The outspoken TV presenter’s foray into farming is his most courageous on-screen challenge to date – but while taking him out of his comfort zone has produced an addictive and warm-hearted series, his Cotswold neighbours are a little less happy at the invasion of visitors the show has prompted…
LOVE him or loathe him, it’s hard to ignore Jeremy Clarkson.
Tall, loud and opinionated, he tends to stand out in a crowd – and the fact he’s also instantly recognisable guarantees no one’s going to miss his presence in the room.
The ubiquity of Brand Clarkson, not just on TV but in bookshops too, ensures there can’t be too many people unaware of his existence.
Yet despite projecting an on-screen persona as an oafish petrolhead with views only slightly less forthright and controversial than those of Piers Morgan, Clarkson is becoming something of a legend, and even his harshest critics are likely to harbour a grudging admiration for what he’s managed to achieve.
I have to confess I’m not by disposition a natural fan. As a former motoring hack myself I’ve bumped into JC and his cronies at launches around the world and while they are all individually charming, I’ve always found the laddish Top Gear brand of tarmac-burning tomfoolery on screen a little hard to stomach.
But there’s never been any doubt about Clarkson’s business acumen or his ability to entertain, and in his new Grand Tour series we’ve also seen the likeable trio tackling some genuinely gruelling and terrifying tasks, from the wilds of the Mongolian desert to muddy rivers that pass for roads in parts of Mozambique – not to mention rickety bridges that give you heart failure even on the small screen, never mind in real life.
Even with a camera crew and support team to get them out of a fix, these death-defying Boy’s Own adventures are in a totally different league from the normal fatuous banter about power output and 0-60mph times, and certainly not for the faint-hearted.
The challenges are also gloriously entertaining, so kudos to the trio for once again reinventing the wheel, so to speak.
Where once upon a time motoring enthusiasts talking about cars was seen as niche and nerdy, Clarkson and Co transformed Top Gear into one of the BBC’s most powerful global brands and the most widely watched factual TV programme in the world.
Now they have managed to do the same thing again for Amazon Prime, with the fourth series of The Grand Tour evolving to ditch some of the talk segments and other small features in favour of films dedicated to road trips and adventure specials taking us to exotic locations that range from Cambodia and Vietnam to Madagascar.
So far, so ingenious, but if that series allowed our larger-than-life adventurer to demonstrate he’s not just a boorish, irascible buffoon with a wicked sense of humour and a tendency to rant, the latest Clarkson vehicle takes us into entirely uncharted territory.
Back in 2019 Jezza, at 61, started to tackle his most ambitious challenge to date – taking personal charge of the management of the 1,000-acre Cotswolds farm near Chipping Norton that he bought back in 2008, with the whole unlikely experiment being filmed as an eight-part series called Clarkson’s Farm.
Now we’ve had feel-good, nitty-gritty farming series before like BBC2’s This Farming Life, which introduced us to real-life farming superstars like Sutherland hill farmer Joyce Campbell, who proved so popular that even her collies get fan mail.
What could the hapless Clarkson, who knows nothing about farming, teach us that characters like Joyce couldn’t? Plenty, it seems – and this is where you have to take your hat off to the irascible, irreverent, infuriating Clarkson, even if it is through gritted teeth.
Because as Stuart Heritage astutely observes in The Guardian, if this had just been Top Gear with tractors it could so easily have been either a grievously misjudged and potentially tedious rejigging of the old formula or an embarrassing, self-indulgent vanity project.
Thankfully, it is neither of those things. Instead, we are treated to a hilarious, addictive, warm-hearted gem of a series that has potentially taught more people more about farming than a dozen other agricultural programmes.
That’s partly because Clarkson himself is actively willing to learn and not afraid to be made to look a fool by people who know far more about the business than he ever will, and partly because his closest advisers turn out to be so clever and capable – not to mention completely unfazed by their employer’s fame or bluster.
Now 23, local farmworker Kaleb Cooper may not be familiar with life very far from Chipping Norton or know much about the bible, but he is master of the quotable put-down and knows just how to quash the more fatuous ideas his boss comes up with.
It’s Kaleb, along with the down-to-earth “Cheerful” Charlie Ireland, incomprehensible local dry stone waller and head of security Gerald Cooper and Jeremy’s industrious and long-suffering girlfriend Lisa Hogan who are the real stars of the show.
