Jeremy Clarkson has it all worked out. He’s going to die in just over 11 years’ time, right after his 70th birthday in April. “I think about dying every day,” he announces. “I’ve got an internal clock counting down, and I’ve got about 101,000 hours left.”
This is startling news. Has the serious pneumonia he contracted in the summer of 2017 somehow developed into a fatal illness?
“No, no,” he says, waving a hand. “You just think of an age you’ll live to and work out the hours. I did it and that’s how many hours I’ve got left. When I had pneumonia I didn’t think I was going to die, but now I think about it often.” He pauses and looks thoughtful. “Mind you, I can’t remember if the 101,000 hours include sleep or not.” Right. So if we allow for the optimum eight hours a night, he’s pinned his personal expiry date to age 75 rather than 70. Either way, he feels time is short.
“I recalculate it regularly when I’m faced with decisions about what I want to do next. How much time have I got left? I mustn’t waste any.”
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Of all the things Jeremy Clarkson can be accused of, wasting time isn’t on the list. He is a stranger to mental repose. Life consumes him – what’s happening now, what happened yesterday, what he could make happen tomorrow. It’s why he can’t do anything with understatement – humour, discussion, work… especially work.
Meeting him has its own curiosity value. Everyone knows who he is – try to find anyone who hasn’t heard of him – and every last person has an opinion about him. Whatever else this interview might have turned out to be, dull wasn’t likely.
We meet on a day of promotion for the third series of The Grand Tour. It’s the last series that he, James May and Richard Hammond were contracted to make under the terms of their £160 million Amazon deal. Asked if there will be more, whether entire series or occasional specials, all three of them make non-committal noises throughout their group presentation to the media, a chorus repeated by Clarkson once he’s on his own.
“For the last month we’ve been talking to Amazon, who do love us and we love working with them, so I hope there’s something,” he offers vaguely, adding: “I don’t know the answer. It’s like Brexit. I don’t know the answer to that, either.”
Ah, Brexit. It always comes as a surprise to the previously unenlightened that Clarkson is a staunch Remainer. Has he ever berated his local Oxfordshire friend David Cameron for enabling the 2016 EU Referendum to take place? Clarkson becomes improbably prim.
“I wouldn’t betray private conversations with neighbours,” he says. “But the terrifying prospect of Brexit and Corbyn together fill me with such horror that leaving the country is a possibility. My friends are here, my family, my life. I was born here. Everyone you see living abroad has got a red nose and red wine on their cornflakes and they’re alcoholics three weeks after moving to their tax haven. I can’t conceive of moving abroad. And yet…”
Meanwhile, at least one of The Grand Tour’s presenters seems to be preparing for life after it’s over. Last March, May set up a new production company in tandem with Tom Whitter, the director he worked with, before Amazon, on several BBC projects including Toy Stories, Man Lab and Cars of the People. The implication that there is new work in the pipeline is neon-lit.
“I don’t know what James gets up to,” shrugs Clarkson. “He’s a man of mystery. I have no plans at all for after The Grand Tour. God, no. I never run out of ideas. Someone asked me, before this series, ‘What can you possibly do with a car that you haven’t already done?’ But my head’s filled with enough ideas for five years.” His expression suggests he has given something away. “I’m jumping the gun here.”
As it turns out, the gun is already cocked and loaded. Just a few days later, it’s announced that The Grand Tour will return to the road for a fourth tour of duty – though it will, in reality, be a handful of elaborate but occasional specials.
The Amazon announcement also makes clear that the trio will be working on other new projects for the streaming service. Which means Clarkson can strike “pipe and slippers” from any future life plan.
His recent run hosting ITV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? will be followed by another in the summer. His 22nd book, If You’d Just Let Me Finish – the seventh collection of his newspaper columns – was published in October. (“If you like Clarkson’s humour,” said one review, “this is a must-read.”) Newspaper colleagues say he’s far more modest than his public image suggests, a person who listens to other people and is fantastically hard-working.
“That’s very pleasing to hear,” he says gruffly. “I would hate to be called lazy, because I’m not.”
