The mild one: How James May became the most in-demand presenter on British television

He's the quiet man who became a 'Top Gear' star. Now James May is establishing himself as the most in-demand presenter on British television

In his new book Car Fever, which brings together a selection of his newspaper and Top Gear magazine columns, James May holds forth on a variety of subjects that revolve, perhaps inevitably, around cars. He is wry about the Citroën, deadpan about the Mercedes and wistful about the Fiat Panda (improbably, he owns one). He recollects his environmentally unfriendly trek to the North Pole in a dirty great 4x4 and reappraises – and vigorously defends – those lurid shirts he insists on wearing on the television. Elsewhere, he refers to the internet as the "electric intraweb" and insists that "when I'm in power there are going to be some changes around here, I can tell you" in a fashion that cannot help but recall his televisual sparring partner. In other words, May has done what his publishers hope is a Clarkson, specifically a Jeremy Clarkson, by producing a book which will become mandatory lavatory reading for a nation of men of a certain age, and afford him in the process what he hasn't (unlike Clarkson and his fellow Top Gear co-presenter Richard Hammond) had before: a proper bestseller.

"Oh, I don't know about that," says the 46-year-old in the awkward, faltering way that has rather come to define him. While he ponders the possibilities of literary success, he hems and he haws, he shrugs his shoulders, and directs his mumbled answers to his fingertips.

"This doesn't strike me as the kind of book that would sell in astronomical numbers, to be honest," he decides.

So Clarkson can sit comfortably, can he?

"He always does, does Jezza."

And then he leans back and yawns languorously, like Bagpuss moments before Bagpuss settles down to sleep.

James may is the Top Gear presenter it's OK to like, the one who doesn't offend the sensibilities of the Daily Mail. Yes, he does drive all manner of cars when the green police would really rather he rode a bicycle instead, but then he rides one of those as well (a foldaway version), and though he is by and large the very model of Unreconstucted Bloke, the only thing that is really offensive about him is his taste in shirts. He is crumpled and slightly ramshackle in the flesh, almost donnish. Spend any amount of time with him, and you are ultimately struck by a curious thought: that he will one day make for a terribly nice old windbag. Perhaps this is due to his habit of rambling, of endeavouring earnestly to explain scientific and technological tidbits to you when you didn't request it of him. Pleasingly, he never seems to mind when it becomes clear to the both of you that you stopped listening several minutes earlier.

"Oh dear, I'm going on a bit, aren't I?" he will say several times over the next hour. "Don't be afraid to stop me if I do so again, will you?"

It's Monday afternoon, five floors above central London, in his book publishers' office, and May is making his methodical way through a chocolate croissant. "Lunch," he explains. His PR offers him a glass of water, but he declines on the grounds that, "I've never quite trusted water; I don't think it's entirely healthy." He opts for a cup of tea instead, which presumably is. He is dressed in a T-shirt that wants ironing and a pair of jeans whose cut, quite frankly, went out of fashion with the Ark. His eyes are concealed beneath his greying mane.

Though he doesn't look it, and certainly doesn't act it, James May is perhaps the most in-demand presenter currently at work on British television. The man is everywhere. As part of the triumvirate that fronts Top Gear, he is required viewing each Sunday night for up to eight million people, while the previous 13 series are repeated ad infinitum (and ad nauseam) on the satellite channel Dave and, an hour later, on Dave ja vu. According to varying reports, the programme is now exported to something like 100 countries, and has a global viewing audience of anywhere between 150 and 350 million.

His amiable manner, meanwhile, as well as a keen intellect he mostly tries to hide behind that shaggy abundance of 1970s hair, has also landed him several of his own programmes. Over the past couple of years, he has fronted the following: James May's 20th Century (in which he looked at some key innovations of the last hundred years); Oz & James' Big Wine Adventure (in which he and the drinks writer Oz Clarke gobbled up air miles in pursuit of fine clarets and burgundies); and James May's Big Ideas (more air miles, this time in search of concepts widely considered to be science fiction but which in fact aren't). More recently, he has helped with the BBC's 40th anniversary of the lunar landing with Moon, in which he flew on a U-2 spy plane to the very edges of space, and later this year he will be seen in yet another above-the-title show, James May's Toy Stories, where he will make things out of plasticine and Lego for the pleasure, presumably, of men (and one imagines it will be mostly men) who, just like him, have never fully grown-up. Whatever, it seems to be working: earlier this month, more than 2,700 people turned up to watch him build a full-size home out of Lego in a field in Surrey.

"I know, I know," he says preemptively, "I'm on television far too much. I'm not sure why. I've watched myself on TV from time to time. It's painful."

Left to his own devices, he suggests, he'd never make it out the front door of his own house. "Too lazy," is how he describes himself. But the offers keep coming in, and he has found himself saying yes rather more often than no.

"But I do try to resist the urge to become a tart," he says. "I've never wanted to be on television for the sake of it, I suppose because I'm not one of life's natural presenters; I'm not an actor. If my frock isn't blown up by a particular idea, I do turn it down."

One or two things have come along fairly recently that, he suggests, "I suspect would have made me really quite rich if I'd done them." But he said no because they didn't feel quite right. Standards, and the maintenance of thereof. "My logic is that if I carry on doing the things I like to do, then I might be permitted to do them that much longer. That's the hope, at any rate."

So far, so good.

May was born in Bristol in 1963, one of four siblings, but relocated with his family – his father was in the steel industry, his mother a nurse – to South Yorkshire when he was a teenager. Though he made for a decent enough student, his indolence, he says, was already well established, and he consequently made very little impression on anyone.

"I always found it hard to motivate myself," he says. "Still do."

