At this point, it looks terminal for Jeremy Clarkson. Amazon, the one platform with enough capital to hold the poisoned chalice, seems to have quietly decided that they are parting ways with the British presenter after putting up with him for eight years; his roster of shows are now up in the air, their future unknown. The second series of Clarkson’s Farm received such a soft launch that I didn’t even know that it was coming out until the day before, which says a lot about how much his employers are on damage control after his awful, inexcusable column on Meghan Markle.
But one look at the trailer, and the arguments started to rage in my brain. The Clarkson’s Farm series two trailer is Clarkson doing what he does best: trying to manage a farm, having the most harebrained ideas, and getting told off for the umpteenth time by exasperated people. They are scenes of incompetence, but they are funny scenes of incompetence. And that’s not to mention the beautifully composed shots of him traipsing around the farm while the dawn rises and the fog sets in. This, in other words, is a series I desperately want to watch. But can I watch it?
With any other person, this would be an easy question to answer. I’m not a ravenous consumer of media at the best of times, so it’s easy for a famous name to fade away from my mind; even if they are names I’ve heard of or left a significant cultural footprint, there’s always some other thing I can dig up and read or watch. I’m also somewhat adept at separating works from their creators — John Lennon’s misogynistic and violent tendencies have not stopped me from enjoying “Getting Better” or “Woman”, for example (“Run for Your Life”, though…). But Jeremy Clarkson is a special case: this is a man that, for better or for worse, has influenced me immensely, who gave me many a happy moment in my youth, and who continues to pique my interest with things he says. It feels harder for me to disengage, and to figure out the ethics (as well as my personal comfort levels) in watching his latest work.
This is not a piece on cancel culture — that is a nebulously defined term and its supposed ills are not something I feel qualified to talk about in this piece. Rather, this is a piece about me, myself, and him. In writing this, I do not mean to defend the man, nor do I wish to ask the question “well, just how racist is Clarkson, anyway?” You can read the things he wrote, and decide for yourself. What I want to do is examine why I, a young Asian man sitting right next to the demographic he scorns, was so hung up on the simple quandary of whether I should watch the second series of Clarkson’s Farm, and from there on think about the precise reasons behind my fascination with Jeremy Clarkson, and ultimately see if it helps me decide if I can even watch his latest show anymore.
PART 1: LEARNING TO BE JEREMY
With the possible exception of my parents, there is no single person on Earth that has influenced me more than Jeremy Clarkson. If you were to talk to me for two minutes, and then go and watch clips of Clarkson, you would be hard-pressed to spot any difference between the two of us (appearance notwithstanding). My British accent, my tone of inflection, the way I deliver a joke and then follow it up with a loud “ERM” — all of that comes from Jeremy.
There is a very simple reason for that: I found (and still continue to find) the man funny. Rip-roaringly, side-splittingly, objectively funny. Barely a minute would pass by on old Top Gear without me bursting into laughter at one of his latest antics, whether it was throwing a Toyota Hilux into the Severn Estuary or balancing a three-storey building on top of his Citroen. (If you have not watched those clips before, I implore you to stop reading this article immediately and watch them first. Be careful not to fall off your chair.) Hammond and May were also hilarious when they wanted to be, but neither of them kept the joke rate as consistently high as Clarkson, who could abruptly lobby a statement that was so out there that you just couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer ridiculousness and audacity of the whole thing. I am not exaggerating when I say that Top Gear was my favourite television show during my teenage years, and though Jeremy Clarkson was not the sole reason I watched it — the celebrity interviews, the camaraderie, the sheer exhilaration of the overseas specials — his jokes elevated the whole experience for me, and ensured that I returned to it week after week, recording the shows on our little hard-drive and then poring over them until I could quote every line by heart. With that kind of repeated exposure, it was only a matter of time before I started taking on the man’s linguistic style.
