When I was a boy, in the hazy days of the early 90s, Jeremy Clarkson would appear on my telly, clad almost entirely in denim, leaning against mid-range Nissan saloons and talking about clutches. This was a worthy purpose, I surmised. At that age, like many boys, I found the pantheon of differing cars on the road something worthy of careful notation and categorisation – I knew all the badges and headlight configurations, and remember excitedly surveying a family friend’s new Mondeo. “Ooooh, such exoticism! A car that was quite literally worldly,” I thought to myself. Yes, cars were exciting and anything that told me more about cars was therefore much coveted. Top Trumps was not just a game to pass the time, but a secular bible for useless automotive statistics. I knew all about valves and BHP, long before I even knew what either of those things actually meant. Yet, puzzlingly, the man who could impart all this information to me – Top Gear’s curly-haired Adonis – was extraordinarily dull. To my 11 year old brain, his vocal output was a stream of Doncaster-inflected white noise. I had no time for the man, and within a couple of years I had discovered guitars and became completely uninterested in cars.
Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, Clarkson became a brand. I’m not sure how, I was probably too busy learning powerchords to notice. Needless to say, by my mid-twenties I was one of millions of people who, having wondered off for a decade or so, discovered that Top Gear (Mark II) had become must-watch TV. There was banter, and super cars, and celebrities swearing, and the accidental-on-purpose bit where James May got lost and Clarkson set fire to a primary school. Oh, such jinks! But more than that, it was funny. Properly funny. Messers May, Clarkson and Hammond had forged a gleefully puerile bond, built around a rose-tinted longing for childhood japes and the glory days of Empire, when men had ‘taches and everyone hated the French. The cars were largely incidental macguffins; shiny, noisy props that permitted the lads to muck about in a variety of locations. Yes, they loved cars, but the audience wasn’t particularly bothered. Top Gear could quite easily have been about tractors, and we’d all still have tuned in, provided, at some point, that Clarkson tried to catapult one over a Belgian waffle shop. No, cars were not the draw at all. It was the man, and his accomplices, we tuned in for.
For many decent people, it’s all a bit of fun. Clarkson is a blokey, no nonsense chap you’d happily meet in a pub. In times of increased sensitivity in what you can say and do (rightly so, in most cases), he’s an old-fashioned champion of casual, spiteless obnoxiousness. So, his broad popularity is unsurprising. The thing that is harder to grasp is why quite a lot of the people who watched Top Gear, and enjoyed it immensely, also think Clarkson is a bit of a cock.
What’s going on there, then?
Perhaps, then, it’s useful to see Clarkson as a pressure valve? He is the 18th century pantomime, brimming with political satire, slurs against the church, jokes about bums and references to sexual naughtiness. Like the Harlequin, he dons his special comedy disguise, the denim suit, to romp about before nervous audiences, poking us with his rightwing jibes. He delights in making us grin like idiots, then watching as we suck in breath through immediate ashamed remorse. “Ha!”, he says, “Made you laugh!” We are goaded by this buffoon, this jester in the curly wig, into briefly surrendering our modern, politically correct values – if only for a few moments. Lazy Mexicans, dour Germans, fat Americans, female drivers… Clarkson panders to the fact that we love thumping huge red buttons that say ‘Do Not Touch’. While some Guardian readers may be immune to his withering fire, he regularly made me laugh… and then tut.
In particular, Clarkson would have appealed to Francois Rabelais, the humanist scholar of 16th century France whose grotesque satire was deeply offensive, despite his being a man of the cloth. The most celebrated Rabelaisian writing focused on the Carnival which perpetuated the medieval traditions of the Feast of Fools in which society briefly revelled in anarchic chaos. The King was mocked, the aristocracy was mocked, the Church was mocked, and the people filled the streets with obscenities. But the essence of these cultural explosions was that they were officially endorsed by Church and State; here was a mechanism designed to release the pent up frustrations of the constricted masses. It was the equivalent of the dad letting his son beat him at football, just for one day – the kid has no clue that victory is a hollow one; it still feels like a win.
Clarkson performs this scandalising role for our benefit. All of us, at some point, fizz with rage at the little injustices of the world, and the Denim-quilted contrarian lets us yell them out, leading us in petty-minded prayer at the altar of “not my fault, guv”. Like Henry VIII’s favourite jester, Will Sommers, Clarkson spent a decade prodding the BBC, and the ‘easily-outraged Lefties’ like me, to see how close to the bone he could get. We’ve witnessed crass jokes about foreigners, sex workers butchered by a lorry-driving serial killer, blindness, mental health, and suicide. Some might argue convincingly that bad taste comedy is part of a healthy society, and they may have a point. But it can be a dangerous game to play. Sommers excelled at speaking truth to power, and dodged Henry VIII’s legendary temper when others couldn’t, but even he came a cropper over a gag involving the king’s wife and daughter – indeed, it nearly cost him his life.
Like the famed Tudor jester, Clarkson has finally come a cropper too. For some, there had already been too many apologies, half-apologies, and whiny seat squirms. They say his suspension was long overdue, and an assault on his producer was the last straw. But I’m not sure he was going anywhere until he raised a fist in anger. For all the talk of “Final Warnings”, that famed edginess was part of his brand and made Top Gear the most watched factual programme in the world. It has been to the BBC what taxable cigarettes are to the NHS – an awkwardly profitable product.
Clarkson had survived countless scandals already: that Falklands fiasco which endangered his crew, that unbroadcast racial slur, and that time on live TV when he declared trade union strikers: “should be taken outside and shot in front of their families”. All of these might have destroyed any other celeb. But Clarkson isn’t any other celeb; the man is a clown hired by the British public to say stupid stuff so we can get angry at him, and feel better about ourselves. His controversial blurtings are insincere incantations of wilful provocation for the sake of it.
He causes offence for a living, but punching a subordinate colleague is an actual offence. Everything else was the inevitable blunderbuss of Clarksonian comedy, this is just violence in the workplace. He had to go. But I have no doubt he’ll be snapped up by other media channels. His career is far from over.
Jeremy Clarkson is probably quite charming in person. Or maybe he’s a grumpy curmudgeon. He may, as Rich Hall playfully noted in a documentary, even be a woman. The Clarkson we see on television is not a real human, though. The philosopher Jean Beaudrillard once famously suggested Disneyland was built to make the absurd Los Angeles seem real by comparison. I sometimes wonder if Clarkson was assembled in a gothic castle to be a boorish barometer of public morality.
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