Jeremy Clarkson: because he’s worth it

He may caricature greens as cabbage-eating lesbians, but Clarkson says what people think. And the Beeb is right to pay him handsomely.

Are BBC presenters a waste of money? Why are they getting paid so much? These questions seem all the more pressing these days, what with the likes of Jonathan Ross, Terry Wogan and Jeremy Clarkson currently being awarded phenomenal wages at the licence-payers’ expense. Why should we be forced to pay million-pound wages to assuage the egos of these egomaniacs, we cry?

Well, the truth is that some of our presenters are much better value for money than others. The problem is that by criticising BBC presenters in general, the Corporation’s detractors fail to acknowledge which presenters actually make a net profit for this country. The politics of envy are always stupid, but, when it comes to the current debate over BBC pay, they become supremely idiotic.

Take Ross and Wogan. The former is now currently eking out a living largely by regaling guests with tales of masturbation; the latter is turning into a senile old fool, who was occasionally good on Radio 2 back in 1972. Both seem to be vying for the role of BBC’s resident retard, one adolescent, the other geriatric.

It’s a difficult moment for the BBC. It is having to lay off a great deal of its staff as we speak while also being forced to scrape together enough to pay Ross and Wogan enormous amounts of money. Yet, as none of their shows are sold throughout the world, they’re hardly good value for money. 

But then take Jeremy Clarkson, another ‘greedy’ employee, who has helped to make Top Gear a ‘global phenomenon’ - it’s been sold to 42 countries, earning the BBC millions (1). Briefly put, Clarkson is value for money for the licence-payer in the way Ross and Wogan are not. He is literally worth every penny.

Not so, say his fellow Top Gear presenters, Richard Hammond and James May. According to some reports ‘Captain Slow’ and Hammond the ‘Hamster’ are demanding pay deals equivalent to that of Top Gear’s main presenter, Clarkson (2). This week, it was even claimed that the two have yet to sign a new contract with the BBC despite having just three weeks to go until their current deal runs out. The BBC2 controller, Roly Keating, said he is ‘extremely confident’ that Hammond and May will sign new deals with the programme.

I don’t mean to be rude to May or Hammond, but surely they can understand that they are not Top Gear’s selling point? It’s always going to be Clarkson. Because he is deliberately un-PC in a way his co-presenters are not, he’s the one that sells the programme abroad. Hammond may be young and handsome, May fogeyish and demure, but neither taps into the revulsion felt by the pro-motoring, anti-ecomentalist brigade as Clarkson can. He is a hero in Australia, America, Malaysia, Romania, Georgia, Russia – and recognised on the streets of these countries – for a very good reason: he says what people are thinking. And that’s why he makes the BBC money.

Ross and Wogan fail to resonate for precisely the opposite reason. They’re self-obsessed. Jeremy Clarkson may come across as something of an oaf, even Daily Mail-like in his opinions, but at least he has his compass focused on the world in general. He may too easily caricature environmentalists as cabbage-eating lesbians, but at least he has a genuine interest. This is why he is such a rich source of parody in Private Eye and on TV programmes such as Dead Ringers; he is sincere, but faintly ridiculous while doing it.

But yet… but yet… (as he always adds as a coda at the conclusion of his car reviews), we feel his sincerity is authentic. Too many of his BBC colleagues are merely concerned with themselves. Gloria Hunniford was right recently to attack Ross for his endless wanking jokes. Wogan these days makes Ken Bruce sound like Harold Pinter or George Monbiot. Hammond and May may entertain, but they don’t have Clarkson’s transparent political agenda. They’re jokers, not true mischief-makers or aggravators.

I’m sorry to go on about Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson all the time in these columns, but I do think it is the most important television programme of our times, and I hope that any future social commentator and/or philosopher will have the sense to realise as much. It is the most pro-risk, pro-masculine show in our risk-averse, feminine times. This is why it appeals to non-petrolheads; indeed, why it appeals to people who can’t even drive, like myself. Top Gear, with any luck, will be regarded as a cultural barometer of the 2000s.

So don’t cuss the BBC for its pay packages. Ask yourselves what you are paying for? I’d much prefer people who ask questions of the world, rather than those who answer self-serving questions about themselves. Let’s hear it for high pay packages for BBC presenters. Just as long as they reward us with interesting questions. As much as I like Hammond and May, they don’t sell ideas. Which is why they deservedly don’t get paid as much.

Ross and Wogan are worthless; Clarkson is priceless.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Doctor Who and Jeremy Clarkson help BBC Worldwide to £118million profit, Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2008

(2) BBC2 ‘confident’ Top Gear hosts will stay, Guardian, 10 July 2008

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