No star is bigger than the show, runs the show business maxim. Whoever dreamed that one up did so before the advent of the unstoppable, offense-addicted big-mouth Jeremy Clarkson and the hugely popular BBC television motoring show he fronts, Top Gear.
Now, immersed in a controversy over an alleged fight with a co-worker, Clarkson’s future, and the future of one of the BBC’s most profitable shows, hangs in the balance. Naturally, while it hangs in the balance, Britain is treating the whole episode as a knockabout pantomime.
On Thursday night, in a stunt that was crashingly unfunny, Channel 4 News sent a producer to the presenter’s London home with a pepper-fried steak. Clarkson declined to come down and accept the gift, and so the joke—empty in the first place, even if you can’t stand Clarkson—fizzled.
The home delivery was an absurdist nod to the “fracas” that has led to the 54-year-old Clarkson’s suspension from his job as lead presenter on the BBC’s blokes-and-their-cars show—and a national outcry that, with the general election a matter of weeks away, has become the subject of prime ministerial comment and political debate.
Now the question is whether the BBC will fire its star presenter—adored and loathed in corresponding measures—and in so doing possibly kill one of its most profitable TV franchises, broadcast in 200 countries to an estimated 350 million viewers. The commercial rights to Top Gear, owned by the BBC, are worth an annual $74 million and its numerous spin-offs generated annual profits of $27 million.
At the center of the storm, Clarkson, according to The Guardian, is “intensely relaxed” about being suspended.
The presenter is alleged to have punched Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon after he was told his desired evening meal of steak was not available at Simonstone Hall Hotel near Hawes, North Yorkshire, where the Top Gear crew were staying after filming last week.
The Daily Mirror reported that the hotel’s chef had gone home by the time the Top Gear crew arrived, and so Clarkson was offered a cold meat platter. He blamed Tymon for not organizing hot food.
At this point, one imagines Clarkson’s face contorting in whatever the butch heterosexual equivalent is of Joan Crawford discovering those wire hangers in daughter Christina’s wardrobe.
What happened next has been variously characterized as “a scuffle,” a punch being thrown, and—in the BBC’s description that trended on Twitter afterward—a “fracas.” Witnesses at the venue don’t recall fisticuffs, but many swearwords.
Clarkson’s co-presenter James May said, “It was a bit of a dust-up. I don’t think it’s that serious.”
A friend of Clarkson has called it “contact,” and—according to The Guardian—it was Clarkson himself who reported the incident on Monday to Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television.
In a further twist, media watchers claim Cohen has long wanted the opportunity to get rid of Clarkson. Indeed, last year, Cohen is said to have wanted to sack Clarkson over his use of the N-word, in a never-broadcast segment, while reciting the poem “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.”
“I was mortified by this, horrified. It was a word I loathe,” Clarkson said afterward.
Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, reportedly overrode Cohen’s desire to fire Clarkson, who instead was given a final warning over his behavior. Clarkson has intimated he doesn’t get on with his BBC bosses. Presumably other networks would compete to scoop him up if he and the BBC parted ways.
After this week’s firestorm, the BBC released a statement: “Following a fracas with a BBC producer, Jeremy Clarkson has been suspended pending an investigation. No one else has been suspended. Top Gear will not be broadcast this Sunday. The BBC will be making no further comment at this time.”
However, Hall later added: “There is a lot of speculation, we have got to establish the facts and I intend to do that before we come to a final decision. That is what we are about to do.” He added there was no fixed timeline to the unfolding of whatever happens next.
The disciplinary procedure will bring Clarkson and Tymon, longtime colleagues, face-to-face. The rest of the episodes of this season of Top Gear have been scrapped.
The British public is split, with the pro-Clarkson camp more publicly vocal. Liberals find him a boorish, prejudiced bigot. Right-wingers adore him for being straight-talking. And men seeking their own man-cave TV refuge appear to view his bloke-on-the-street-style (despite his incredible wealth and private education) in heroic terms.
As Top Gear’s American fans will know, the show is unapologetically man-centered about cars and driving, and is presented by three middle-aged men who backchat, grump, and giggle as much as one would expect from three middle-aged men given an hour to indulge their fantasies and obsession about cars.
An online petition in support of Clarkson has garnered more than 800,000 signatures, while a YouGov poll has found that 45 percent of Britons think he should be sacked, while 36 percent think he should keep his job. Seventy-eight percent of Top Gear fans think should keep his job.
