Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear – a timeline

As the BBC confirms Jeremy Clarkson will be dropped, here's a comprehensive history of how he helped turn a local motoring show into the most watched factual programme in the world

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The BBC and Jeremy Clarkson are parting ways, a statement from Tony Hall has confirmed this afternoon. “A line has been crossed,” said the Corporation’s director-general, confirming that the BBC would not be renewing the Top Gear host’s contract which expires at the end of this month. 

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But despite parting ways with one of the BBC2 show’s three hosts, Hall said “this decision should in no way detract from the extraordinary contribution that Jeremy Clarkson has made to the BBC.

And in that spirit, we take a look back at an extraordinary BBC career that helped take Top Gear from a local motoring show to a global super brand…  

1988 Jeremy Clarkson joins Top Gear

Top Gear had begun life on the BBC in 1977 as a regional motoring show on BBC Midlands. In 1988 former Rotherham Advertiser hack and motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson joined the show as one of a number of new presenters. Friend and ex-racing driver Tiff Needell also signed up, and the pair were joined in 1989 by car dealer Quentin Wilson.

Both Clarkson and the show were very different beasts back then. Clipped accent, tie, blazer, country home: Clarkson’s get-up might have been a good match for a red Bentley, but it was a long way from the formula that would turn Top Gear into a worldwide success.

1991 The hair – and the show – grows

As that last Michael McIntyre clip shows, Clarkson’s presenting style transformed in those three years. By 1991 he wasn’t playing the country gent – he was taking the mickey out of them. This review of the Mercedes S-Class, the car for “the man who married a sex kitten,” is a case in point.

Clarkson told GQ in 2006 that he had a good education in this abrasive style back in his schooldays: “What I learnt at school is that if you didn’t want to get thrown into the plunge pool every morning, which was the ritual if you were a bit of a twat, then you had to behave badly.

“I was thrown in every morning and it got to the stage where I was getting out of bed every day and throwing myself in. But it quickly became apparent that if you smoked and drank and said things that annoyed the teachers, you stopped getting thrown in. I don’t think I’ve ever been funny, but I’ve always been prepared to say what some people consider to be the ‘unsayable’.”

That willingness to say the “unsayable” made the old Top Gear format the most popular motoring show on TV, with audiences growing to more than six million in the years following Clarkson’s debut.

1999: Clarkson leaves Top Gear

Even though Top Gear still had a number of presenters on its books, Clarkson was its most public face, and so it was a surprise when he announced he would be leaving the show in 1999. “The shock tactics had become predictable and so weren’t shocking any more,” he explained in his Top Gear magazine column. “And it was the same with the metaphors. The first time you heard me liken some car to the best bits of Cameron Diaz, you probably sniggered about it at school all the next day. But now, it’s tedious.”

Current co-host James May was touted as Clarkson’s successor, but without its main man the show struggled. In 2001, the BBC decided to “rest” the format and re-evaluate. Former Top Gear presenters Tiff Needell, Vicki Butler-Henderson and Adrian Simpson left along with most of the production team to set up rival show Fifth Gear on Channel 5.

2002: New Top Gear launches

Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman launch the new version of Top Gear, relocating to an aircraft hangar at Dunswold Aerodrome. Harry Enfield had the honour of becoming the show’s first Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.

The first series featured Clarkson, Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe, but he was replaced by James May the following series.

2003: Black Stig is “killed off”

Clarkson is credited with coming up with the idea of an anonymous racing driver (‘Stig’ was the name new pupils were given at his public school Repton). When Perry McCarthy was revealed as the first Stig, he was “killed off” after driving off the end of HMS Invincible. He was replaced by the first ‘White Stig’, before he too was replaced after Ben Collins confirmed he was the Stig in his autobiography. The current Stig’s identity remains a mystery.

