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Why on earth is this man popular?

Published January 30, 2010


Top Gear, Britain's offbeat car series, has been a must-see for TV watchers around the world. Not only has it proven to be durable and enormously popular, but it even appeals to viewers who aren't crazy about cars.

And it has turned the show's witty, irreverent, shoot-from-the-hip host Jeremy Clarkson (who does the show with co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May) into a giant celebrity. In each episode, the trio does extraordinary things to cars.

The other day Clarkson, 49, sat down for a rare interview to discuss why he thinks the series has become addictive in 150 million homes around the world.

Clarkson, whose column appears regularly in Wheels, lives in England's Cotswolds area with his wife of 16 years, Frances, and children, Emily, 15, Finlo, 14, and Katya, 11.

Sitting in the living room of his home with tongue firmly in cheek, Clarkson relished talking about his show whose 13th (and soon 14th) season is airing on BBC Canada.

Q: How have you been able to tap into such an passionate audience?

A: I have absolutely no idea because they fall into a number of different categories. You have those who just like to see three grown men falling over and catching fire every week, and then you have those who really want to know what the latest Ferrari is like. I've got one parked right outside my window just here, actually.

And then you have those for whom there is just nothing else to watch. I genuinely have tried to work it out and just can't, because we're ugly, we have yellow teeth and none of us can drive very well. We don't really know anything about cars. Well, James does, and he's very boring about it. It baffles me but I'm very happy it happened.

Q: Why do women also love your show?

A: It probably gives women an insight into the male mind. I mean, we really try hard not to be sexist. But that said, I think women have a more organized mind than men do. Mine's just a black hole.

Even though I have three children and a house to run and so on and a family, I still think, "I wonder if it would be possible to drive a car to the North Pole." And then we did.

And it's that sort of – and women – often my wife will turn to me on the sofa while we're watching and say, "Do you really think that?"

And yeah, we do. I really do wonder if it would be possible to put a car into space and if you can drive on the moon. And I'd love to try that.

Q: But that still doesn't explain why women seem to like the show?

A: I can't understand why a woman would sit down and watch Top Gear and say,"This is interesting." But we know from the figures, because I think half the audience or 48 per cent of the audience is women. And that's global. But not in Australia, incidentally. We do a show out there every year. That's 100 per cent male. The sheilas are all home with a bottle of sherry.

Q: So Aussie women ignore you?

A: Yes. Everywhere else it's half-and-half. And I wish I knew why. I don't understand why men watch it. I don't understand why I watch.

Q: Then what's the big attraction?

A: Well, hate mostly. It's usually hate that I get from people in the street. But there are Top Gear fans, and they tend to be aged around 9. When I construct the show I always write it with my children in mind because I think that really men may be 40 years old or 60 years old or 80 years old, but we really never really get past being 8.

And I think that has something to do with the appeal, because you have a show here that a little boy will like. His dad's going to like it, too. And then girls fancy Richard Hammond, and then the mother thinks, "Christ, they've got the whole family together here. This is fantastic."

So she'll join in as well, and then it becomes family entertainment. I mean, I know that there are some hardcore fans, particularly in America. We see what they write on websites. And even they hate us as well now, so yeah, it's pretty much hate.

Q: What's your dream car – the Bugatti or the Midget?

A: I've laughed at those cars for years. I just thought that they were driven by people who were a bit light in their loafers and people who have very dirty fingernails and people who enjoy it when a car goes wrong because they can get dirty fingernails making them work again.

So I've always been very suspicious of people who drive Midgets or MGs or, indeed, any old British sports cars. But anyway, I have bought that car because I liked it so much. But, you know, everybody always says, "Oh, no one can afford these cars." But you know Simon Cowell can. Elton John can.

Q: Do those cars fulfill your fantasies?

A: Oh, God, you've no idea. But a Bugatti Veyron is … it's a bit like – how can I put it? – it's a bit like Concord really, that car, because it was a phenomenal engineering achievement to make a car that can go that fast, 250 miles an hour, on the road and keep on going that fast for maybe 10 years. And what depresses me slightly is that no car firm in the world right now is working on a car that can beat it.

And so in that respect, it is like Concord. You know, we achieved supersonic flight for ordinary – well, I don't want to say ordinary people, but for not people who are astronauts, and then backed off and said, "Well, we can't do that anymore." And that saddens me when the human race progresses and then takes a step back.

Q: How do you decide what car to experiment with or worry about not having a new car available for your show?

A: We're never worried about being first. We're only worried about doing something interesting with the cars. And it's very difficult trying to explain this to Ferrari all the time, who ring up and say, "We are able to offer you a one-hour interview with the managing director." And you think, "No. Well, really nobody's interested in us interviewing a businessman," because that's all he is. So we try to think of the story.

Q: Such as?

A: We found this amazing road in Romania, which will be the start of Season 14, in March. And then it was really, once you'd found the Transfagaran Pass in Transylvania, it was "Right. What cars would everybody want to drive on that road?" Because it is the most incredible road I've ever found anywhere in the world. And then it became, once you start to think about it, it's a new Ferrari, a new Lamborghini, and a new Aston Martin. And the car firms are normally very happy to oblige.

Q: What are the most memorable things you've done?

A: The most enjoyable was when we drove across Botswana in Africa. That is something that even film crews, who are notoriously difficult to please, still talk about today as being the most fun they've ever had.

Driving to the North Pole was the least fun I've ever had in a car for two weeks with James May and no knife to cut my wrists. And just gin and tonic to keep us going. That was very, very hard. It's minus 60 up there. And you know, there was the constant threat of the ice giving way and the car crashing through the ice, and then we would have been killed.

So that would have been annoying.

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