeration to make his point, while also retreating behind various ways of saying—can’t you take a joke? John Griffiths, the Financial Times motoring writer, was a fellow columnist on Performance Car in the 1980s. He quickly recognised Clarkson as one who would make the weather: “He always exaggerates hugely, of course… and you have to discount that. A lot of it is tongue in cheek, writing for effect.” Griffiths gives the example of Clarkson’s hatred of the Vauxhall Vectra, a car he once called a “dreary, designed-in-a-coffee-break Eurobox that no one wanted.” Clarkson tried to convince the Sunday Times to allow him to review the car in a column that would be completely blank. When this was refused he wrote an article about the reed warbler, a plain, dull-coloured bird, except for one paragraph which dismissed the Vauxhall car. Griffiths says “everyone knows that Vauxhalls make OK cars—quite comfortable, quite efficient, quite reliable, nothing special but nothing awful. This was just Jeremy going over the top.” (The company complained about the scathing review he gave the car on Top Gear—“we can tackle criticism but this piece was totally unbalanced.”)
With Clarkson, it isn’t just words. Everyone who knows him says he is what he seems: a big boy with toys, a what-the-hell-let’s-have-a-go man, an open-natured fellow who likes to have fun and knows how to. And fun for him, and his co-presenters on Top Gear—James May and Richard Hammond, together with an anonymous test driver called the Stig—is taking risks. Top Gear is an exercise in idealised male friendship, where men in early-middle (May and Hammond) and middle age (Clarkson) lark about with the taste of adolescents and the guts to defy death.
The danger, however, is real: Hammond crashed at 288mph in a jet-powered dragster in 2006. James May also crashed when a camper van lashed to an airship came down in a field in September this year. “My God they have courage,” says Griffiths, “I’ve driven at 200mph but they’ve done 300—and at that speed, one second, something happens, you’re done. May and Clarkson went to the North Pole in a pickup truck: they crossed ice; they could have gone through it.” Griffiths, a racer himself, sees nothing phoney in Clarkson: “I was in the Silverstone 24-hour race two years ago and Top Gear had a car; Clarkson drove the last shift [drivers in teams do two-hour stints] and when he crossed the finishing line, he was in tears.” Yet this mix of sentimentality and bravado is not without its knowledgeable critics. In September 2006 car journalist Neil Lyndon wrote in the Daily Mail of the programme’s “brainless lust for speed”: Lyndon called for Top Gear to be pulled from the schedules on safety grounds.
Clarkson’s road to fame was rapid, but had some bumps. Sensing his wide appeal the BBC tried him in a chat show, Clarkson, in the late 1990s. From 2000-02 he even dropped out of Top Gear. But the chat show didn’t work and it was dropped. Going back to his roots he returned to a revamped Top Gear in which he was the lead presenter, and to a format which was less about reviewing cars and more about men messing about. The change worked: the programme’s ratings have soared to 7.5m and it is one of the BBC’s top five exports, watched in over 100 countries. His weekly Sunday Times column, his books and DVDs—some 50 of them, like Clarkson on Cars, For Crying out Loud!, The Collected Thoughts of Clarkson, Born to be Riled and the DVDs, Clarkson: Hot Metal, Clarkson: At Full Throttle and Clarkson: Duel—make him several million pounds a year on top of his Top Gear salary (rumoured at over £2m annually). The books invariably have a cover picture of Clarkson, hands out, his face in a “you couldn’t make it up” grimace, a plain man confronted with a world gone mad.
Thus his decision to keep cars as his bottom line (as well as a large part of his income) is both of the head and the gut. And it’s also the source of his political appeal. He “represents” Britain’s 29m car drivers, many of whom are militant about car possession. A survey by the Admiral insurance group has found that two-thirds of motorists won’t switch to public transport for any reason, while 56 per cent have no concerns about car-caused environmental damage. Better than anyone else, Clarkson has taken irritations over speed limits and traffic-calming devices and given them a philosophy beyond the road: conservative anarchism. And he has developed a style of sniping at these enemies that ranges from relatively mild wit to outbursts (like those of this year on Brown) that have to be disowned—but which are unlikely to be anything other than coolly deliberate. He has a particular fondness for guying homosexuals: his early Performance Car columns flicked at “women with short hair and dubious sexual preferences.” In October 2009 he claimed that television executives were keen to hire “black Muslim lesbians” to balance the “blond, blue-eyed heterosexual boys” on screen. From his earliest writing he has identified a gallery of villains that has remained constant, if more crowded, over the past quarter century: government ministers, health and safety officials, trade union leaders, radicals of any kind and Scots.