And it’s Clarkson’s obvious affection and respect for this farming “family” that turns the series into such a joyful and rewarding offering, showing a much more intimate and sympathetic portrait of the TV presenter as farmer than we might ever have expected.
The agricultural press weren’t holding their breath that venture would feature too much real farming, but one of the biggest surprises was the host’s determination to reveal genuine insights about the challenges he faces, from frustration with insect pests, financial pressures, foul weather and endless regulations to the genuine risk of death faced by the farmers, not to mention some of the traumas involved in livestock rearing.
From cultivation to harvest, misty dawn starts to exhausted night shifts, this is Clarkson as we have never seen him before, in a world where failures have real emotional and financial consequences and where one of the world’s great blusterers is completely out of his comfort zone, forced to rely on other people as he struggles to grow crops, rear sheep and demonstrate his commitment to meaningful environmental projects.
Incredibly, Clarkson’s Farm does a great job of informing us about the impossible demands that face the modern farmer, and it comes across as a genuine labour of love. Even Jezza sounded a little bemused by the outpouring of affection when the show was screened, taking to Twitter to write: “I’m genuinely amazed at the response.”
He was also pleasantly surprised by just how much he enjoyed himself – and that obvious pleasure is one of the great delights for the viewers too. “It’s the happiest I have been at work for a very long time,” he said. “It was absolutely heavenly, I loved every single second of it.”
Funny, fuzzy and full of surprises, this is addictive television – and against the backdrop of Brexit and coronavirus, the series provides a timely and unvarnished look at the challenges facing the industry amid growing concerns about food supply chains, climate change, ethical farming and sustainability.
Of course, not everyone in the nearby village of Chadlington is delighted to have Diddly Squat on their doorstep. And Jeremy’s critics are quick to pour scorn on claims that owning and running a 1,000-acre farmer really does much to offset his own not insubstantial carbon footprint.
But when Clarkson is involved, controversy is not far behind, as a recent casual tweet illustrated.
When The Beyonder took a weekend trip to the Cotswolds, it found Diddly Squat farm shop under siege – with the car park packed, there were dozens of eager customers waiting in lines to be served, sometimes for hours.
It wasn’t meant to be a snide jibe, just a factual comment. After all, how many farm shops can count on this sort of popularity? Not only that, but so many of the visitors were young couples too, with aficionados travelling from all over the country on the off-chance of catching a glimpse of any of the stars of the show.
Never one to miss a promotional opportunity, Jezza was quick to respond, prompting a hectic flurry of “likes” from many of his 7.4m-strong Twitter army:
So far so good, and all this is fair game. But it does highlight one important aspect of the show which it’s all too easy to forget: this time it’s personal.
Hidden among the thousands of likes are a welter of comments too. And as you’d expect, being on Twitter, not all of them are complimentary.
Yes, there are those delighted at the boost he has given farming, and many customers from Essex to the Isle of Man insisted they were only too happy to spend hours queuing, with customers laughing and joking despite the wait.
But others aren’t slow to spray slurry in every direction: at us, for daring to tweet about the queues or at Jeremy for the price of his candles or the traffic “chaos” being created on surrounding roads.
The overall consensus seems positive: that a “great show” has helped to open people’s eyes to how hard farmers work, and if that has lured a new generation to the farm shop gates, that’s no bad thing.
But amid all the hectic exchanges, shares, likes and rebuttals, it occurs that this is where Clarkson’s real courage comes in.
Putting yourself “out there” on TV may bring financial rewards, but it also exposes you (and your loved ones) to constant comment and criticism, much of it cruel, intrusive and personal. Everyone thinks they know you and have the right to pass judgement on your actions, opinions, lifestyle and personality.
Clarkson is a born entertainer who doesn’t shirk from upsetting people, and he’s not known as a paragon of political correctness or sensitivity.
But it takes courage to lay yourself open to such searing public scrutiny, especially when it means putting your home, family and friends firmly in the spotlight too.
There’s every indication that Clarkson genuinely had a blast making the first series of Clarkson’s Farm – and last month he was eager to ensure everyone knows there’s another series in the pipeline.
Let’s just hope Kaleb, Lisa and company are up to the challenge too. Where TV is concerned, there really is no hiding place from the public gaze, months and years after a programme is screened.