(Did this have any effect on my own personality? I can’t say for sure. I was always an obnoxious child, and the period where I was especially obnoxious coincided with the height of Top Gear and Jeremy’s popularity — but correlation is not causation so I don’t think I can blame all of it on him, and after I took a degree in kindness I continued to watch his stuff in uni anyway, even if it was with a bit of trepidation.)
I checked out the man’s other media appearances too — he was charming on Have I Got News for You and The Graham Norton Show, and QI always was a much more entertaining watch for me when he was around. I bought the man’s books — plural — and I devoured them intensely, laughing at every single joke he wrote. Even as I read his books, though, I was always reminded that this was an immensely troubled man, that the affected indifference and irritation hid something darker — it was inexpressible, but it was there. To illustrate this, here is a section on battleships from his 2005 book on machines, I Know You Got Soul:
“Some might say that no machine conceived only to kill could ever be called ‘beautiful’. Magnificent maybe, and awesome perhaps. But not beautiful. The thing is, though, that in the battleship’s short life of just 90 years it turned out to be a less effective killing machine than almost any other weapon of war. All they did was steam around the oceans, making the people who paid for them feel good. So I do consider them beautiful — and I consider the Yamato to be the most beautiful of them all.”
That is a nice little poetic passage, but it also made me profoundly uneasy: I am, in fact, one of those people who do think that killing machines can hardly be called beautiful. Yet here he was declaiming his admiration for one, and as I grew up rereading this passage it continued to stick oddly with me: what did it mean that he liked these instruments of death? Was his exuberance for majestic machinery masking a bloodlust of sorts? We’ll come back to the implications of that one later, but I would read these statements, statements that I could see were stupid, ignorant, even — but crucially, not unforgivable. When he attacked a BBC producer I was fortunately clear-headed enough to recognise that his actions were despicable, but after a while it all died down, he apologised (and seemed contrite), and we decided that him being fired from a national institution had been enough punishment. I did not watch the revamped version of the show after the original trio left, despite the just-as-positive reviews its later seasons got; instead I waited patiently for Amazon Prime to arrive in Hong Kong and jumped on his new show at the first opportunity.
The question remains for me, though: why did I continue to watch the man, even after he had proven to be such a loaded concept? That’s a question which I’m going to dive into a little more in the next section.
PART 2: “I DON’T BELIEVE IN WHAT I WRITE”
There is no doubt that Jeremy Clarkson is the reason why Top Gear, at least in its initial form, was such a success. I’ve already alluded to his antics on the show above, but let’s not forget that Top Gear was first and foremost a car show, and Jeremy’s undeniable expertise and his way of delivering his reviews was an important part of its resurgence in popularity. He massively raised the ratings of the original show, which then imploded after he first left it in 1999; when they began again three years later it was sustained quite a bit by Clarkson’s popularity (James May had yet to come in, and Richard Hammond was still trying to find his role). One of the main facets of his popularity was his irreverence for everything: his outrageous comments were meant to shock anybody who was easily offended while establishing a rapport with the man on the street: the man who wasn’t afraid to make outlandish and slightly bewildering analogies, who wasn’t afraid to rankle the people in charge, and who was always insular and resistant to anything that might threaten their beloved England. That anti-establishment and nationalist/populist mindset is, I think, a huge part of British culture, and Clarkson harnessed that very well during his time on Top Gear, for good or ill. How much Jeremy himself holds these views in real life is another matter; the important thing is that the public by and large buys him as one.
Yet there is a second facet to his popularity that, I think, is the key to his image as a lovable rogue. Witness the 2012 episode where he and James May guested on The Graham Norton Show, and his opening line to Joan Rivers was “can you see my nipples?” (Rivers: “I don’t want to. Can you see my nipples?”) It’s a crude comment (and doomed, when you remember who he’s up against), but I feel that it’s also one that puts himself on the line: it is a statement designed to shock at his own expense. Jeremy’s age and infamously poor fashion sense is here weaponised, turned into an asset and an image of culpability while pre-emptively taking the wind out of any criticism aimed his way. That is an aspect that has made me extremely reluctant to give him up after all these years — his ability to self-deprecate, to embarrass himself in words and actions, and come out the victor. That, like it or not, is power. It is not a carapace — I myself have slowly learned over the years that it can backfire and lead to self-loathing — but it projects a sense of humility, this image (real or not) that he is human, fallible and willing to learn. As we all are, in the end.
