It has been established in 2019 that – alongside the fact Brexit will continue on a long and banal journey and Leeds United will send spies to compare the prices of Asda and Aldi – if there is a controversial subject, Piers Morgan will comment on it. The recent revelation that Gregg’s were launching an all-vegan sausage roll was no such exception, and Morgan took great aplomb in pointing out his incredulity over the announcement. As he frolicked in our front rooms, profusely promoting the benefits of red meat and tilting his chair back in smug self-satisfaction, it was telling that while everyone vented their vitriol at the paunchy windbag, no one stopped to think – “hmm, I wonder what Jeremy Clarkson is making of all this?”
Yes, Jeremy Clarkson. Remember him?
Before Piers Morgan became synonymous with supreme self-regard and a passion for controversy, Clarkson was the ringleader for repugnancy. His litany of offensives made Morgan look like the sainted Lily Allen; everyone from truck drivers to the entire Asian population bore his brunt. But he reached his nadir after steak-induced irritations resulted in him punching a producer. Clarkson was removed from his post, as were his loyal steads James May and Richard Hammond. Like his fellow grey-haired compatriot Morrissey, Clarkson had slowly – but quite considerably – descended from a reluctant national treasure to an ageing figure of scorn, bluster and belligerence.
Banished to Amazon Prime, their new show The Grand Tour has attracted whopping fees and multiplied Clarkson’s already-bulging wallet. The third series began airing this week, with the trio sensibly focusing the show on races and sojourns around certain countries, a particular highlight of their previous show Top Gear.
There’s a moment in the first episode where Clarkson walks around the superannuated city of Detroit. “It is now devoted to urban farms,” he says, barely able to contain the disdain in his voice. He laments the land being given over to “vegan happy hippies”, before a wide smile envelopes his features as he says it’s time for the gung-ho greatness of muscle cars and driving stunts to come to town. And within that moment, a strange feeling washes over you. You’re not offended. After the cyber strutting and early morning mayhem of Morgan, Clarkson’s half-hearted remarks feel tame, safe, the kind of rage an elderly relative emits and is immediately batted down with a flick of the eyelid. In short, it feels like Clarkson the character – full of hubris, pride and splutter, a blowhard with a brilliant and dangerous wit, as opposed to the real Clarkson, a complex individual who has expressed renewed remorse for his string of stinging barbs.
As he flails his arms, announces he’s off for a burger and drives over May’s kale patch, the viewer is represented with a kind of neutered Clarkson. His objections are so broad and base that it feels like the behaviour of a scripted goon as opposed to a creature of pure malevolence. And you smile. You laugh when Clarkson talks. You just do. Forget the lines that felt awfully out-of-step with modern times and remember some of Top Gear’s finest moments, and all of them involve Clarkson and his relentless japes.
And there are moments on The Grand Tour when you laugh. Clarkson has said that he wanted to move the show away from what Top Gear had become, that Steve Coogan’s cutting comments about his behaviour had resonated. And here you find yourself basking in their joy. They still have the best job in the world – visiting cities that ooze desire and beauty or taking in sights that leave you humbled and thankful for home. May and Hammond still play the roles of doddery fusspot and sexy nerd considerably well. There’s a joke about Clarkson’s awfully clueless performance on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire that feels natural, funny and the kind of good-natured ribbing you imagine these three sharing down the pub.
The Grand Tour presents fans and foes of Clarkson with the best of both worlds. Those endeared by his stonewashed chagrin over vegetables and the EU can enjoy him at full throttle, untethered by terrestrial disclaimers. For the detractors, Clarkson, May and Hammond are no longer penetrating the public consciousness – like a troupe of unruly schoolboys sent to the back room to enjoy bouts of FIFA before teatime, they’re merely a threat to themselves, the door shut but the sound of mirth booming through the floorboards. Focus your fury on Piers Morgan, everyone, there’s really nothing to see here.
Words by Sam Lambeth