2003: “The unbreakable Hilux”

Still one of the great Top Gear segments, Clarkson’s feature with the Toyota Hilux is everything that made the show a global hit: start with a raggedy old grump of a car, tease it, smash it, learn to love it, then end with a stunt that no other series would have the gumption to pull off.

That shot of a car plummeting down from the roof of a demolished skyscraper proved this was like no other car show on TV. It wasn’t long before the world caught up with Clarkson & co.

2004: the first race

Another example of Clarkson tuning up the series as it gained worldwide traction: the Aston Martin DB9 driven by the Top Gear host beat the French TGV in a race from Surrey to Monte Carlo.

2006: Clarkson and BBC Worldwide sign new deal

Producer Wilman and Clarkson set up new company Bedder 6 in 2006 in order to make the most of the show’s growing global audience, according to Variety. The show was sold to 44 countries in that year, including the USA. BBC Worldwide took a majority holding in the company, and in return Clarkson and Wilman took a cut of international rights.

That same year, Clarkson said in his Top Gear magazine column that the show had “become a monster”, praising the production team for the hours of work they had to put in to make the show work.

“It’s the main reason why Top Gear doesn’t look like any other show on television,” he wrote. “Because everyone on it works so bloody hard. And because we have the best production manager in the whole of the BBC. 

“We also have the best executive producer. Unlike most executive producers who are paid to have a lot of lunch, Andy Wilman spends all day in the office, swearing at anyone who walks past, and then when everyone’s gone home, he goes to the edit suite in central London to swear at everyone there. In the last run, he never got home before one in the morning.”

2007: the Polar Special

Less than a year after Richard Hammond’s high speed crash in a turbojet drag racing car, the trio were heading for the North Pole. Clarkson and May drove a Toyota Hilux (what other car would do?), while Hammond used a team of dogs.

It was the first Top Gear episode to be shown in high definition, and Clarkson and May also became the first people to drive to the North Pole.

Not that the feat was without its controversy: labelled “highly irresponsible” by Greenpeace, the BBC Trust was more concerned by the scene in which Clarkson and May drink G&Ts while behind the wheel. The Trust said it “could be seen to glamorise the misuse of alcohol” and “was not editorially justified in the context of a family show pre-watershed”.

2008: the backlash begins

Clarkson continually pushed the boundaries of what could be said on air as scrutiny of the show increased. Regulator Ofcom cleared him of any wrongdoing after his comments “What matters to lorry drivers? Murdering prostitutes? Fuel economy?” drew more than 1,000 complaints.

In 2010, the show apologised to the Mexican ambassador after Hammond described Mexicans as “lazy, feckless, flatulent”, and a year later the Indian High Commission came to blows with the show over the country’s portrayal during the Indian Christmas Special.

2012: Clarkson sells to BBC Worldwide

All three presenters agreed to new three-year contracts in September 2012. At the same time, Wilman and Clarkson agreed to sell full rights to BBC Worldwide – Bedder 6’s profits were believed to have grown five times over since the company was first established.

2013: the most-watched factual programme… in the world

Top Gear made its way into the Guinness World Records in 2013, with the number of territories broadcasting the show hitting 212. Various countries have tried to launch their own versions of the show, but the UK original is still by far the most popular around the world.

2014: final warning

Clarkson said in the Sun that he had been told by the BBC that he would be sacked if he made “one more offensive remark, anywhere, at any time.” this came after footage emerged of the presenter appearing to mumble the n-word during a nursery rhyme in un-broadcast footage.

This controversy came after Ofcom criticised the show for using a racially offensive term during the Burma Special. Later in 2014, the Top Gear production crew were forced to flee the country to escape local protests. A number plate with the registration H982 FKL had been interpreted as a veiled reference to the 1982 Falklands War.

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2015: the end…

Clarkson is suspended by the BBC and the final three episodes of Top Gear are pulled after the presenter was accused of punching a producer. After a two-week inquiry, the presenter is dropped by the BBC after the BBC director-general concluded that Clarkson had “crossed a line”.