I am reminded at this point by another British journalist and television personality, who has since harnessed his own brand of populism to much more dangerous ends. The similarities between Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Johnson, when you begin to think about it, are vast: both went to a prestigious school (Jeremy got kicked out of Repton, Boris graduated from Eton); both started out as journalists and made their name through outrageous things they said or published. Both established a reputation for frequently putting their feet in their mouths; both came out looking the victor anyway. Both make frequent appeals to patriotism and often come out with conservative/libertarian viewpoints, yet both are also much more globalised than they usually let on: Jeremy loudly and proudly supported Remain, while BoJo famously wrote two pieces in support of both sides of the Brexit referendum. But while I have always loathed Boris Johnson — even when he was first making his name as the Mayor of London, I was thinking “this guy’s a twat” — I cannot seem to do the same for Jeremy Clarkson.
This is the second biggest question I have regarding this problematic adoration: why is it that one man fills me with disgust, and the other with curiosity? Perhaps it was the case that Johnson was more explicit in his thirst for power; perhaps it was simply that Jeremy’s mea culpas have been much more believable and sincere. (After all, when Oisin Tymon took him to court after the 2015 incident, Jeremy’s candid media statements were all along the lines of “let him do it, it is my fault after all.” He seemed to believe it, too.) Or perhaps it is the case that in media — where things are slightly more ephemeral, despite our attempts to prove otherwise — it is easier to dismiss this contradiction as a character quirk, a persona put on for the cameras.
This, to me, is an intriguing and sometimes questionable part of British humour: that tongue-in-cheek, all-in-good-fun spirit where nothing you say or do reflects your real thoughts on a matter. From Jonathan Swift and Tobias Smollett onwards, British humour has relied on this — your supposedly more nuanced thoughts are left for the inevitable press release that clarifies your actual stance; everything you say at the lectern or on the page is done in favour of shock and outrage, of currying favour from a public that can so easily take things at face value. Jeremy himself has admitted as much before: during his 2010 Top Gear interview with Alastair Campbell, the former claimed “I don’t believe in what I write, any more than you believe in what you say”. I think this sums up his whole ethos in a single sentence: his flippancy, Clarkson wants to imply, is simply a product of him needing to churn out product, to pander to his base; what glimpses of the real man we get are much more complex.
Regardless of how true this is, I think it’s necessary to realise that this is not that far-fetched an idea: occasionally we say things that are exaggerated or even untrue, just because we want to make a point or because we’ve been caught up in the heat of the moment. We don’t really want a football team to be summarily executed for their incompetence, or that we would like to marry a particularly good-tasting risotto. But this kind of unbridled sentiment is dangerous, not to mention a serious dereliction of duty, when you are in a position of influence and therefore power. Words, like it or not, are an action in themselves, and are doubly dangerous when you have amassed a huge following. It is triply dangerous if the sentiments you espouse, however flippant and tongue-in-cheek, are abhorrent. Jeremy certainly has a huge following (amongst which I count myself), how many people would take his words at face value, and feel whatever he told them to feel?
Which is why the Meghan article was so especially dangerous: others have spoken much on how it was racist and misogynist, and these are things that I will not dispute. I am not going to get into the whole Harry-Meghan debacle here, but whatever negative feelings the British populist press (and many members of the public) had towards the Sussexes, Clarkson chose to channel and amplify, and in the process fell into those repugnant tropes. It was a sickening occurrence, not helped by first his own feeble and unconvincing excuse (seriously? It was a reference to “Game of Thrones”? You expect us to buy that?) and then his cack-handed apology to the half of the couple he HADN’T wronged in the first place — which just exposed his casual racism even more. I say casual, because this kind of thoughtless and ignorant racism seems to be quite popular amongst people of his age, who think nothing of tossing around tired 70s stereotypes, and when confronted claim ignorance and defiance against adapting to the times. I’ve witnessed it first-hand, and it’s horrible.
