James May arrives for our interview bang on time and full of apology. “So sorry I’m late,” he says, his tone conveying the familiar mix of amusement and disgust. “I was giving Richard Hammond a lift home in my company car, but it broke down before we got to the end of the road, so we had to push it back to the office.”
May’s 11 years with the most-watched factual programme on the planet (that would be Top Gear, which you may have heard of ) yielded him a current car tally of five, including a £200,000 Ferrari 458, plus 41 motorcycles and a £120,000 Super Decathlon light aircraft.
His estimated earnings are £10 million – about one-third those of Jeremy Clarkson and £5 million less than Richard Hammond, but still the kind of bank balance that signposts a moderately drop-dead company car befitting the trio’s multi-gazillion pound incarnation with Amazon Prime. (The per-episode budget is said to be £4 million, ten times that of the BBC.) So naturally what they agreed on was a fleet of three-wheeled Reliant Robins in the company livery of their new production company, W Chump & Sons Ltd.
“We’re grown-up business people, so we must have company cars,” explains May, embarking on a pint of bitter at the Thameside pub where we meet, a short walk from his London home (he has another in Wiltshire), and a couple of miles from the new company HQ.
“We’ve always liked the word ‘chump’, and it’s quite nearly our initials – Clarkson, Hammond and May Productions. I have to be third in the order because I joined after the others, in 2003, and I have the smallest ego. I’m too lazy to have a bigger ego. It’s lack of ambition. I have lots of those school reports which say, ‘James is a silly little boy’. So it’s quite hilarious how it’s turned out.”
He was 40 when he rejoined the show that would change his life, having made his debut in 1999 under the old, very different format – it was cancelled in 2001. (His only previous TV foray was Channel 4’s Driven in 1998, which was also canned.) Before that, he made a crust as a motoring journalist, and he has no difficulty recalling the pre-£10 million days.
“The greatest luxury now in being reasonably well-off – overlooking the Ferrari and the aeroplane – is that I can always go for a curry without worrying if I can afford it. And there’s no finer morning than finding a bit of curry sauce left over from last night’s takeaway to have on toast for breakfast.”
Many of his tweets to his 2.5 million followers relate to eating, loafing or general torpor, and there’s no doubting that he “never had any ambition, any vision, any plan”. It’s usually impossible that success on his scale – not just from Top Gear but a dozen successful programmes carrying his name, along with 14 books – happens by accident. But he might be the wonderful exception.
A clip from the first series of Cars of the People
His latest project is the second series of James May’s Cars of the People, a collection of sociological essays discussing how cars became part of everyday life. In May’s hands it’s a great watch, delivering lorryloads of motoring history with the lightest touch. The credits list him merely as presenter, but he devised and wrote it, just as he did with all his solo outings for the BBC. That past BBC tense will remain for as long as the Amazon show runs, as the behemoth will eat all his time. He is hopeful of a return.
“The BBC may have ruled me out, but I don’t rule out the BBC. I was surprised they showed lots of Top Gear compilations over Christmas. I thought, ‘Oh, so now they’re celebrating us,’ but I also thought it’s harsh on Chris Evans (below). Just as he’s trying to launch his version of the programme, the BBC is saying, ‘Look how brilliant it was before.’
“I’d like to see Chris’s Top Gear do well. It’s a ballsy call to continue it. I wouldn’t want to be the one presenting it when we’d just finished, but there must be a way of reinventing it. We always said it would survive beyond us. I think the stories about Chris’s version being in trouble might be an elaborate hoax, before it explodes onto our screens in brilliance.”
Chris Evans, who takes over Top Gear later this year
May is naturally cagey about any specifics of the Amazon show, other than to deny again persistent rumours it will be called Gear Knobs. He does disclose that he broke his right arm when filming began last autumn, and it’s still clearly painful when we meet in January.
“I slipped and landed badly, but I went filming the next day because I’m heroic. We’ve managed to keep everything we’ve done so far completely secret, which we could never do on Top Gear. The content is completely different. People are saying, ‘Now you’re with Amazon, you can swear and punch each other in the face.’ But why would we want to do that? It would be rubbish.”
However, May is clear that the new show cannot fail. “How could it? There are too many people who like us messing around with cars. It would need some sudden seismic viewing shift, for reasons no one could possibly understand. Nor can it detract from what we achieved with Top Gear, because we won’t be just another version on another platform. What’s the point?”
What of the reports – following the infamous “fracas” and the BBC not renewing Clarkson’s contract – that he was either an alcoholic, having a breakdown or both? May replies with amused scorn: “Noooo. Sadly he’s still alive. If he’s an alcoholic, so am I. We just like a drink. I don’t think he was unwell or having a breakdown. He’s deranged, but that’s not the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s fat, obviously, and rather ugly. But those aren’t illnesses, merely misfortunes. It’s me I worry about. I fell and broke my sternum a couple of years ago. I never believed I would be old.”
In fact May turned 53 this month, and has been with his partner, dance critic Sarah Frater (above), for 15 years. “I’ve managed to get away without leading too middle-aged a life: I don’t have any children, I’m not married to Sarah, we’ve just lived together a long time. I’ve never thought about marriage or children. We don’t have a joint bank account. There’s no fiscal or moral or sociological reason for us to be together; we just like it.
“I’d be much more of an arse if Sarah wasn’t there. She snorts in derision if I say something even a little bit pretentious. I’m not soppy-romantic. I don’t buy Valentine’s cards or any of that cheesy crap. I’ve made Sarah some jewellery – a ring and a pendant, wrought by my own hands from the dust of the earth. I have romanticised views on morality and decency.”
He has views on many things, and was among the 200 public figures to sign a letter in August 2014 urging Scots to vote against independence.
“I don’t like sectarianism, or people becoming factionalised by arbitrary difference. It felt petty and sad. I don’t like people having to pigeonhole themselves – do you prefer wine or beer, dogs or cats, blondes or brunettes? It’s not really that simple, is it? I’m always being asked what’s my favourite car. I’ve no idea. It changes.”
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May in Top Gear
He certainly has a hinterland. He reads a lot of poetry and during the interview, without self-regard, he quotes Cecil Day-Lewis, Oscar Wilde, Thom Gunn and WB Yeats.
“I believe in the tenacity and the robustness of the human spirit, that it can triumph over every- thing else, and that the true meaning of things can resonate very deeply in the soul of humanity. Does that sound like a load of old s**t?”
He has a degree in music from Lancaster University, and recently took delivery of a new piano. He “listens to everything – medieval to jazz, hip-hop, Radio 6”, and likes seeing dance with his other half, although he prefers modern abstract to “posh panto” classical ballet.
“I like dancing myself,” he says, “but, like most blokes, only if I’m catastrophically drunk.”
Rarely is so successful a TV celeb as agreeable company. There’s no whiff of performance during the interview – May really is funny and interesting, simply enjoying good conversation, including the kind that is not about him. His dishevelled vague- ness has become a signature, but it is a thin disguise.
Asked how he would feel if, for some reason, he could never drive again, he delivers an unintended metaphor for his separation from Top Gear and fresh start with Amazon. “That would be pretty disappointing,” he begins with the familiar irony. Then he adds: “Especially in the springtime, when the car roof is down or you’re on a bike, and you get all the smells and the air is warming up and everything is reborn… and life becomes full of hope again.”
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news