It is this gallery which often attracts charges of prejudice. Take the last. Some of his dislike of Scots chimes with growing English resentment of Scots’ demands for greater devolution and independence, while not contributing a fair share to the public purse (a view which I, a Scot, share). But some are also simple prejudices and stereotypes—“tighter than a Scotsman on holiday in Yorkshire,” as he put it in one column. This may take force from a feeling, again one which is growing in England, that the Celtic nationalists of all varieties are smashing an ideal of a Great Britain in which all gave assent to a common national mission. He is an active patriot: the late father of his wife, Frances Cain, won a VC at Arnhem. Inspired by his example, Clarkson became a patron of the charity “Help for Heroes,” which raises money for wounded servicemen. He has also made a television series about VC recipients.
Less impressively, he harbours an obvious dislike of Germans, whom he habitually characterises as unchanged since the Third Reich. He allegedly called BMW salespeople Nazis during a piece on a motor show in 1998, and in 2005 gave a mock Nazi salute when describing a car as “quintessentially German.” In a duel last year with the German equivalent of Top Gear, the British team flew to the contest, in Belgium, in Spitfires. And his anonymous friend confirms that “there is a sinister side to him. I’m on the centre-right but he is further out. He hates the Scots, and the Welsh and Irish, and I think that’s quite real. I would say he’s really a Ukip-er: very much against the EU, very much against the global warming lobby.”
Clarkson’s attitude to the environment is an intriguing point of controversy. John Griffiths says of him that “the car industry has been fighting a defensive strategy against the green lobby on terrain that the green lobby itself has mapped out. But Clarkson doesn’t do that. He says: we want to drive big powerful gas-guzzling cars, leave us alone.” In a recent Top Gear Clarkson mocked a new safety measure and ended by saying—to officialdom generally—“LEAVE. US. ALONE!”—to a great cheer. Yet against the millions who think like him, there are still those who see him as a serious threat. Jonathon Porritt, the previous head of the Sustainable Development Commission, has suggested Clarkson is the biggest enemy of environmental responsibility in Britain, calling him “an outstandingly bigoted petrolhead” in a 2006 speech.
As journalism loses power, so celebrity gains it—not just in column inches but in the commodity that journalism once claimed for its own: political influence. And it is here that Clarkson’s role is most important. David Cameron is a near neighbour in the Cotswolds, and Clarkson is reportedly a friend. But while his sympathies are clearly Conservative, Clarkson’s brand is too precious to be traded for a simple political endorsement. In a column last December, the Daily Mirror political writer Kevin Maguire alleged that Clarkson had been overheard saying loudly in a restaurant that Cameron was “not up to it,” but went on to commend his wife, Samantha Cameron, for always wearing stockings and drinking more than men, which gave the impression of an almost intimate acquaintance.
Cameron is unlikely to be upset. Celebrities like Clarkson turn politicians into a series of painted masks at which to throw balls: politicians have long learned to profit from it where they can and fulminate against it when they cannot. Clarkson’s sympathies are likely to remain rawer than any prime minister of a civilised state could endorse: Celtic and Germano-phobic, dismissive of environmental concerns, and scornful of minorities. While a Conservative government is likely to win Britain’s next election, it will be headed by a leader who listens to the green lobby and has redefined himself by reaching out to the very people Clarkson mocks. The political stripes will change, but Clarkson’s targets will not.
Clarkson is unlikely to go into parliamentary politics, as have other celebrities like Martin Bell and Esther Rantzen: his earnings would suffer catastrophically, and so would a reputation that can only co-exist with irresponsibility. He is, in any case, in a better political place. His core fans are angry, not political—they are those who contribute to the discussion board on his website, and who motor happily along the roads he signposts. He has tapped a rich lode of resentment and grievance, the more powerful thanks to a government overly likely to throw legislation or regulation at a problem, rather than allowing it to be sorted out by popular common sense.
His brand of conservatism is akin—though less focused and potent—to that of the US TV and radio commentariat of the right: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Like theirs, Clarkson’s political strength exists both in and out of politics, in a sphere where Nazis, Stalinists, health and safety regulations, terrorists and politicians of the centre-left are interchangeable. Clarkson’s canny anchorage in the BBC, and the BBC’s protection of him, restrains him from full-flowering shock-jockery. But he will continue to work that rich, pissed-off lode: and having found it, he can use his personality, his writing skill and his media savvy to develop an independent cultural-cum-political base, from which he can judge how far the idiots who govern the country measure up to the righteous demands of those he represents.
This article was amended on 03.12.09