Interview: Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson is tall — he stands 6 ft. 6 in. — but you’d never know it from the way he squeezes himself into the smallest of small cars for his Top Gear gig on BBC Canada.

On a wintery January night, Clarkson regaled an audience of reporters via satellite from his home in Doncaster, England, where he groused, peering out his front window, that the ice and cold in England’s winter from hell just won’t let up.

Top Gear is in its 14th season, and is an attention grabber for both BBC America and BBC Canada. It has drawn an estimated 350 million viewers worldwide with its eccentric look at the world’s automobiles, thanks in no small part to the acerbic, take-no-prisoners opinionating from Clarkson and his fellow presenters, Richard Hammond and James May.

Clarkson has his detractors, though they’re not as vociferous or as numerous as they would like to think. The man The Economist dubbed little more than a “skilled propagandist for the motoring lobby” scored a lowly 66th on a viewer poll of 100 Britons We Love to Hate on Channel 4 several years ago. The following year, Clarkson managed no better than 74th on The Guardian ‘s list of the 100 most powerful players in the entertainment industry, U.K. division. His own bosses at BBC described him at the time as “not a man given to considered opinion.”

Not that Clarkson is apt to lose any sleep over such characterizations. This is a man, after all, who revels in playing to national stereotypes. German cars are efficient. Japanese cars are high-tech, but somewhat lacking in soul. Italian cars are, well, Italian: stylish, but temperamental. Clarkson didn’t endear himself to feminists, for example, when he once famously referred to the Alfa Romeo Brera sports car as “Cameron Diaz on wheels.”

Those who follow Top Gear ‘s curves and twists on a regular basis know what they’re getting. If you’re the sensitive type, though, or if your political leanings tilt toward the politically correct, you’d better keep your head down and strap on a crash helmet.

Candour is a rare commodity in TV these days, and Clarkson has developed an almost cult-like following of obsessives. In 2008, an Internet petition posted on a U.K. government website demanded that Clarkson be appointed Prime Minister. The petition attracted 50,000 signatures; a rival “Never, Ever Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister” campaign attracted less than 100 scribbles.

Clarkson is the Stephen Colbert of motoring enthusiasts, and in his satellite press conference at the winter meeting of the TV Critics Association, he was in fine fettle — until, that is, the satellite cut him off in mid-transmission. Coincidence? You be the judge.

“It’s early,” Clarkson began, casting a baleful glare at the chilly night outside his window. “I’ve had only one bottle of wine so far.”

Clarkson insisted he has absolutely no idea — none — why anyone gives a toss about Top Gear .

“They fall into a number of different categories,” Clarkson said of his flock of followers. “You have those who just like to see three grown men fall over and catch fire every week. Then you have those who really want to know what the latest Ferrari is like. I’ve got one parked right outside my window here, actually. And then you have those for whom there is just nothing else to do on a Sunday night.

“I really, genuinely have tried to work it out and just can’t, because we’re ugly and we have yellow teeth. None of us can drive very well. We don’t really know anything about cars. Well, James does, but he’s very boring about it. I can’t work it out. It’s baffling, but I’m very happy that it happens.”

Clarkson knows he’s popular: He’s physically attacked, he said, virtually every time he goes out.

Top Gear fans tend to be nine years old. When I construct the show, I always write it with my children in mind because I think that though men may be 40 years old or 60 years old or 80 years old, we never really get past being eight.

“I think part of the appeal is that you have a show here that a little boy will like. His dad’s going to like it, too. The girls fancy Richard Hammond. And then the mother thinks, ‘Christ, they’ve got the whole family together. This is fantastic.’ So she joins in as well, and then it just becomes family establishment.

“Other than that, the thing I get most, pretty much, is hate.”

Cars aren’t just a guy thing, Clarkson insisted. Women just approach things differently, that’s all.

“I think women have a more organized mind than men do. Mine’s just a black hole. Often my wife will turn to me on the sofa while we’re watching and say, ‘Do you really think that?’ Yeah, we do. I really do wonder if it would be possible to put a car into space and if you can drive to the moon. I’d love to try that.

“We know from the figures that half our audience, something like 48 per cent, is women. And that’s global. It’s across the world. Though not in Australia, evidently. We do a live Top Gear show there every year. It’s a 100 per cent male. The Sheilas are at home with a bottle of sherry. It’s really very male there, but everywhere else its half and half. And I wish I knew why. I don’t understand why men watch it. I don’t understand why I watch it, really.”

Top Gear airs Wednesdays at 9 ET/6 PT on BBC Canada.

Photograph by: Handout, BBC Canada