The Grand Tour: Have Clarkson and the boys created UKIP on wheels?
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Jeremy Clarkson and his Grand Tour cronies built a Brexit juggernaut and blew up everything in its path
In the wonderful world of television it was all happening. The BBC's Children In Need telethon raised £47 million for charity. Strictly Come Dancing's iconic Blackpool special waltzed into the record books with a vast audience of nearly 11 million.
Sir David Attenborough's wildlife spectacular Planet Earth II slaughtered The X Factor in the ratings war. And ITV's jungle juggernaut I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! had the nation hooked for the umpteenth year in a row.
Lots for discerning viewers to talk about then. Well, not really. Despite an unusually busy bleak midwinter weekend, there was only one topic of conversation on the agenda. The return of telly's biggest bad boy Jeremy Clarkson as Amazon Prime launched its eagerly awaited motoring show The Grand Tour.
If you haven't seen it, let me explain. It's Top Gear with a different name and a blockbuster budget. Or rather, it's what Top Gear used to be before Clarkson opted to punch a producer and the Beeb opted not to renew its highest earning star's lucrative contract. Now the poor guy's struggling by on a trifling annual salary of £10 million. And he has a staggering £4.5 million to spend on each stunning episode. Who said violence doesn't pay?
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In a bold investment of epic proportions, Amazon has shelled out £160million on a three series deal aimed at harnessing caustic Clarkson's withering world view and tapping into the simmering discontent of those who worship him as the high priest of political incorrectness. If you want to watch actors and DJs in cars, tune into BBC2's new neutered Top Gear. If you want to laugh at farcical foreigners, The Grand Tour is the prejudice-packed forum for you. And, worryingly, you will be far from alone.
Make no mistake, retro-bloke Jeremy is more than just a car journalist with a winning way with words. And he's certainly much more than just a TV star. He's a symbolic figurehead for a vast army of cult-like fans who see him as a plain-speaking guru offering refuge from a caring, sharing modern world they simply don't like. Enthralled by their hero's full throttle 1970s-style mischief, they feel empowered to pour scorn on climate change, giggle about the French and Germans and generally be suspicious of all things European. For them Brexit isn't a political decision, it's a way of life.
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When Clarkson parted company with the Beeb after indefensibly hitting a blameless colleague because – horror of horrors – his dinner was cold, more than a million protesters signed a petition calling for his reinstatement. A powerful anti-establishment message delivered to New Broadcasting House in a tank. With this angry mob on the march, Remain never stood a chance.
But ahead of The Grand Tour's hotly anticipated opening salvo the burning question was: would Jeremy and his like-minded sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May continue to fan the flames of xenophobia? Would they carry on with their Carry On gags at the expense of Johnny Foreigner? We didn't have to wait long for the answer. A resounding yes.
Bursting free from the shackles of the quivering carefulness that put him on a cultural collision course with his former employers, Clarkson announced that the three amigos were ready to roam the globe. 'We're going to be like gypsies,' he boomed. 'Only the cars we drive are going to be insured.' At the PC BBC that blatant slice of casual racism would have been consigned to the cutting room floor. At Amazon Prime it was a defiant statement of intent.
The rest of the debut programme was peppered with the little British attitudes that were the hallmark of the old Top Gear that played to 350 million people in over 200 countries.
To Clarkson and his sniggering pals, it's funny to brand Mexicans feckless and lazy. It's hilarious to survey an Oriental man on the wonky bridge over the River Kwai and say: 'There's a slope.' And the truculent threesome's obsessive taunting of Argentina over the Falklands actually triggered an international incident when they had to hurriedly flee from South America after causing widespread offence.
Middle aged cheeky chappies in bad clothes jet-setting around the planet churning out bigoted one-liners. Raking in an annual £50 million profit, it was undoubtedly a rancid recipe for worldwide success. Nevertheless, the right-on BBC hated it. All the way to the bank.
Now it's clear that Amazon Prime doesn't want Clarkson and co. to change a thing. Just before his dubious gypsy joke, the great man declared: 'It's very unlikely I'll be fired because now we're on the internet. Which means I could pleasure a horse.' Only, one assumes, with the horse's permission. But you get the idea. Stand by for loads more of the same. With their newfound editorial liberty, the ex-Top Gear gang are going to test the boundaries and revel in it.
A fine writer and charismatic broadcaster, Clarkson is undeniably an amusing bloke. But the ethos he encourages is no laughing matter. Regardless of what his personal politics are, his programmes promote insularity and intolerance. When the British people are led to believe it's perfectly okay to poke fun at Europeans, what are the chances they'll vote to stay a part of the EU?
In 2002, this influential man on a malevolent mission even made an entire series based on his contempt for the Continent. In Jeremy Clarkson Meets The Neighbours he drove through six European countries specifically to ruthlessly ridicule them. Can you imagine the BBC screening that now? How times change.
In fairness, he's an equal-opportunity casual racist. He loves to put down Americans too. As The Grand Tour spared no expense staging breath-taking scenes in the Californian desert he took the opportunity to remind the locals that they couldn't speak proper English. And then goaded them by insisting that everyone knows that the RAF is the finest air force in the world. One loyal US citizen in the studio audience shouted: 'If that was true we wouldn't have to help you every time you get in trouble.' Nationalistic tension duly established, Jeremy was in his element.
Clarkson detests vegetarians, hates cyclists, loathes Labour with a passion and calls green campaigners: 'Eco mentalists descended from old trades unionists and CND lesbians.' Ironically, he's also a Remainer. An unexpected standpoint that must have shocked and dismayed his devoted followers, if they happened to notice.
Obviously, Top Gear and now The Grand Tour are first and foremost car shows featuring heaps of those trademark crashes, explosions and comical disasters. Genuine petrol-heads, Clarkson, Hammond and May are the undisputed masters of a genre they pretty much invented. But there was always more to the formula than mere motoring.
While no one is saying the trouble-making trio set out to create UKIP on wheels, that is effectively what they did. No matter how light hearted their approach, when they whipped up the crowd against foreigners they unleashed a disturbing force. It was on a tide of ill will to all men that Britain elected to leave the European Union. And on that bombshell…
Kevin O'Sullivan is a television critic
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