“The really big difference between Amazon and the BBC,” says Jeremy Clarkson, sitting upstairs in a bar where the smoke from James May’s cigarette rises outside the window, “is when we finish a film on The Grand Tour we send it to Amazon, and they ring us up and squeak, ‘It’s brilliant, we love it! We can’t wait! It’s so good!’”
Clarkson, 56, squeezed into new jeans and wearing an old pinkish shirt that fails to hold an ample tummy entirely in check, turns his massive head in my direction.
“You never got that from the BBC.” We’re meeting to talk about his new Amazon series, The Grand Tour, which reunites him with his ex-Top Gear colleagues May, Richard Hammond – who are both here – and the fourth and unseen member of the team, producer Andy Wilman.
Not that they ever separated, really, as becomes clear when I ask Clarkson why on earth he made a TV series when he could be at home in Chipping Norton counting his money.
“Well, I had a few potty ideas,” he says. “There was a brief moment of thinking, ‘Should I go into farming?’ Then it became clear that James and Richard were out the door [of the BBC] as well, Andy was out. That put the four of us back together again. It was obvious what we were going to do, and we just had to find somewhere to do it.”
If you have been googling Clarkson of late, you’ll have seen a trailer for The Grand Tour featuring some very expensive cars in international locations, but Clarkson is at pains to dampen down any glamour around the show (not hard when your co-star is skulking in an alley with a fag).
“I know the trailer looks amazing,” Clarkson says. “But they’re not going to put in the boring bits. It’s still us three; it has to have that cosiness; it has to have that sitting-room intimacy. I don’t want people to expect a Marvel-type Avengers Assemble thing — it’s Last of the Summer Wine.” Well, only if Compo had access to an Aston Martin Vulcan rather than a bathtub on wheels.
Clarkson’s point is that, to work, The Grand Tour needs to be both brand new and simultaneously very like the phenomenally successful old show he delivered for the BBC – the institution that made him a world-wide star and then, once he became too big to control, threw him away.
Though Clarkson doesn’t see it that way. “I was never sacked from the BBC,” he insists. “They just didn’t renew my contract on Top Gear.”
Besides, Clarkson is still at the BBC. “I haven’t left,” he says. “I’ve just done QI and Have I Got News for You. Hopefully, I’ll appear on the BBC all the time.”
Nonetheless, the truth is that in April 2015, following a succession of set-tos, furores and international incidents involving, among other countries, Mexico, Thailand and Argentina and a very public last warning from the BBC’s then director of television Danny Cohen, Clarkson left the BBC’s largest money-spinner – Top Gear is worth over £50 million a year to the corporation – after allegedly assaulting producer Oisin Tymon.
However, he seems to hold Cohen to blame for his departure. “Everybody thinks that the BBC was a bloody nightmare. It wasn’t. Cohen was. The BBC was brilliant to work for until the arrival of Mr Cohen. They never really interfered at all. But he was a bloody nuisance and caused me an enormous amount of stress.”
You could argue that Cohen had much to be a nuisance about. It was Clarkson, after all, who recited the n-word nursery rhyme. Clarkson who made the “slopes” on the bridge gag about the Burmese.
Consequently, the show’s last year was engulfed in a near constant press-storm around the trio’s misadventures. “It became wearing,” Clarkson says. “The newspapers were annoying, but that’s not the end of the world, provided you’ve got a broadcasting organisation behind you that knows the papers are being mischievous.
“When the broadcasting organisation starts to take seriously the opinion of the Mail or Mirror, well, you can’t win, because they’re going to have a go at me no matter what I do. You can’t really fine-tune your persona – you are who you are.”
Clarkson is still happy to laugh about the offence he causes. When I ask him about accusations of misogyny and sexism in his shows, he says, “We never did that. We stuck to racism and homophobia.”
He’s joking, but the Mexican affair in 2011 (Hammond calling a whole nation “feckless, flatulent and lazy” on air, while Clarkson and May sniggered) was inexcusable.
Surprisingly, Clarkson agrees. “Genuinely, if I look back at all the Top Gear Wikipedia section marked ‘controversy’, then Mexico is the one where we definitely got it wrong. I went to see the Mexican ambassador and apologised to him.
“I didn’t have to, the Beeb didn’t tell me to, but it was out of order. If you’re writing thousands and thousands of words and doing hours and hours of television, then occasionally you will tread on a land mine. So we went down and said we were really sorry and got absolutely paralytic on tequila with him. That was a good day.”
The picture of May, Hammond and Clarkson knocking back slammers with His Excellency is an irredeemably silly one and Clarkson is wise enough to recognise that schoolboy humour (or public schoolboy in his Old Reptonian case) rather than adult humour is a key part of their continuing success.
The Grand Tour will stay on the same road. “There’s no swearing in it,” he says. “Even though we could say the c-word if we wanted to.” Amazon, he implies, will allow him to do pretty much whatever he wants and give him the money to do it with.
One report claims the four men’s production company – W Chump and Sons – will receive £160 million over 36 shows. “That’s never been made public.”
He points out that the show’s main setting, a tented studio they take from country to country, is very expensive but otherwise the budget is “almost exactly the same as it was on Top Gear”.
What about Clarkson – he must be quids in? He looks down at the distressed shirt, as if his appearance alone were enough to dispel rumours of a personal fortune.
“People are obsessed with money,” he says. “Take the business of BBC talent. What country are we living in when we want to know how much people are paid? It’s disgusting.
It’s Tony Hall’s job, as the director-general, to say, ‘We’re going to pay that person that much,’ and if we trust Tony Hall, and we must, because he’s the director-general, then you trust him to be doing a good job.
“You can’t be saying to him, ‘Why are you paying him that?’ Because if you don’t, he’ll go to ITV. It’s absolutely ludicrous.”
It seems strange that Clarkson should defend the BBC’s right to do as it wishes, but he does. Primarily, perhaps, because he feels that the corporation’s institutional timidity will be its undoing.
“I would love it if the Beeb said eff off occasionally to its critics. I will on their behalf, if they like.”
What, go back to the BBC as a freelance effer-offer? “Yes,” he laughs. “Just pick up the phone and go, ‘Eff off.’ I’d love to do that.”
The prospect has cheered him, though he was looking pretty happy already. “I look at the world and think it’s brilliant and clever,” he says. “I don’t sit there thinking, ‘Oh, no – the sky is heating up and oh, no, the polar bears are drowning, and oh, no, let’s do something about Syria…’ I just think the world’s fine.”
I wonder if, behind the bluster, there hides a sensitive, insecure Clarkson, but it turns out the bluster goes all the way through. “How much of what I am on television am I in real life? I don’t care. I mean, I just think, ‘Let’s have a pint and some chips.’ Go and see a therapist? Oh, please. Do me a favour.”
But it might be that Clarkson is just a little softer than we think.
“It’s not like John and Paul with Danny Cohen playing the part of Yoko Ono, but for us all to be back together again, you know, it’s nice. It’s bloody nice.”