Up till this point, the narrative is conventional. Here is a man who has been exposed as a peddler of racist and idiotic tropes, and if it weighs on your conscience then you should watch something else — everybody is free to choose what they want to watch, but one can hardly deal with all the mental baggage that comes with this man, and there are other things to watch on Amazon Prime. Mad Men. The entire James Bond filmography. Even James May has built up a little haven for himself with his travel and cookery shows. Oh, and what’s this show in the corner? Clarkson’s Farm?
PART 3: FARMER, SUCCESSFULLY SIMULATING
I think it’s necessary to get a sense of the lay of the land when talking about Clarkson’s Farm. After moving onto Amazon Prime, Clarkson, Hammond and May had gotten off to a strong start with The Grand Tour: it received mildly positive reviews, remained just as funny, and even if the trio’s age was beginning to show the stunts were still as glorious and silly as ever. (One could make the argument that series 3 lives up to early-2010s Top Gear, and that someone would be correct.) But after three series, they announced that they would take a break from making shows together: apart from the occasional special (which have been uniformly mediocre), the three of them have split up to do their own thing. As mentioned above, James went and did travel and cooking shows, while Richard Hammond tried to make a parody of a Bear Grylls show. It is very, very bad.
And Jeremy? He did nothing. At first we thought that he had genuinely retired, content to make the occasional appearance hosting the new Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. But then it transpired that he had indeed disappeared into the countryside — not to retire, but to run a farm. Not in the Top Gear “see how badly he can screw this up” kind of way, either; this was a genuine agricultural project, one that would be environmentally conscious, give back to society, and go some ways to redeeming his evil petrolhead ways.
And much to everyone’s surprise, it actually paid off: when the first series of Clarkson’s Farm came out in June 2021, everyone was startled by just how much of a transformation Jeremy had effected. He was still as arrogant as ever, yet for the first time he was facing consequences. On his old motoring shows, he and the others would pull a prank, then run away before they got their comeuppance; on Clarkson’s Farm he would have to clear up the mess, with or without the help of others, and learn to actually make it work. What’s more, he was coming out of this looking human — he was shedding tears, not because his favourite car was being discontinued or because he had gotten all patriotic, but because his lambs were being slaughtered. “Jeremy Clarkson crying over animals” was on nobody’s bingo card, but there they were, his tears on the screen for everyone to see. (Yes, the very next shot was him eating those very lambs for dinner, but the thought was there.) There were, of course, some people who scoffed at this, and suggested that there was nothing funny in a man behaving incompetently around professionals. There were also people who thought his self-humbling a cynical ploy to regain the audiences that had drifted off in the meantime. For all I know, they are very much in the right — but it is also true that the show is a genuinely funny pastoral comedy, and one that was moving in parts to boot.
It was also a vindication, both critically and commercially. Clarkson’s Farm marked the apex of a small-scale redemption arc that had begun with The Grand Tour: he announced his cautious support for Labour, was impressed by Impossible Burgers, and finally started treating climate change seriously. The only thing that drew serious criticism was his scorn of Greta Thunberg, but if you were part of the demographic that listened to her you were unlikely to change your mind on Jeremy Clarkson anyway. And anyway, there was no real need for him to be completely acceptable — like I said, the appeal of Clarkson was that he was a fallible human. His incompetence was the point. When you took that into account, then this version of Jeremy Clarkson was very much the platonic ideal. Perhaps with time and age he would mellow out, finish out his career making genial agricultural shows and then leave the stage with some semblance of dignity and respect.