This, however, is rather hard to believe. You don't attain televisual ubiquity as he has by remaining indolent. But May is clearly terrified of revealing anything like an ambitious streak (perhaps as much to himself as anyone else), and he certainly manages to convey the idea that he is one of life's more unruffleable individuals. He speaks every bit as leisurely as Jeremy Clarkson likes to suggest he drives. He appears forever on the brink of yawning, and very often does. He deflects praise in the same way he does criticism, with a shrug of the shoulders, as if he couldn't really be bothered either way. And if it is possible to eat a chocolate croissant ruminatively, then he manages just that.

"I suppose I've just always liked to potter about at my own pace," he reflects.

By the time he attended university, where he was studying music, he claims to have developed a "mildly anarchic" streak. This is hysterical. Only James May could come to such a thing mildly when, surely by its very definition, anarchy requires full-pelt enthusiasm?

"OK, fair point," he concedes. "I was mildly rebellious, then. How's that? I didn't set fire to anyone, I didn't murder anyone, but, you know, I did occasionally wear denim waistcoats and embroider my jeans..."

Post-education, he had no idea what to do with his life or how to go about achieving it. An employment agency landed him a temporary post as a records' officer in a women's hospital in Chelsea where he became friendly with several of the nurses there; he then followed a short stint in the Civil Service by becoming a sub-editor on Autocar magazine, from which he was subsequently, and now rather famously, fired.

"I was working on the Road Test Year Book supplement, where each spread featured reviews, and each review started with a large red capital letter," he explains. "It was such a slog to do that I thought it would be rather fun to make those individual letters spell out how I felt about it."

Over the course of several pages, his letters spelt out: "So you think it's really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up. It's a real pain in the arse." To his subsequent surprise, a great many readers wrote in, not to complain but to claim their prize in a competition that never was. The editor was not amused.......... 

On a whim, he then pitched a few ideas to Car Magazine. Car Magazine responded by offering him his own column. These deadpan asides were enough to bring him to the attentions of Channel 4, who, in 1998, launched Driven, which was to go head-to-head with the BBC's then-distinctly-flagging Top Gear. It lasted just a year before being axed, but May was promptly rescued by Top Gear itself, until this too was axed shortly afterwards. And so he returned, quite contentedly, to journalism until 2004 when incoming BBC producers decided to revive the brand, and breathe new life into it. Thirteen series later, it has become little short of a worldwide phenomenon.

It is difficult to know quite what to put Top Gear's astronomical success down to given that this is, after all, the TV equivalent of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: three crusty middle-aged men wittering on to their own woolly rhythms (in their case, obsessing lovingly over torque and horsepower and rear-wheel suspension).

"A lot of people put the success down to the chemistry between the three of us," May says, "but I think that's being rather generous. Basically, I see it as a sort of cross between That's Life and Last of the Summer Wine. We actually address some pretty big issues on our programme – sociology and so on – but through the medium of cars."

Sociology? Really? Nevertheless, the show is still predominantly about cars, and about how fast they go, often with celebrity guests behind the wheel. Perhaps it transcends its target audience with such ease because of the palpable enthusiasm of its hosts, an enthusiasm that frequently spills over into abject, and infectious, glee. It is certainly fun to watch, as is its shameless element of pantomime, each presenter hamming up facets of his personality for comedic value.

"True," he agrees, "but our characters on the show are basically true, if somewhat distorted. Jeremy really is terribly opinionated, and I really am quite anal. In real life, however, I'd like to suggest that neither of us is quite that extreme, but under the magnifying glass of television, it serves to suggest that we are."

And what of the marital-like bickering they indulge in? Is it scripted?

"Afraid not. It's actually all too true. I really do think Jeremy is brash, and he really does consider me pedantic. When we drove to the North Pole last year [the first people ever to do so, and one hopes the last], we drove each other insane. I wanted to bash his head in with a shovel. But, you know, we are blokes, so we didn't dwell on it, and, ultimately, no harm was done. Fundamentally, we are good mates. Mostly."

And, he insists, their success hasn't sent egos running rampant. Even though Clarkson, for example, gets paid so much more than he does.

"Oh, I'm the poor one of the three, no doubt about that, but I'm hardly pleading poverty here," he insists, and so he should, as it is rumoured he receives £20,000 per episode. "Jezza sort of invented the show as it is now, so that's fair enough, and Hammond has had a Top Gear DVD that did very well, and his books have been much more successful than mine. But I don't really care, to be honest. Should I? OK, I may not be in possession of a fortune, but I don't have to check with the bank whenever I go for a curry, either."

Likewise when he wants to buy a new car – he has five, currently, among them a 1970s Rolls-Royce Corniche; he also has a collection of motorcycles, and one small aeroplane. He lives in some considerable comfort, then, with his girlfriend of nine years, the dance music critic Sarah Frater, in west London, with no children but one cat. He is deep into his middle years, and still cannot say for sure what he would like to do with the rest of his life. Part of him, you feel, just wants to potter about in that amiable way of his, and if he can continue to do so on television from time to time, then all well and good. Perhaps mercifully, he is self-aware enough to know that he is nevertheless carving out something of a caricature for himself here.

"Well, my girlfriend is, at any rate," he corrects. "She popped her head around the garage door the other day, where I'd been hiding for hours trying to get this little bit to fit on this old Honda I have, and she said to me, 'Is there any chance you can come inside and behave like a normal person for a while?' "

He put down his tools and dutifully followed her inside where, he relates now, they had a nice meal of fresh trout and garden peas. But at the back of his mind the Honda problem gnawed away.

"I went back and sorted it out afterwards," he says.

Of course he did.

'Car Fever' by James May is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 20 August, £18.99. To order your copy at a special price, including free postage, see independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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