Jeremy Clarkson: Some Perspective, and What Happens Next!
Let’s be clear about one thing: Jeremy Clarkson was got rid of because he subjected a colleague to an attack that left him requiring hospital treatment, which was preceded by a prolonged period verbal abuse that amounted to bullying.
Initial reports of a handbags ‘fracas’ between Clarkson and producer Oisin Tymon following a long day’s filming were underplayed. The truth was far more serious.
That’s why the BBC made the decision, not because he’s a very different beast to most of the corporation’s staff.
They’d have taken exactly the same course of action had it been those who fit the BBC mould better, such as their favourites Stephen Fry or David Tennant, and the same would apply to the legions of managers that dominate the BBC in their unofficial uniform of pink open-neck shirts and designer stubble (like Alan Yentob and Danny Cohen, more on them later).
You can’t go around launching physical attacks on your colleagues, and yes, there are limits on what you can say when shouting at subordinates, even in a high-pressure environment.
It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but the BBC were wrong turn a blind eye to the warning signs in the months leading up to the incident by increasing Clarkson’s workload.
His friends and colleagues had known that he had been fragile for some time following a difficult 2014 – his mother had died, his marriage had broken down, he’d had health problems, and the N-word scandal in the middle of the year had left him clinging on to the Top Gear job by the tips of his fingers.
Whether in sport, the movies, music or TV, it’s a fact that talented people are often difficult to manage, and the BBC didn’t manage Clarkson at all well for the 12 months prior to his departure.
However much the BBC bigwigs hated Clarkson and everything he stood for, the fact is he was the frontman for one of the most successful brands it has ever had.
It’s worth remembering that for the first 24 years of its life, Top Gear had a more sombre magazine format that mixed reviews of new cars with features on motoring safety issues and the impact of new government legislation. Presenters in its early years included former newsreader Angela Rippon, as well as the science-based academic William Woollard and the calm, thoughtful, understated motoring journalist Chris Goffey.
The emphasis began to shift towards entertainment from the time Clarkson joined in 1988, initially as a bit-part reporter. Within a few years, he had become the programme’s main presenter, and with Clarkson at the helm, it was regularly BBC Two’s most-watched programme of the week throughout the 1990s.
The old Top Gear began to lose its way towards the end of the 1990s as long-standing presenters left to be replaced by relative unknowns, and following Clarkson’s first departure in 2001, the programme appeared to have run its course and was axed later that year, with many of the then-presenters going on to take an almost-identical format to Channel 5 under the name Fifth Gear (a programme still going strong 14 years later, now broadcast on History).
The following year, the BBC relaunched Top Gear with a radical new look. A returning Clarkson was at the helm of a new studio-based format that went for mass entertainment, humour and controversy, complete with sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May (who replaced Jason Dawe from the second post-relaunch series), which helped build a chemistry and rapport that remains fresh well over a decade later.
Clarkson owned a stake in the new format and could share in its commercial success. Thanks in no small part to Clarkson’s presenting style and very, very strong work ethic, the new-look Top Gear rapidly became a flagship of the BBC’s Sunday evening schedule, providing a welcome alternative to the genteel dramas that generally dominate the timeslot.
The format’s success was good news for Clarkson, who sold his stake in the franchise for a reported £13 million in 2012, but also great news for the BBC, for whom the Top Gear has become big, big business.
In January 2015, the new series of Top Gear on BBC Two was simulcast in more than 50 countries across Oceania, Africa and the Middle East, with a further 10 countries in Asia showing it within 24 hours of its original transmission, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia.
Then there are the format rights, which the BBC sells to overseas broadcasters to make their own versions, as well as live arena shows, the Top Gear magazine, repeats on Dave, BBC World and other channels globally, DVD releases, and other branded merchandise. Not bad for a series that began as a regional programme for BBC Midlands in 1977!
All these factors combined means that Top Gear is now worth somewhere in the region of £150 million per year to the BBC. To put that into perspective, the annual budget for BBC Radio Four is £115.9 million, the entire BBC local radio network in England is £146.5 million, while on TV, BBC Three’s annual budget is £112.9 million, BBC Four’s is £67.8 million, while the BBC News Channel costs £57.5 million.
Whichever way you look at it, if Top Gear was axed, it would create quite a shortfall in the BBC’s income.
The BIG question is this: Which is bringing in the money? Is it the Top Gear brand/format? Or is it Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May and the senior production team?
Yes, the BBC owns the Top Gear name and franchise, but without Clarkson and co, how much use is it to them?
Clarkson and co can come up with a new programme name, tweak the format and keep going with another broadcaster, but the BBC has a far tougher task in making Top Gear a success with Chris Evans, Joss Stone or whoever else at the helm. They own a programme name and a format, but not much else.
Would the British public warm to it? Would international audiences take to it to the same extent? That’s anyone’s guess at this stage.
One big irony is that Top Gear is a very un-BBC programme, made by and broadcast on the BBC.