At 58, cosy retirement holds no allure for Clarkson, although it’s years since work was a financial imperative. He was a multimillionaire long before his Amazon wealth, thanks to Bedder 6, the company he founded with Top Gear producer, lifelong friend and fellow Grand Tour key player Andy Wilman to handle merchandise and international distribution for Top Gear. In 2012 alone, Clarkson received a £4.8 million dividend and an £8.4 million share buyout from BBC Worldwide for his stake in the company. He doesn’t mind in the slightest that he will therefore earn nothing from Winter Blunderland, the umpteenth official Top Gear DVD compilation featuring himself, May and Hammond, which was released for the 2018 Christmas market.
On the other hand, he’s not quite up to speed with the next Top Gear presenter line-up. Asked (without any mention of the programme) whether he has heard of Paddy McGuinness, Clarkson looks blank.
“No. The IRA guy? No idea.” He’s on safer ground with Freddie Flintoff, and then makes the connection between McGuinness and Top Gear with a smile. Nonetheless, almost four years after the well-documented fracas, when he abused a Top Gear producer verbally and physically, that led to the non-renewal of Clarkson’s BBC contract, the self-inflicted loss is still visibly painful.
“I still care about Top Gear very much,” he says, looking grief-stricken. “I dreamt it up, and everything on it is something I came up with. I haven’t watched it [since his 2015 departure]. I can’t bear to look. It would be like going to visit your baby after it’s been adopted by someone else, and pressing your face up at the window. Anyway, The Grand Tour is the latest incarnation of what would have been Top Gear.”
There is no doubt that the presenting trio’s move to Amazon was a gamechanger. Is terrestrial TV old hat now?
“If I ran the BBC, it would be better,” he says, instantly defining all terrestrial television by the corporation. “I’d make programmes for everybody, not just seven people in Islington. It’s become so up itself, suffocating the life out of everything with its nonsense need to be politically correct. If they’d let everyone relax, and made a show that’s entertaining or interesting or informative or any of the things that the BBC is supposed to be, then we’d be having a different debate about the future of television. I had a very happy time at the BBC and I care very much about it. I’d be sad if it got knackered by a few unwise Corbynites.”
Is he sure they’re unwise? Is he certain of his own wisdom? “I may be wrong,” he concedes. “Maybe I’m just a big old dinosaur. Of course I am. The world isn’t mine any more, it belongs to people my children’s age [daughters Emily, 24, and Katya, 20, and son Finlo, 22]. They live in a secret world, on their phones and social media. I listen to them talking and think, ‘This is an alien planet. I’m William Shatner and I’ve just beamed down somewhere.’ But I love listening to my children. They’re very funny. I think I make them laugh. Actually, I know I do, which is great. God knows if I was a cool figure to them when they were growing up. I imagine not.”
Clarkson and the children’s mother, Frances Cain, parted in 2014 after 21 years of marriage. Does he think he’s been a good dad? “I’m sure there are very few well-known people in the world whose children don’t cop for it in some way,” he says. “I’ve been as good a dad as I can be.”
His reluctance to discuss his family is evident. He’s far more relaxed with go-to subjects from his BBC/Brexit/Corbyn lexicon; but instinctive controversy sometimes masks his great skill. He can write with unbearable poignancy, as he did following the death of the critic AA Gill in December 2016.
“‘Best friend’ is a primary school expression,” says Clarkson. “Adrian understood me better than most people. We were extremely close. I learnt of his death literally one minute before going on stage with The Grand Tour in the Middle East. James is made entirely of stone and wouldn’t recognise somebody’s distress, but Hammond was very good. I held it together for the required 90 minutes and as soon as it was finished, I lost it. Burst into tears. I watch all the shows back, but I can’t watch that one.
“I feel selfishly about Adrian. We laughed all the time. It’s not the same with Hammond and May.”
Yet the trio endures. Do they get sick of one another? “God, yes. We’re in each other’s company for 250 days a year or more, but it works. It was serendipity that we got together at all, and then we were on for years and nobody was really watching. It was only after Hammond’s first big accident [in 2006] that viewing figures shot up, and by then we had the banter going.
“If I was in charge of Top Gear now, I’d send the new presenters away to a desert island for a year so they could get to know one another really, really well, to get the same dynamic we have.”
I think if Clarkson really were in charge of Top Gear now, what he would actually do is instantly revert to the presenter line-up that made the programme a broadcasting phenomenon. For all the millions he has, for all the groundbreaking media history he and the others have created at Amazon, he still yearns for the place where he was happiest. And it’s the one place he can’t go.
The third season of The Grand Tour will launch on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 18th January