I would count Jeremy Clarkson as a friend. We are not best mates, but at the intersection of our respective social circles, I see him occasionally at parties, dinners and the like.
I’m always pleased when I do, because I know a joke is not far away, and a heated argument is close on its heels. I once went to his house for dinner, but I knew I’d be unlikely to be invited back. After an evening spent in lively discussion about Europe, New Labour, football, and Welsh people, I waved him and his family a cheery farewell while reversing my car into his prized Ford GT, one of the rarest, most expensive motors in the world.
I am not a good driver, and I am completely unmoved (in an emotional way, obviously) by cars. Served him right for parking outside his house, I thought. Clarkson took it rather well, saying he was just thankful it hadn’t been one of his children that I’d backed into (although I’m not totally sure he meant it), but I knew then that I’d have to wait a long time for another invitation to a night of shepherd’s pie and shouting the odds.
He and I think very differently about the world. He regards political correctness as a curse. I think it underpins a functioning, modern society. And it’s pretty hard to defend some of the incidents which are already on his charge sheet: the insensitivity of the Falklands number plate, the cruel reference to Gordon Brown’s disability, and the casual insults to German, Mexican and Japanese people, are just the most egregious examples of Clarkson going too far.
But if no one went beyond the limits of what’s acceptable, then no one would push at the limits of what’s acceptable. In a homogenous world, where everyone is on alert for a reason to feel outraged, we probably need to defend those who (even, or perhaps especially, for a joke) are not totally shackled to the concept of propriety.
There’s very little that Clarkson and I have in common, apart from our attachment to the BBC. Clarkson could have taken the Top Gear caravan to any other broadcaster in recent years, and doubtless made a few more shekels for doing so.
Throughout all the vicissitudes, scandals and catering-based disturbances of recent years, the BBC have stuck with Clarkson for, one can only assume, commercial reasons (Top Gear is watched in more than 200 countries and nets BBC Worldwide something like £150m a year), while Clarkson has stuck with the Beeb (an organisation to which he is spectacularly unsuited) because of a well-defined sense of loyalty. This is a quality he has displayed before: he was unashamed, resolute and outspoken in his defence of his friend Rebekah Brooks at a time when she was Public Enemy No 1.
I very rarely watch Top Gear, although when I do, I understand exactly why it is so popular, and why it is one of Britain’s most successful cultural exports. Irrespective of the wild creativity involved in the show, and the fact that – and I am making an assumption here – it gives good advice to those interested in cars, Clarkson speaks a language that is very rarely heard these days. It is part Boris Johnson, part Nigel Farage.
It is a language that people understand and identify with, which connects with the wider public, and which is an antidote to the bland, studiedly inoffensive robot-speak in which politicians, business leaders and, yes, BBC apparatchiks converse these days. In other words, even if his views are, to those of us of a delicate sensibility, just a little unpalatable, Clarkson sounds like a human being.
It follows, therefore, that he should have human failings, one of which is his propensity to lose his rag. I’ve seen it twice at close quarters, both involving Piers Morgan, and both including an element of physical force.
On the first occasion, Clarkson had taken offence at a picture Morgan printed in the Mirror of him in a clinch with a woman who wasn’t his wife, and threw a glass of water over him.
And the second time – in the bar at the British Press Awards – he merely took offence to Morgan and threw a punch. Unsurprisingly, Clarkson wasn’t hauled before the beak for either of these incidents. In fact, he emerged as something of a folk hero. (Q: If you’re in a room with Jeremy Clarkson and Piers Morgan, and you have a gun with just one bullet, what do you do? A: Shoot yourself.)
It’s a different matter when the alleged victim is a junior colleague, in the latest controversy involving Clarkson a producer called Oisin Tymon (I can imagine Clarkson being irritated by his very name). And it may well be that this is a brouhaha too far for the BBC.
The pressure on the corporation is likely to be irresistible, and now they’ve seemingly made the decision to can the rest of the series, it’s a relatively small step to send the show off to the scrapyard. In the post-Savile, post-Russell Brand world that the BBC now inhabits, you can hardly blame them if they conclude that they’ve had enough of a man who’s got plenty of previous.
Equally, it is inconceivable that the programme could continue without Clarkson: he’s about as irreplaceable as it gets, and the idea that the other two alone could keep the show on the road is fanciful in the extreme.
No surprise, however, that hundreds of thousands of people have signed an online petition demanding Clarkson’s reinstatement. In the unreconstructed land of the petrolhead, the unreconstructed man is king.
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