Jeremy Clarkson is not the shy and retiring type.
Kicking off The Grand Tour last year alongside long-time presenting partners Richard Hammond and James May, the 57-year-old has never backed away from confrontation – with a particularly notorious run-in with a BBC producer leading to his downfall on Top Gear.
The one-man controversy-causing machine who talks as if his voice is constantly shifting up and down through the gears has recovered from a life-threatening bout of pneumonia, but one gets the impression that he finds having to give an interview a not much more enjoyable ordeal, but a necessary evil to help promote the second season of the show.
His mood’s not helped when we start off by asking about May’s new haircut, which recently became headline news across the internet. His flowing, slate-coloured hair, which gave him the air of a middle-aged Poldark, was shorn, and his new look draws slightly less flattering comparisons to… well, Jeremy Clarkson.
The Big Issue: First of all, your reaction to the May news story…
Jeremy Clarkson: I’m genuinely staggered – someone who’s worked in television as long as he has gets halfway through filming a series then has all his hair cut off. It has ruined all our continuity. I’ve always said he’s the stupidest man I’ve ever met and here’s proof. I might dye mine bleach blonde and see if anybody notices.
What is your reaction to the May news story being a news story?
‘Middle-aged man has a haircut.’ I know, I know. But then I’ve lost interest in Brexit so perhaps it is a
Maybe we’re post-post-truth news – it’s gone back to stories about hair.
At least it is a true news story because he has had his hair cut.
The other development has been that The Grand Tour tent will not have as much of a grand tour this year [so much for being ‘peripatetic’].
The sheer complexity of moving these tents around the world, and it didn’t really add anything. So putting it in one place makes a hell of a lot of sense, particularly as the one place is half a mile from where I live.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Total coincidence. A staggering coincidence. Imagine my joy and surprise when they came and said we’ve found a location and it’s next to where you live.
The show is a huge international success but still very British. How do you feel about being someone people think of when it comes to representing Britain and British culture?
What, more than the Man Booker Prize winner?
It’s remarkable isn’t it? I remember Newsnight once went out to Romania just as whatever ruling it was that was going to allow Romanians to come and live in Britain. They went out there in that bonkers Newsnight way to find out why so many would want to come to the UK and the first one just went, ‘because of Top Gear’. I thought that was hilarious. What about the Queen, Beefeaters, Tower Bridge? No, didn’t know about any of that, just Top Gear. It’s ridiculous but it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Do you take the responsibility seriously?
Britain is now just a rock in the middle of the North Atlantic so it’s nice we still have one or two success stories we can stand up and shout about. We’re not alone, there’s always the vacuum cleaners.
Richard Hammond talked about the sense of freedom driving gives him. What does it mean
I don’t like the act of travelling. The reason I like fast cars is because you get the travelling over as quickly as possible. So I don’t really like speed limits and speed cameras. The more time you spend at 50mph the more pollution you’re creating – obviously – and the longer you’re sitting in the car with nothing on the radio other than The Archers, which drives me mad.
The faster your car the more intelligent you’re going to be because you’ll learn more stuff and see more things and meet more people and have more experiences. Speed makes people clever, that’s the essence of it, and that’s why I like fast cars. If somebody dawdles they’re sitting in the car listening to The Archers, their mind rotting away as they look out for speed cameras, whereas someone who goes like the clappers is having a better life.
Do you ever get pulled over?
We don’t really have traffic police any more. I don’t think anybody’s been pulled over for speeding by a policeman since about 1953. They’re far too busy investigating the sexual antics of people who are now dead. That seems to be what the police do for a living.
Would you prefer they were back on the roads?
I’d rather have an actual policeman than a camera. A speed camera can’t tell whether you’ve got insurance, whether you’re drunk, whether you smoked 300 tonnes of Lebanese gold, it can only tell speeding. I’d far rather have a policeman who can say, ‘You were doing 85 but it doesn’t really matter because the motorway was quiet and you’re sober and your car’s in good nick’. A camera doesn’t differentiate any of those things – well some can now. A camera is just a cash machine for the government, but everybody knows that.
They have to get some money from somewhere…
Only because it builds aircraft carriers without planes to put on them or digs roads up then digs them up again because it forgot it had to put a gas main in. Governments are useless, they should put up park benches and that’s it. That’s all the government should be allowed to do. Everything else should be privatised.
On the grand tour theme, was there a formative experience that helped shape who you are?
Finally, a question I’ve never been asked. Yes, the first time I ever trundled around the south of France then into Italy. As a 19-year-old kid from Doncaster working on the Rotherham Advertiser, you suddenly thought God al-bloody-mighty, the world’s amazing. It was so fascinating and fabulous. I’m not particularly interested in art or classical music but it’s amazing to go to places like Florence, and be surrounded by it. You can’t help but be swept along. That definitely did make me a different person.
The Grand Tour Season 2 is on Amazon Prime Video now