It’s fair to say that Jeremy Clarkson divides opinion like few other television presenters do. You either love him or loathe him: there are no half measures.
Personally, I think he’s an absolute gem. I relate to him and his views, possibly because I too am a middle aged, over-weight man with a liking for Levi’s. I even had greying hair like him, until it started thinning drastically and I shaved it off.
He is an opinionated old git, and his views are often controversial, but that’s probably for viewer consumption only. If you knew him personally he’s probably completely different and a nice bloke. But his TV persona undoubtedly made (and continues to make) Top Gear the runaway success it is. It remains the most popular BBC production, continues to be sold in countries all over the world, dubbed into various languages including Farsi (remarkably it’s the most popular show on Iranian television) and has spawned copycat shows in, amongst other countries, the USA and Australia (seen them both and they are nowhere near as good – although the local rednecks and convicts probably love ‘em). And it’s all down to Jezza.
I’ve enjoyed the program for years, even back in the old days when it was presented by Quentin Willson or Vicki Butler Henderson or some mad Northern Irish bloke whose name I’ve forgotten. It was a worthy but dull show, featuring serious and useful reviews of various cars, mainly family saloons rather than supercars or muscle cars or hot hatches (God, I’m not even sure those terms had been invented….shows my age). Most weeks the highlight was racing driver Tiff Needell – a kind of 1980s Stig – power-sliding a Cortina or something perfectly to end up stationary and side-on to the camera as he delivered the final line of his review.
Then along came Clarkson. Initially as a contributor, one of the team. He was already a motoring journalist and newspaper columnist, and his segments were always more pithy and entertaining and downright anarchic than anyone else’s, and very soon he was the most popular guy in the show, and took over from Quentin et al. In came May, and Hammond, and a new producer, and the show moved from being a worthy but dull motoring program to Entertainment. And there it has remained ever since. It has made all three presenters rich and public figures, but Clarkson is by far and away the best rewarded. Because as well as being anarchic and opinionated and sometimes downright rude, he is also a very clever man.
You see, he has a deal that as well as paying him an attractive salary for presenting the show, also provides for repeat fees (nationally and internationally) and a share of merchandising. Now as the program is aired every day in Poland for instance (and on some days there is more than one broadcast) this clearly mounts up to a tidy sum. DVD sales? Check – a cut of that, and they are popular sellers (even if largely off-cuts and compilations from the tv show). Top Gear magazine? Yep – and he writes a monthly column too. The American and Australian versions contribute to his bank balance as well, through the licencing agreement. His contract is basically a licence to print money. He earns far more than May and Hammond because they do not have the same level of royalties and repeat fees, even though to my way of thinking they are as integral to the show’s success as Jezza – it wouldn’t be the same without either of them.
And now he’s a best-selling author too. This is where his true genius shows itself.
I’ve read most of the books he’s published, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. They are even more irreverent than the tv shows. He is ruder about certain types of car and certain groups of people (especially Germans, Americans and environmentalists) than he can get away with on the telly. They even talk a lot of sense at times. All written in the same short sentences and vivid turns of phrase that he employs in his best tv segments.
But the real genius is that only one of those books is an “original” – “I know you got soul”, which is an entertaining read that takes various disparate things – for instance the Spitfire, a Kalashnikov rifle, the B52 bomber – and while relating their history in an often hilarious, typically Clarkson fashion, explains why they transcend normality and become special. All the rest are compilations of his various newspaper and magazine columns. For which, of course, he’s already been well paid once, and he is now being lucratively rewarded for again.
I’ve just bought The Top Gear Years. The blurb on the cover made it sound like an inside story of how the program came to be the tv juggernaut it undoubtedly is, written by the man who knows it all best, Clarkson himself. Nope. It turns out to be another compilation, this time from his Top Gear magazine column.
Do I feel cheated? Not at all, because it’s still a very funny and entertaining read.
I wish I could stumble on such a money making scheme though….
Clarkson, I salute you.