How Jeremy Clarkson became irrelevant

Ah, Jeremy Clarkson. Remember? We used to talk about him all the time, whether we wanted to or not. Then he punched his producer and had to leave Top Gear, Piers Morgan replaced him as the nation’s foremost choleric millionaire troll, and the world moved on. Wherever did he go? Into the lucrative but fragmented realm of internet TV, where since 2016 Amazon has been employing Clarkson, along with his sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May, to front a different cars-and-bants show called The Grand Tour.

This arrangement suits everyone. Last year, leaked internal figures showed how Amazon measures the worth of an original programme by estimating how many new subscribers it attracts. On that metric, The Grand Tour laps everything else. It’s visibly expensive to make, and Clarkson and co earn even more than they did on Top Gear. But for Jeff Bezos, they’re worth it. That The Grand Tour is hardly ever mentioned by anyone who doesn’t watch The Grand Tour is of no concern.

Folk at home are content too: petrolheads happily pay for Prime to get a plush version of the show they love, while the rest of us go about our business unmolested, reassured that the BBC is no longer besmirched. It’s a rare example of a major outsourcing project constituting a good deal for Britain.

Anyway, here is Clarkson in pale jeans, bellowing “WE’RE BACK!” to wild applause from a studio full of white people, which means season three is under way. Time to gingerly crack open the shed door and see what they’re up to in there.

Nothing of great note is the answer, at least in the opening episode, which takes the barnacled bros to Detroit to mess about in muscle cars. As always, it’s lushly filmed, with a fine eye for a startling location. The comic-book graphics complementing the superhero nicknames the men give the cars are a luxurious touch. Clarkson’s review of the McLaren Senna is crisp and vivid, conveying the thrill of driving it while pithily explaining its technical merits. There’s even a moment when May deviates from the scripted joshing and is properly funny off the cuff, earning a roaring laugh from his pals rather than the usual arch chortles. The show is undeniably well made, and almost all of it is jolly and inconsequential.

Not that Clarkson abandons his brand entirely. Driving at 140mph among the peeling ruins of Detroit is a provocative metaphor, as if the simple act of continuing to make a globetrotting car show in 2019 didn’t already feel enough like an older generation laughing gaily while the world burns. But Clarkson is ready with a rant for his core fanbase of sore winners who hyperventilate if anything challenges their comfy prejudices. In Detroit, his sop to the sort of people who shout at vegan sausage rolls is a complaint that the city contains urban farms. Which grow vegetables! This is bad because Detroit is all about cars, not “peace hippies”. Clarkson protests by driving a Mustang through a kale patch.

This outrage is, however, half-hearted. A pompous blowhard is just the character Clarkson plays, alongside May as a doddery eccentric and Hammond as a clumsy nerd. Clarkson’s anti-nutrition ramble is met with theatrical scorn by the other hosts, just as Hammond’s bizarre assertion that heterosexuals tend not to eat ice-cream was in series one. It’s a performative release of steam, a Statler and two Waldorfs going through the motions within a confined, virtually soundproofed safe space. Close that shed door and leave them to it.

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