clarkson smoking

My latest column for the International New York Times is on the furore over Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension from Top Gear, published in the INYT under the headline ‘Top Gear hits rock bottom’. Here are the opening paragraphs. You can read the full article in the INYT.

The middle-aged presenter of a British TV show about cars has been suspended by the BBC for allegedly hitting his producer during a ‘fracas’. Big deal, you might think; hardly global news. Except that, for many people, the suspension last week of Jeremy Clarkson, the controversial presenter of the BBC’s Top Gear program, is a big deal. Nearly a million people have signed an online petition demanding that the BBC reinstate Mr Clarkson. The story dominated news in Britain, and made headlines across the world — and here I am writing about it for the New York Times.

But then Top Gear is a very peculiar cultural phenomenon. What began in 1977 as a regional show about cars and road safety is today the BBC’s greatest global export. Boasting a worldwide audience of 350 million, ranged across 214 territories, it is the most watched factual program on Earth. It generates £20 million (about $30 million) in profits for the corporation every year.

It is a show about cars in which the cars are almost incidental. The essence of Top Gear lies in childish pranks, ‘politically incorrect’ jokes, smutty comments and laddish banter. The reputation of the show has been enhanced — or diminished, depending upon your point of view — by a series of controversies over the years, ranging from schoolboy stunts to racial slurs.

Mr Clarkson has, variously: crashed a pickup into a tree to test the truck’s strength, damaging both; been accused of despoiling Botswana’s pristine Makgadikgadi salt pans by driving across them; been chased out of Argentina by an angry crowd after touring in a car with the registration plate H982 FKL, supposedly a provocative reference to the 1982 Falklands War; driven around an Indian slum in a Jaguar fitted with a toilet ‘because everyone who comes here gets the trots’ (a British colloquialism for diarrhea); caused outrage by giving the Nazi salute in a segment about German cars; and sung the nursery rhyme ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’, appearing to include the line ‘Catch a nigger by the toe’ (the segment was cut from the broadcast).

Mr. Clarkson, who joined the program in 1988 to give it, as a BBC report put it, ‘a more abrasive edge’, has come to define the show’s ethos. For some, Clarkson is an irreverent, controversial rebel. For others, he is a chauvinist bigot.

In reality, he is neither. He is more like the schoolboy who has never grown up — the one who stands behind the teacher in the playground pulling faces or ties a firecracker to a cat’s tail.

Read the full article in the INYT.


  1. My son, who is 15, is a big Top Gear fan and it seems to me that he is perfectly in their target audience. My overall impression, like yours apparently, is that Clarkson especially, but the show in general is about perpetual adolescents throwing around a ton of BBC money in the same way that monkeys fling poo at the zoo. So, the show is mostly harmless. If taken seriously I can see where some might consider it harmful. Considering the source (the BBC) and the size of the audience, I can understand why take it seriously and see it as being, at times, harmful. And they have the right to say so, and they do. If my son is any indication, Mr. Clarkson’s opinions are like trains, another one will be along in a moment, and nothing to worry about if you miss.

    The one thing I find interesting is that it seems that both the BBC and Mr. Clarkson is confused as to who is really the star of this whole thing. In reality it is the money and reach of the BBC that is the star. If the Beeb had rotated presenters over the years (a couple of years and out) the world would see there are plenty of overgrown adolescents who could sit in for Clarkson and company, and probably do a better job.

  2. You do Clarkson more (or less, depending on your moral compass) than justice. He is a self-serving deliberately provocative shallow shock jock. During a strike last year he suggested that strikers be taken out and shot in front of their families. Now of course he does not really believe a word of this, but he does believe (and events prove him right) that this cheesy Hard Hitting Image will endear him to his audience. My own theory is that he is trying to force the BBC to break his contract, compensate him, and leave him free to fish for a better offer elsewhere.

  3. bruce

    |Great article . I find it interesting that Clarkson is ready to deal out his verbal dung on others but when others send some back to him ie when it’s suggested he is like Saville he gets very upset. He really shouldn’t be throwing stones

  4. If he wasn’t bringing in millions to the BBC we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He is a racist, living breathing example of the empire that perfected the slave trade and invasion/slaughter of non-whites for fun and profit.

    Those of us black Americans who watch BBC America like to think your country has put those days behind it but Clarkson embody the underlying longing for the days when white men ran everything and token brown chappies like yourself spent their days serving tea rather than social commentary.

    Fire Clarkson’s archaic, racist butt, and help put your colonial murdering past behind you. There was a time when today’s shocking behavior of ISIS was just standard operating procedure for keeping the wogs in their place in India. Not sure if I have all the racist slang for brown people right, you had so many so excuse me if I got it wrong.

  5. Ian Edwards

    There is the “Off” button. I find plenty of comments and name calling about JC – what about his audience who would disagree with the people on this blog and the media who give him the oxygen of publicity and publish his books? I simply choose Off and don’t read his best-selling books.

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