The Independent reported that Tymon’s lawyer said his client “intends to await the outcome of the BBC investigation and will make no comment until that investigation is complete.”
In the strangest supportive intervention—but perhaps not, in that way the establishment always looks after its own—Prime Minister David Cameron, a friend of Clarkson’s, found time while running the country to tell the BBC’s Midlands Today program: “I don’t know exactly what happened. He is a constituent of mine, he is a friend of mine, he is a huge talent. I see that he said he regrets some of what happened. All I would say—because he is a talent and he does amuse and entertain so many people, including my children who’ll be heartbroken if Top Gear is taken off air—I hope this can be sorted out because it is a great program and he is a great talent.”
This is the most emphatic and decisive Cameron has sounded on a matter of public interest in some time, apart from calling David Miliband, the opposition leader, “despicable” with equal relish this week.
Asked if the BBC was wrong to suspend Clarkson, Cameron added: “I don’t know what happened. Every organization has to be able to be free to manage its talent and to say to people, ‘You can do this,’ or ‘You can’t do that,’ so I don’t want to interfere in the running of the BBC. The prime minister has many responsibilities. Sadly, securing the future of Top Gear isn’t one of them.” (Hmm. One wonders if he’ll sound as passionate about the future of the NHS the next time he’s asked about that.)
The political world cannot shut up about Clarkson. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, told radio station LBC: “The guy’s obviously incredibly popular and the show that he does provides entertainment to millions of people, but who is responsible for determining whether he carries on or not is his employers…He is an employee of the BBC, they are his boss, and so if they think he has done something wrong...then it is for them to decide.”
Even more fascinatingly, Ukip leader Nigel Farage, whose bluff, extreme right-wing, reactionary views one would assume would lead him to being a natural Clarkson supporter, told the same radio station: “I’m quite certain that if, as Ukip party leader, I punched one of our officials, I think I would be in considerable hot water. I do enjoy Top Gear, it’s very entertaining. Deliberately provocative and controversial, and whenever I sit down and watch it, I always laugh.”
Cleverly, LBC then asked Farage if he could replace Clarkson. “It’s a lovely idea,” the brazen self-promoter said.
Meanwhile, Clarkson appears to be trying to carry on as normally as possible. He was photographed watching Chelsea play Paris St-Germain in a Champions League soccer game. He agreed on the way to his car to having regrets over what had taken place.
Tracked down at the pub by a Daily Mirror reporter before the Chelsea game, Clarkson predicted he would be fired “very soon…Well, it’s coming, isn’t it?”
To date, Clarkson has been a proud, unapologetic controversy magnet whose “jokes” have long caused upset, offense, and squalls. The Top Gear team was forced to leave Argentina after a license plate it had—H982 FLK—appeared to reference the Falklands War.
In another episode of the show, in Burma, Clarkson used the derogatory word “slope.” Another episode featured him disparaging one car as having “Speciale [the model’s name] needs.”
As a long Guardian list elucidated, Mexicans have been insulted on Top Gear as lazy and feckless, and Clarkson has bemoaned TV executives for getting it “into their heads that if one presenter on a show is a blond-haired, blue-eyed heterosexual boy, the other must be a black Muslim lesbian.”
As one would expect, outwardly Clarkson is handling this latest media meltdown blithely. “I’m off to the job center,” he joked to reporters heading to his car this week. At least he’d be able to make it to the football game, he added. On Twitter, where he has 4.6 million followers, he has changed his job description profile to “I am probably a presenter on the BBC2 motoring show, Top Gear” and joked he had “knocked [opposition leader] Ed Miliband’s ‘I’m a human’ piece down the news agenda.” Amid all the tweets in support of Clarkson being reinstated and Top Gear to go on, one fan avows in capital letters, “I WILL FIGHT FOR YOUR FREEDOM.”
Clarkson’s daughter Em tweeted her own plea for the BBC to reinstate him:
Now it all comes down to a big personality, a disciplinary process, and the BBC meting out appropriate justice while knowing it could kill its golden egg. Not only that: The golden egg would presumably be courted by its competitors.
Whatever, and lost in the scrum of reporting is the Mail’s report that Clarkson got exactly what he wanted that night at the hotel: The general manager cooked a steak especially for him. He ate it in a private room.