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Box Clever: Motormouth strikes again

Jeremy Clarkson has a reputation for speaking as he finds. Last year, for example, the presenter of Top Gear kicked up an almighty stink when he made his feelings about Birmingham all too clear. Now he's back on our screens exploring bigger and more powerful machines than ever

"I don't care how many times the leader of the council writes to me," he booms, "I still think Birmingham is like a rugby-bath after the water has drained away - empty in the middle with a ring of scum round the outside."

Obviously taking great delight in winding up the establishment, he continues: "Sometimes home truths get buried under a wall of political correctness. I don't think it's a crime being un-PC. You aren't allowed to say smoking is fun," he asserts, taking a defiant puff on his full-strength Marlboro (Lights are for wimps). "And that drink-drive campaign before Christmas, `have none for the road' - what? What's the point of life if you can't smoke or drink?"

It is just this sort of opinionated sounding-off that so endears the 37-year-old Clarkson to viewers - and consequently to commissioning editors. Realising when they're on to a good thing, BBC2 have just sent him to five continents to drive as many absurdly dangerous speeding vehicles as he could lay his hands on. The result, Jeremy Clarkson's Extreme Machines, is like the man himself: loud, noisy, bumptious, loud, enthusiastic, loud and damn good fun.

But it still gives him ample opportunity to aim with his scatter-gun at the nanny state. "We can't legislate against everything," he fumes. "All over the world, people are becoming irritated at governments not allowing things. In New Zealand, they can't race jet boats down rivers. Why not? There's nobody around for hundreds of miles. Why kill hundreds of people's enjoyment? Life is precious, but it isn't precious if you can't enjoy yourself."

This sort of stuff - allied to his tight curls and tighter trousers - has gained Clarkson a cult following as a presenter on BBC2's Top Gear and Motorworld. Kicking off his shoes in a posh central London suite, he declares that: "motoring journalists are a waste of time nowadays. The only thing they can do is say, `let's enjoy the sex and violence of cars before Prescott kills them off'."

But, it has to be said, this outspokenness also gets up people's noses with the regularity of the 'flu bug in mid-winter. He doesn't even object to comedians such as Rory Bremner taking the rise out of his speed-freaky over-eagerness on screen. "I don't mind," he laughs. "Rory Bremner drives a hairdresser's car - an Audi Cabriolet - so what do you expect?"

Clarkson does draw the line, though, at comics' suggestions that he becomes sexually aroused by the mere sight of a gear-stick. "I've never looked on cars in a sexual way," he declares, glancing out of the window. "Gracious me, there's an enormous penis - oh no, it's an E-Type Jag. I've never once swelled when driving. My little boy's first words were `car crash', but I don't think it's anything to do with his penis."

What Clarkson cannot refute, though, is the charge that his petrol-head programmes are unreconstructedly macho. "If you're presenting a Lamborghini Diabolo, then you're going to be in macho territory," he admits. "It's a boys' toys thing. That comes with the job."

As for the future, several programmes away from the steering-wheel are under discussion, including - and this sounds intriguing - a chat show. With typical frankness, Clarkson does own up to some reservations. "I think me not doing Top Gear would be like Barry Norman doing a cookery programme. People would think, `but he's that car bloke'. If you take away the subject-matter, the enthusiasm goes. If I did a gardening programme, all I could say is `just put some soil on'. If I did a cookery programme, all I could is `shove it in the oven till it's not raw.' And if I did a golf programme, all I could say is `we're not watching this, he's got daft trousers on'."

Rather touchingly, there is a part of this apparently supremely self- confident bloke which still can't quite believe he's a success. "I'm fairly talentless," he reckons. "This can't last forever. You have to do the footballer bit and milk it. I do a poky motoring programme on BBC2 with my jowls hanging down. I still feel an imposter."

Jeremy Clarkson's `Extreme Machines' is at 8.30pm on BBC2 on Thur