If Jeremy Clarkson’s public persona has really been an act – he has some explaining to do

The former Top Gear presenter has called his on-screen personality ‘a comic creation’ – but, says Ryan Coogan, that doesn’t make up for his decades of abrasive or – in some cases – outrageous comments

Sunday 28 April 2024 16:38 BST
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Clarkson (Amazon Prime Video)

All of us put up a bit of a front for work. For most people there’s nothing more mortifying than our boss seeing the real us, so we do all we can to hide it – the weird hobbies, the bad language. Once we step into the office we lock in, go full “work mode”, and conceal some of our less desirable traits.

While for most of us, that means dialling the politeness and sociability up to 11. The 21st century has given rise to a new kind of career and a new kind of work persona – the shameless provocateur. For these people, those less-than-desirable traits – the strange hobbies, the swearing, and definitely the fringe politics – are a big part of the selling point. That remains true even if those things aren’t really a part of their genuine personality – which can create problems when they want to distance themselves from that persona, and finally start living a normal, controversy-free life.

Former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson has found himself in exactly that position in recent years, as he’s tried to repackage himself as a salt-of-the-earth farmer after years of deliberately provoking people. In a recent interview in The Guardian, Clarkson insisted that version of him – the one he paraded around for decades and that is responsible for much of his fame – was simply “a comic creation”.

“Everyone assumes the character they see on motoring shows is me, but it’s exaggerated,” he said. To think that I was like I was on Top Gear is the same as thinking that Anthony Hopkins is a cannibal.”

But here’s the thing, Jeremy: Anthony Hopkins wasn’t inspiring other people to be cannibals. People didn’t see Anthony Hopkins eating people and think to themselves: “Wow, I guess eating people is socially acceptable after all. Maybe I should try eating people.”

Jeremy Clarkson’s “comic creation” on the other hand, “just kidding” or not, gave a high-profile public platform to the kind of reactionary right-wing discourse that dominates our politics today.

Take the climate crisis for example. In one 2007 Top Gear special, Clarkson and co-presenter James May drive an SUV to the North Pole, cracking jokes about how all the animals native to the region will have “drowned”. Clarkson concludes the broadcast by saying, in a reference to the 2006 global warming documentary of the same name, “The inconvenient truth is, there is no inconvenient truth. We haven’t even scratched the surface.” It’s difficult to see where the “comic” part of his creation is supposed to be in what looks like a pretty straightforward example of science denialism.

Clarkson has also used his newspaper columns to cast doubt on climate change, putting forth the kinds of facetious “it’s cold out so global warming must not be an issue” arguments that are usually the domain of Fox News commentators. I don’t make that comparison lightly, either – believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when casting doubt on the science behind climate change would get you roundly mocked. It was very much an American thing, and the British public wanted no part of it. Now, as Donald Trump of all people praises our PM for rolling back net zero commitments, that seems less the case.

Clarkson has found other ways to be horrible “in character”. Remember when he wrote about how much he hated Meghan Markle on a “cellular level”, and dreamt of a scenario where she would be paraded naked through the street and the crowd would “throw lumps of excrement at her”? He must be really committed, because I wouldn’t say that about my worst enemy.

The whole thing reminds me of when Infowars host Alex Jones tried to claim that his schtick was an elaborate piece of performance art during a custody battle with his wife. Don’t get me wrong, Clarkson is nowhere near Jones in terms of his behaviour or the extremity of his beliefs, but it is interesting that both men believed they could spend a decades-spanning career deliberately upsetting people and then try to drop the “act” whenever it became inconvenient.

Perhaps worst of all Clarkson’s sins, though, is the idea he planted in the mind of middle-aged uncles everywhere that their antisocial, abrasive personas, worrying preoccupation with cars, and half-baked, politically incorrect jokes were cool instead of deeply embarrassing. We’ll never get back all that time we had to spend listening to lectures about why electric cars “won’t ever catch on”.

I hope Jeremy is content on his farm, growing his own mustard and stuffing his own sausages. But he shouldn’t be under any illusions – while his public persona may have been an act, the harm I believe he has caused to public discourse is very real. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the “real” Jeremy Clarkson, whether he likes it or not.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in