Richard Hammond talks fame, Top Gear controversies and climate change

"In society as a whole, we love to be offended and have a scapegoat. But at Top Gear we’re the first to put our hands up and say we pitched it wrong.”

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Richard Hammond is getting wet. Very wet. With a new show to promote that is all about the weather, Radio Times’ photoshoot requires him to be thoroughly drenched courtesy of a rain machine, while a giant fan chills him with a high wind. He could refuse and insist on a regular portrait. Instead he mugs on cue, soaked to the skin, all the while cheerfully co-operative – as might be hoped, but isn’t always the case, with a seasoned pro.

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At 44, Hammond’s success is set in stone. One of three sons of a Solihull probate specialist, he was working in local radio by the age of 19. He began presenting on the Men & Motors channel and, by the time he was picked to join the Top Gear team in 2002, he’d been broadcasting for well over a decade. 

Twelve years on, Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May are key to Top Gear’s status as the most-watched factual show on the planet, seen by 350 million viewers in more than 200 territories. Such success brings rewards that reflect his motoring mania – he currently owns at least five vintage cars and four vintage motorbikes, plus a Porsche 911 GT3 and a BMW R1200RT motorbike “for actually getting places”. He arrives at the west London photoshoot on his BMW, much preferring it for the 250-mile round trip from his Herefordshire home than travelling by car. 

In addition, the “Hamster” (he claims a possibly optimistic height of 5ft 7in) boasts a long list of solo presenting credits, particularly for “pop science” shows. It’s noticeable that all his individual gigs nowadays carry his name in the title, of which more later. And when it comes to promoting them, as with this photoshoot, he knows the game.

On the basis of Top Gear, you might expect him to be all blokey jokes and sniggering asides. Not a bit of it. Instead, he’s given to intense micro-analysis of thought and motive, in such density that at times the blizzard of words veers towards a white-out. (“An interesting debate for broadcast would be the nature of language itself. Are words intrinsically powerful? Do they work like magic spells? Do they exist out of context?”)

Get him on to the ever-mounting controversies surrounding Top Gear, and his reasoning becomes a little opaque. Try this, about the Burma special in March this year, in which Clarkson, May and Hammond were involved in the construction of a bamboo bridge. As an Asian man stood on the bridge, Clarkson said to Hammond that there was “a slope on it”, resulting in an Ofcom ruling that the remark was racist.

“No one on the show had any misgivings at the time,” says Hammond. “As a unit, we tried something which the BBC chose to broadcast, and enough people complained that it was deemed to be wrong, so we went ‘sorry’.

“Look… there’s a Top Gear DVD where Jeremy and I point at the sign for the French town of Bra, and snigger. But the joke wasn’t that we were laughing at the name of an essential female undergarment; the joke was that two middle-aged men with responsibilities would point at such a sign and laugh – and viewers got that distinction completely.”

Um. Really? Are you quite sure? “Oh yes.”

Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson in the Top Gear Burma special

In interviews from years gone by, Hammond would describe the show as “completely harmless”. Halcyon days. At the time we met, the hullaballoo over the filming in Argentina for the Christmas special – where the presenters and production team outraged local people with a car numberplate apparently referencing the Falklands conflict – had not yet taken place. But 2014 had already seen Clarkson mired in the Burma episode and his utterance (or otherwise) of the N-word in unbroadcast Top Gear footage. Back in 2011 Hammond himself caused offence when he delivered the line that if cars reflect national characteristics, a Mexican car would be “lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight”. Somehow a car magazine show has become the most contentious programme on television. 

In society as a whole,” sighs Hammond, “we love to be offended and have a scapegoat. But at Top Gear we’re the first to put our hands up and say we pitched it wrong.” So they pitched it wrong with the Burma special? “We have apologised.”

Was the Ofcom “racist” ruling warranted?

“We’re not in the business of genuinely upsetting or offending anyone,” says Hammond. “We’re in the business of entertainment, and if it fails to entertain, it’s wrong. If the public says we stepped over the line, then we have.” He declines to say whether he agrees with Clarkson that the BBC overreacted. Has anyone at the BBC instructed the programme or its presenters to be more careful?

Hammond with Jeremy Clarkson and James May

“That would be inappropriate to comment on. It goes above my pay grade very quickly.” Presumably he will encounter fewer hazards with the response to Wild Weather with Richard Hammond, in which he treks the globe to explain meteorological mechanics. He loves such programmes – “finding out stuff which amazes me as much as the viewer”. The show does not particularly touch on climate change, but Hammond still has something to say.

