To say Jeremy Clarkson makes an unlikely farmer might be something of an understatement. Cruising around his 200 acres in rural Oxfordshire in an ostentatiously large Lamborghini tractor, he seems like the embodiment of an out-of-touch cosmopolitan, the type who makes a living “driving fast and talking nonsense” and writing things like we mustn’t get “deluded by all this farm-to-fork-guff”.
e tells me he only bought the place — which he has called Diddly Squat — because “land so rarely comes up for sale around here” and he had “a bit of time on his hands”.
When he decided to do the hands-on “malarkey” himself he wondered: “How hard could it actually be?”
Quite hard, as it turns out. In his new Amazon series, Clarkson’s Farm, which chronicles his transformation into a bumpkin, farm hands roll their eyes as they observe no British trailer will fit the back of the Lamborghini.
Beetles devour his crops, and torrential rain means he can’t plough his fields. His sheep run riot while his Irish girlfriend, the actress Lisa Hogan, looks on, bemused.
From these furrows of woe Clarkson does manage to harvest a rich crop of humour, which is, of course, the whole point. At a sheep mart, he observes there is wonderful “diversity… every type of 60-year-old white man”.
At one point his daughter adopts an injured owl, which she names Boris. The owl dies, his passing a symbol of the fact the town — the famous Chipping Norton — voted mainly Labour in the last election. It’s something Clarkson tells me he will bring up with his neighbour, David Cameron.
As the wettest spring on record causes havoc on the farm, one of the workers bluntly observes: “You make a living driving cars — and this is global warming.”
But Clarkson seems to agree with the notion that pollution causes global warming, which in turn led to flooding on his farm. His issue seems to be the way the environmentalist message is communicated and what he sees as its extreme aims.
“You’d be a fool to say the weather isn’t changing. It bucketed down for all of April. We had five record-breaking weather months last year, so that’s odd. But, you know, I don’t listen to Greta Thunberg. It’s just the shouting: ‘You must all give up driving.’
“I mean that’s obviously preposterous, as is that we all have to not go on holiday. Lisa’s mum is getting on so she likes to go over to Dublin to see her and if these people had their way it would be, ‘oh you can’t fly, you have to go on a dinghy’. That’s just not going to happen is it? I think just don’t shout, just sit down and be calm.”
Clarkson was a staunch Remainer during the Brexit debates, but some felt the rhetoric he indulged in on TV and in his Sunday Times column fed into the perception of Europe as an interfering hand in British affairs.
At one point in his new farming series he’s informed his crop can’t be sprayed for pests because of EU regulations. The unspoken conclusion seems to be that the Union itself is the real pest.
“There are pros and cons,” he says of Britain leaving the EU.
“This is me weirdly saying there is a need for balance. Truth be told the vaccine roll-out that we have had in this country [England] wouldn’t have been possible if we had been part of Europe and so, while I was a very committed Remainer, I am deeply grateful that we’ve been jabbed here to a greater extent than in Ireland.
“But then my Durham wheat has been stuck in Calais for three weeks, which is entirely as a result of Brexit.”
Amazon was happy to pay a reported €205m for the rights to The Grand Tour when Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May moved from the BBC to the streaming service in 2015.
The eye-watering fee was justified, Clarkson says, because “you’ve basically sold your right and your ability to a quiet life. You’ll always have people asking you for selfies. Even at my mother’s funeral I was asked for a selfie.
“A lot depends on what your public persona is. I was speaking to an English footballer recently and he was asked for an autograph. He felt he had to say OK because people think of him as mister nice guy.
“They asked me as well and I just said ‘f-off’ and he looked at me and said ‘you’re so lucky to be able to say that’. Because the thing is some people are actually quite pleased I’ve told them to f-off. It was what they were expecting me to do and then I did it.”
The stardom that has grown men clamouring for selfies was almost immediately apparent when he moved from print journalism to the BBC in 1987, to co-present Top Gear. His opinionated style made him an instant hit with viewers — although it took him a while to feel comfortable.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing,” he recalls. “In the early days of television you had to wear a tie and I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I remember just looking down and thinking ‘I have two marrows on the end of my arms’.
“As soon as I relaxed and remembered ‘you’re only thinking about them because you’re on television’, I relaxed and everything just flowed.”
As he changed from blazers and ties to jeans, his reporting style also became more irreverent.
“I was just lucky because people were interested in cars and I had a way of describing cars that was more colourful. Instead of talking about gear boxes I said ‘I don’t like BMWs because they are driven by tossers’.
“People thought it was much funnier but there was no great trick to it.”
He has also had a long-running feud with Piers Morgan, whom he punched at the British Press Awards in 2004 for publishing photographs of him with a female colleague.
“I had the most awful morning recently when I found myself in agreement with both Piers Morgan and Nigel Farage. It was about Meghan Markle. My eyes just roll in my head and my shoulders sag whenever she says anything.”
Clarkson has had two marriages. His first, to Alexandra James, lasted only a few months in 1989. In 1993 he married his manager, Frances Cain, with whom he has three children, but they split in 2014. In 2017 he began dating Dublin-born actress Hogan.
“She’s ever so jolly and popular with everyone on the farm and she brings this kind of ‘ooh it’ll be alright’ kind of energy to everything; she’s a breath of fresh air really. We can be a bit staid in England — and she’s not.”
With so many controversialists getting cancelled in recent years, it seems strange that Clarkson — who once described Gordon Brown as “a one-eyed Scottish idiot” and Birmingham as “an armpit that masquerades as Britain’s second city” — has held on.
“I know that the time is coming where I say something to someone which I don’t believe at all to be controversial or offensive and you’ll realise that it could be construed the wrong way and (a journalist) will print it and that will be me finished.
“I’m walking through a minefield and sooner or later I will tread on a landmine.”
‘Clarkson’s Farm’ launches Friday, June 11, on Amazon Prime Video