People of Yorkshire Volume 21 – Jeremy Clarkson

Controversial motor journalism figure, Jeremy Clarkson.
Controversial motor journalism figure, Jeremy Clarkson. (Image source: wikipedia)

Controversial, outspoken and opinionated, Jeremy Clarkson’s no-nonsense approach to broadcasting is borne straight out of the mining towns of South Yorkshire. Amongst many achievements he has changed the face of motoring journalism in the UK and remains one of the most influential figures in the industry.

He was born in Doncaster on April 11th 1960 and spent much of his early life helping his parents in their family business, selling tea cosies and Paddington bear toys. Rebellious from a young age, he was expelled from Repton School in Derbyshire for “drinking, smoking and making a general nuisance of himself,”- in his own words.

He managed to forge a career in local journalism and wrote copy for local publications, such as the Rotherham Advertiser, Rochdale Observer and Lincolnshire Life amongst others. In 1984 he and like-minded writer, Jonathan Gill set up the “Motoring Press Agency,” which road-tested different cars for local papers and industry magazines. Their reviews of different vehicles increased in popularity and eventually their column became a regular feature in the industry magazine “Performance Car.”

Their work caught the eye of producers of the BBC Top Gear programme who were looking for a new presenter to revamp an ailing show. Clarkson seemed the obvious choice as somebody

who was younger, brasher and willing to drive the show in a new direction.

He made his Top Gear debut in late 1988, with a remit to help modernise a show, whose previous presenters had included Angela Rippon and Noel Edmonds. Clarkson co-presented the show along with others such as Vicki Butler-Henderson, Quentin Wilson and Tiff Needell throughout the 1990s on BBC2. The show was made up of several on-location features about motoring issues, such as transport congestion in London, motorways, maintenance and car reviews. Top Gear quickly became the most popular TV show on BBC2 pulling in 5m viewers per Sunday night episode, mainly thanks to Clarkson.

During this period of the show his influence on the motoring industry heightened. In one episode he described a Vauxhall Vectra as a “box on wheels,” which reportedly had a negative impact on sales.

The show however was to be driven off- track by the turn of the Millennium. Several of the show’s leading presenters, including Needell and Butler Henderson had gone to Channel 5 in order to make their own car show called “5th Gear.” Clarkson himself had decided to leave the show for numerous reasons, which included having to film the show at Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. As he put it,

“Much as I liked Pebble Mill, I really did grow to hate, with unbridled passion, the city that surrounds it. Until you have driven through King’s Heath on a wet Wednesday in February, you have not experienced true horror.”

In truth Clarkson felt that by transforming the show from a niche programme for car enthusiasts with viewing figures in the thousands, to the most watched show on its channel with around 6 million viewers, he had taken Top Gear as far as he could. What is more he had his own chat show in the pipeline.

“Clarkson” ran for 23 episodes from 1998-2000, roughly co-inciding with his Top Gear hiatus. He interviewed famous people and then also undertook a wacky activity with them such as making melon rockets for example.

The Top Gear show was left in hands of Quentin Wilson, Kate Humble and another called James May. Ratings for Top Gear halved and by 2001 the axe hung over the show when that year’s series was cancelled. The fall in audience figures was partly put down to Clarkson’s departure and an old-fashioned format which had changed little since its beginnings in 1977.

In 2002 a new producer, Andy Wilman, and Jeremy Clarkson joined forces to totally revamp the format of Top Gear and effectively save the show from the controller’s axe. They were old school friends, and both had grown tired of the show’s staid format.

It was decided that Top Gear should be a studio-based show, which revolved around three presenters, Clarkson, Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe. Two of them, Clarkson and Hammond would do the stunts, challenges and reviews, while Dawe would present bargains for cars. He left after one series and was replaced by James May.

Much to Clarkson’s delight filming switched to Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, complete with its own runway and race track.

The new format devised by Clarkson and Wilman also included a mysterious helmeted presenter known as “The Stig,” who would speed test the cars around the studio’s track during the new “Power laps,” feature. Other new segments of the show included the “Cool Wall,” “The News,” and the “Star in a Reasonably Priced car,” where a celebrity would be timed driving an everyday car around the studio’s track. These were accompanied by more extreme races and challenges taken on by the show’s presenters, usually with Clarkson in a very high powered car and the others using another form of transport.

Throughout the 2000s the new format proved to be a hit and once again became the most watched show on BBC2 with Clarkson very much at the forefront. The three men built up personas on the show, with the larger than life Clarkson taking on the role of alpha male. The appeal of the “new” Top Gear was that you did not have to be “into” cars in order to enjoy it. A viewer could be entertained and understand the show without knowing the nuances of a 16 valve engine. They could be thrilled to watch their favourite actor driving an everyday car around the track, or wonder which presenter was going to make it across London first on their chosen method of transport.

By the end of the decade “Top Gear,” was watched by a total of 50 million people, 83% of the population and had international versions in several other countries including Australia, Russia, and the USA.

Along with Top Gear Clarkson has maintained his writing roots and provides columns for several publications, including “The Sun,” and Top gear magazine.

With the increased popularity of “Top Gear” and the raised profiles of the three presenters, who had become more famous than the show itself, came the controversies.

Clarkson has been at the coal face of many of the controversies related to Top Gear. During his time on the revamped show he has landed himself in hot water after a joke about lorry drivers “murdering prostitutes,” using homophobic descriptions of cars, Nazi salutes, made comments which have upset Gordon Brown, the Mexican ambassador, mental health charities, the Welsh, Asians, the people of Alabama and the entire Argentinean nation in the process. The presenter’s derogatory remarks about the county of Norfolk has led to a “We Hate Jeremy Clarkson Club being formed. Another controversy, over the use of a racist word in a rhyme forced action to be taken by the BBC. These slurs forced the Corporation to place him on a “final warning,”  meaning that if he “made one more offensive comment anytime anywhere,” he was to be sacked.

In March 2015, Clarkson was back in the headlines once again, when at a hotel in his native Yorkshire, he punched one of his Top Gear’s producers in a row over food. This led to him finally being sacked by the BBC and the show taken straight off the air in the middle of the series. The future of Top Gear, without Jeremy Clarkson is uncertain, although a new programme is reportedly in the planning stages and is set to be made with a brand new team of presenters. May and Hammond also left the show and at the time of writing, are reportedly in talks with another broadcaster about hosting a brand new motoring show with Clarkson. Meanwhile the three of them have continued filming for their live shows, which has since dropped the Top Gear name.

Despite his sacking by the BBC in March 2015 and the controversies of which he has been involved in, it seems as if one way or another, Jeremy Clarkson is here to stay.