“Finding anyone with an honestly held view founded upon genuine knowledge is incredibly difficult. There’s plenty of evidence that climate shifts cyclically, and cars probably create less of a problem than our desire for superheated homes in winter. But demonising the car is much easier, without having access to the facts. Cars are a handy political football. God knows when a truly informed debate will happen.”

Hammond is not one to shrink from sharing his views – and often that view is worth hearing. Listen to his take on his obligatory name-in-the- programme-title status.

“It’s all for box office, but it annoys me when they do it,” he says, and then stares when I scoff that surely such things only happen at his contractual insistence. “No. Emphatically, completely not. Why would I want that?”

Perhaps because he might be either manically egotistical or rampantly insecure, like a lot of well-known people? He shakes his head. “The people worst equipped to deal with fame are those who have pursued it. I do a job through a camera. I like sharing interesting stuff. Being famous is a concept that doesn’t exist to me as a person. If it does, you’ve gone mad.

“If you choose to be an actor or broadcaster or politician, part of you is dealing with inadequacies and insecurities from your past. I am, too, probably, though I’m not conscious of what they are. Fame can be gratifying, and a little embarrassing, and sometimes funny, but if it actually matters to you, you’re in a world of trouble.” 

He does enjoy Twitter, having almost 1.7 million followers, using it mostly to gauge the response to his shows. “I’m never offended by anything on there,” he says. “I would be more offended by a critique of a show.” So when I read out to him part of a newspaper article written in 2011, he knows without being told that it’s by Steve Coogan. (“Richard has his tongue so far down the back of Jeremy’s trousers, he could forge a career as the back end of a pantomime horse”… His “‘edgy’ humour is truly tragic”.)

“Maybe he’d like to put his own tongue down the back of Jeremy’s trousers and is cross that mine’s there already,” suggests Hammond cheerfully. “There comes a time when you have to stop worrying what people think about you. I don’t think I’ve done badly. If another lone celebrity voice disagrees, that’s fine. I’m not after votes.” 

Meantime, he tweets occasionally on the sweetness of the family life he shares with his wife Mindy [Amanda] and their daughters Izzy [Isabella], 14, and Willow, 11. “Sitting with a beer whilst youngest daughter plays piano for me,” he posted in June. “Impossible to be happier.” He smiles at the memory of it.

“Having daughters is perfect. It’s mesmerising to see them grow up. The idea of having to give them away at a wedding some time is going to be a fight, although to them I’m the same embarrassing dad as everyone else’s. Their one fear is me doing Strictly Come Dancing.

“Willow loves ponies. Izzy is sort of into cars, but largely humouring daddy. She comes on the back of the motorcycle all the time. But I don’t want to make my daughters replicas of me. They’re more balanced than me. I have in the past swayed more with people’s opinion, and been susceptible to peer pressure.”

And Mindy? Why was she right for him? “She’s brave and funny. If I took one piece of survival equipment it would be her. She’s sensitive, has great imagination, and is grounded. Bonkers sometimes; impossible, as am I. She’s more cautious than me. I’m not gung-ho but I’m more used to evaluating risk. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to think, ‘Is this a good idea? Will it go wrong? If it does, what are the consequences and are they worth it?’” 

Filming for the upcoming Argentina special

The most notorious such occasion is now eight years behind him. On 20 September 2006, Hammond was shooting a Top Gear item at the wheel of a jet-powered dragster, when tyre failure caused him to crash at 288mph. He sustained life-threatening head injuries and was in a coma for two weeks. Recovery, now complete, was for a long while difficult.

“For years I thought of it especially around now, in the autumn,” he remembers. “It was a lot to deal with. I had a pretty tricky few years. The knock-on effects of the injury meant I was susceptible to depression, obsession, compulsion and paranoia, although I wasn’t aware of that at the time. It gave me an unnatural platform from which to observe my own mental state, which was exhausting.

“For a time I lost the ability to connect emotionally. I began picking away at my own personality and that was dizzying. I don’t think I was very easy to work with for a good while. The team were very patient. I was difficult on shoots, losing my temper, feeling threatened by everything, very defensive. And I massively needed to know if the crash was my fault, because I’d risked the girls growing up without their dad. The telemetry showed I’d done every- thing right and it was an accident. But the girls still remember it very clearly.

“Yes, there could be another accident out there waiting, as there could for anyone. But it’s not a big scar. I’ve filed it away under ‘big things that have happened’. We all have those. Don’t we?” 

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Wild Weather with Richard Hammond is on BBC1 tonight (1st December) at 9.00pm