As an institution, the BBC has, in the last two decades, become increasingly inward-looking, bland, self-satisfied and smug, dominated by a metropolitan elite who all went to the same universities, attend the same dinner parties in Islington, shop at Waitrose, have the same cultural tastes, and hold the same set of liberal views.
This culture has been allowed to expand over the years as BBC mandarins recruited and promoted from within their own kind.
Andrew Marr, himself a part of that set, put his finger on the pulse of the BBC’s institutional bias a few years ago when he said: “The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities, and gay people. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”
Do goldfish know they’re goldfish? Are they aware that a world exists outside their goldfish bowl? I’ve no idea, but BBC executives don’t appear to know much about life beyond their own goldfish bowl of BBC buildings, fashionable restaurants, pretentious opera houses, and designer-furnished homes in the more fashionable parts of London.
Last week, Alan Yentob, the BBC’s ‘Creative Director’ said on Newsnight, said, in defence of the BBC: “There are quite a lot of programmes which reach out to audiences which are C2s, DEs, which aren’t the metropolitan elite.”
C2s are the social demographic described as ‘skilled manual workers’ and DEs are ‘semi and unskilled manual workers, pensioners, widows (no other earner), casual or lowest grade workers’.
They’re not the sort of people Yentob or other BBC executives encounter very often, but believe they know what they want to watch, and kindly make programmes for.
I have been known to mingle with such peasants, usually for a few beers and a game of poker than a dinner party with overpriced, obscure food and wine from Waitrose, and I can assure Mr Yentob that these philistines consume very few of the BBC’s programmes outside of sport and Top Gear, generally preferring the offerings of Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, and, increasingly under Peter Fincham’s leadership, ITV.
Then there is Clarkson’s old nemesis, Danny Cohen, the BBC’s Director of Television, who made an offensive comparison to Jimmy Savile when describing Clarkson’s situation. This is the same Danny Cohen, still only 41-years-old, who, fully aware of Savile’s, erm, ‘dark side’, commissioned a special ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ programme shortly after his death, and also has such highbrow, intellectual hits as ‘Snog, Marry Avoid’, ‘The Inbetweeners’ and ‘Hotter Than My Daughter’ to his commissioning CV.
So yes, there are plenty of good reasons for liking Clarkson and liking Top Gear. But less clear is why Clarkson is somehow considered a ‘right winger’.
Stephen Fry was once described (by an uncertain source) as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like’. On that basis, Jeremy Clarkson is ‘a left wing person’s idea of what a right wing person is like’.
Driving gas-guzzling cars and making politically-incorrect jokes about foreigners and homosexuals does not make you right wing.
In the eyes of BBC types, a right winger is something undesirable that behaves like Clarkson, but where is the evidence that Clarkson is especially right wing?
Yes, he attended Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, and he’s friends with David Cameron (not that David Cameron is truly right wing). He comes from a well-off background and his mother, Shirley, did very well out of manufacturing Paddington Bear toys (the prototypes being Christmas presents for a 12-year-old Jeremy and his sister, Joanna).
But beyond that, the evidence is thin. When has Clarkson ever said anything of note about the things that right wingers (quite a broad church, actually) consider important?
Has Clarkson had much to say at all about things like national sovereignty, a low-tax economy, the traditional family, law and order, proper education, Christianity, personal responsibility and individual liberty?
These are values the BBC cliques are at best indifferent, at worst downright hostile to, but are the values that millions of ordinary British people hold dear.
That’s not to say Clarkson should have things to say on these matters – he’d be well-advised to stick to what he’s good at, but to claim he is a ‘right winger’ is neither fair nor accurate.
So what happens next? We know that the planned arena shows are to go ahead without any Top Gear or BBC branding (the shows will be known as ‘Clarkson, Hammond and May’), and inevitably, Clarkson’s agent will be (has already been?) inundated with offers.
James May and Richard Hammond’s contract expired at midnight on 1 April. They, too, are free to speak to rival broadcasters.
Sky are going through a period of cost-cutting at present after paying a staggering £4.18 billion to hold on to their Premier League football rights, up 70% on the previous inflation-busting auction just three years ago. They’re unlikely to splash out on a big contract for the trio.
ITV are the front-runners to sign them. As a business, it’s in much better shape than it was seven years ago, its share price has risen steadily in recent times, and they have money to spend. All they’d need to do is come up with a new programme name, a slight format tweak, and they’d have a product they could export globally and successfully, as they do with Downton Abbey and many other flagship programmes. Could it be as big a hit as Top Gear? There’s no obvious reason why it couldn’t.
Such a programme would also attract, and I hate to use Yentob-speak, the ABC1 demographic that ITV finds harder to draw in – more affluent, younger people (especially men), who are much sought-after by big brand advertisers, like, well, car and electronics companies, the sort who advertise during ITV’s football coverage.
Of course, there are other possibilities, Channel 4, Channel 5 (recently purchased by American giants Viacom), Netflix, Amazon and goodness knows what else.
For the time being, Clarkson would be well-advised to take a break, sit on an island somewhere and get his head together, but bet your bottom dollar on him being back on our screens before too long.
Clarkson is dead. Long live Clarkson!