Oh how naïve I was. The Sun column from last Christmas served as a sharp reminder that the old Jeremy was still there: angry, bigoted, proudly fossilised in a Britain fifty years gone. It undid all of the goodwill that he had accumulated over the past eight years and then some; it was telling that even members of the Conservative Party were asking the Sun to sack him. He hadn’t so much shot himself in the foot as dropped an atom bomb on it.
Now, I never felt personally betrayed or anything. I’m something of a Cassandra when it comes to these things and I was vaguely conscious of the fact that it was only a matter of time, that sooner or later Jeremy Clarkson would get complacent, revert to his old ways and destroy everything that he had worked so hard to build. But when the news broke, there was still a part of me that felt sad: not because I now couldn’t enjoy Clarkson’s work unreservedly (which, I have to say, I did by the time Clarkson’s Farm came along), but because it was all so stupid, so avoidable. I do not mean to suggest that racist views are fine as long as they are privately held, but having the audacity to air them so publicly suggests an additional level of hubris and stupidity — one that is frankly disappointing coming from such a media-savvy personality.
And that troubled me in a way that it hadn’t the first time round. Coming as it had during my DSE exams, his first public disgrace in 2015 had not caused me much mental strife; this time, I found myself having to grapple with the very real facts that one of my favourite presenters was not only a disappointment, but also an extremely dark human being. In those intervening years he had managed to construct a façade that convinced (maybe even “fooled”) a lot of people, including me; now that the scaffolding had come tumbling down we discovered that there was nothing there, that the great yawning chasm that had been exposed before had only gotten bigger. It’s because of this darkness that I’ve held off watching series two —
Okay, I can’t say that’s true in any way that justifies my conscience, I haven’t watched it mostly because I couldn’t get my Amazon Prime account to work. But it is also somewhat because I feared what it might say of me if I continued to watch (and then approve of) anything related to Jeremy Clarkson. I like to think of myself as moderately liberal, but my inability to shake off the spectre of the man is troubling me a bit — it doesn’t consume my every waking hour, but it does sit there like a sullen toad. Perhaps my loyalty just means that I am stubbornly holding onto a glorified image of the man, unable to let go of something that used to cause me such joy in the past. Perhaps I’ve even subconsciously accepted some of the same views he has, which troubles me the more I think about it. There is a part of me that wants to say that this Jeremy is not the real Jeremy, that the racist part of him can be cordoned off and given an education. But we viewers tried that, and it didn’t work.
The question remains though: how do I square Jeremy Clarkson? (I’m not saying “we” because I’m only one voice, and what I say doesn’t really matter in the fabric of things anyway.) It is true that Jeremy Clarkson is capable of being a bigoted old man. It is also true that he is equally capable of being a mild-mannered bumbler, confused by modern life and its bureaucratic demands, and this latter sentiment I can relate to much more. His whole deal goes against the conventional mindset with which we treat media, and specifically that one person can be defined by one single characteristic: as the Guardian’s Jack Seale pointed out last week, he has “the disarming ability to present different versions of himself”. And again, when he puts his mind to it — when he does make the effort to be sympathetic — the results can be pleasing, even comforting. I still haven’t figured it out, and I don’t know if I have the energy to figure it out.
But right now, I can’t resist the allure of some warm, fuzzy piece of familiar entertainment. After I publish this piece, I’m probably going to go out into the living room, fix my Amazon Prime, and fire up series two of Clarkson’s Farm. Perhaps I shouldn’t, and perhaps I will spend all eight hours unable to get into it. On the other hand, most of the reviews I’ve read have been reserved but kind, and I don’t expect the show to be much more than Mr. Bean with farming equipment. But even so, I will watch the show with the knowledge that I will never see Jeremy Clarkson the same way again, and maybe that’s something me and my conscience have to live with — because as it turns out, saying goodbye to somebody who shaped your life, who played an important part of making you who you are, is one of the most difficult things to do… in the world.