James May is, to use his own word, knackered. “It never occurred to me that I would become old,” says the former Top Gear star, who turns 54 in January. “I just never imagined it. And yet here I am, suddenly a bit ancient. I like to think of myself as being 12, but I’ve got frizzy grey hair and a baggy face. I’m old. How long have I got left? 30 years? I’m going to assume it’s ten.”
He says all this as he carefully packs into a large shoebox a toy train that was given to him as a Christmas present when he was nine years old. He admits that his old toy makes him feel sentimental, no more so than when he takes it apart and puts it back together again in the first programme of his returning BBC4 series, The Reassembler. But as much as it reminds him of his past, does it also point to his future? Because what really marks out May as a man of a certain age is the existential angst currently swirling round his frankly not badly preserved head.
After the traumas of 2015, when the Top Gear trio left the BBC under a cloud of Jeremy Clarkson’s making, they’ve spent 2016 creating The Grand Tour, in which three middle-aged Englishmen romp round the world, burning rubber and millions of pounds as they go, driving Porsches, Ferraris and McLarens. It is, by all accounts, terrific TV – even though you need to have Amazon Prime to see it. So why does May appear to be so ambivalent about his success? “I’ve been doing it since I was 40,” he says. “We’d become lazy with Top Gear, doing six or seven shows a series. This is 12 shows. It takes a year to make. We had more energy in the old days, because we were younger and less knackered. I’m amazed this has lasted as long as it has.”
So why he is still “fart-arsing” now? Is he trapped by his Grand Tour contract – Amazon reportedly paid £160 million for three series of the show? “I don’t feel trapped because I’m just about in control of it. But I don’t have to do it forever, I’m not beholden to anyone, I’m not waiting for a pension or a carriage clock. But you have to know when to step back, and to be honest I thought it would have happened by now. Eventually I want some other people to do it.” Does Clarkson want to go on forever? “Christ, let’s hope not!” The man who fell into writing about cars by accident – he studied music at Lancaster University – is clearly thinking about the future. “Left to my own devices I would like to go back to playing the piano properly. It’s of no value to anyone else – I’m never going to be brilliant at it – but it would be consuming enough to allay some of those gnawing doubts and fears that come at our age…”
Doubts? “It sounds terribly ‘eggy’ but maybe I should consider doing something good. In some ways what we do is good, because it entertains people, informs them, maybe enlightens them. That’s worthy enough. But I suppose I’ve been luckier than I ever thought I would be, so maybe I should try to help some other people be a bit luckier.” In which case, why not step away? Presumably he doesn’t need the money. “Er, yeah. I could. Well I can’t, because I’ve signed a contract for three years. But if you mean could I survive on what I’ve got, of course I could. You don’t need much once you’ve paid for your house.” He lives in Hammersmith, west London, with his long-term partner, dance critic Sarah Frater. They don’t have children, but he does have three sheds. “I like taking things to bits and putting things together because it’s a form of therapy. I like tools… I will happily go into the shed to mend something.”
With the return of The Reassembler he’s back in his element – and on the Beeb. “I’m indulging myself horribly and expecting other people to sit back and watch.” Not that the BBC see it like that – the episode devoted to the very 1971 model Flying Scotsman that he has just finished swaddling in bubble wrap is a highlight of the BBC4 Christmas schedules. The Reassembler is as lo-fi as it gets, yet way more engaging than it sounds. If you watched him reassemble a vintage lawn mower in the first series you’ll know as much. One newspaper called it “the best programme you’ll see all year”. It is a triumph of Slow TV.
“It’s not true Slow TV,” he suggests. “The BBC are very keen on time checks. That we say, ‘Five hours in and James has put the lawn mower’s carburettor together’. It doesn’t actually take that long. I could probably do it with a blindfold on, to be honest. It’s completely misleading, the idea that it took me eight hours to put that together. I could put 50 of those together in eight hours!” Would Jeremy Clarkson be a welcome guest in his shed? “No. He’s not interested. We’re so different. I don’t want Jeremy Clarkson anywhere near my shed or my toolbox or my piano. He’s interested in fashionable restaurants and celebrity gossip – I’m not interested in those. He’s the sort of man who would say, ‘I’ve got a tool kit’ and it would have in it a multi-bit screwdriver with a magnetic tip and an adjustable spanner. No true mechanical engineer would go near an adjustable spanner. It’s like asking a cabinet-maker to use chipboard. It’s the tool of the charlatan.”
Straight after Christmas May will tear himself away from his spanners, his shed and his rapidly developing nesting instinct to go back on the road with The Grand Tour, filming the next series. One wonders how he will cope. “We don’t live like AC/DC or Led Zeppelin did,” he protests. “We don’t fall out of the back of limousines vomiting or snorting drugs from the navels of nubile 22-year-olds. Often we have a cup of tea and go to bed.” Which is just as well, all things considered. “I used to think that when my glamorous life in TV was over, I’d end up with a shoe shop. But then I realised I’m not that interested in shoes. Maybe I’ll have to set up a toy train repair business instead.”
James May: The Christmas Reassembler airs on Wednesday 28 December on BBC4 at 9pm