Jeremy Clarkson on his farming show: ‘It’s like Attenborough doing jetskiing’

Over early morning coffee at his Oxfordshire farmhouse, Jeremy Clarkson is talking about his new nemesis, badgers, and the fact that they constantly urinate, usually on his grass. “If they’ve got TB and a cow eats that bit of grass, then you, the taxpayer, pay for that cow to be killed. A quarter of the world’s badgers live in the UK, causing chaos. But if you say, ‘I’m going to shoot a badger’, you can expect to find your house on fire within 10 minutes. Carrie Johnson is a badger enthusiast, so the government aren’t likely to do anything while she’s running around.”

Your understanding of why badgers, and the leanings of Boris Johnson’s wife, have got Clarkson’s Levi’s in a twist may depend on how far along his career you’ve travelled. Since leaving the BBC’s Top Gear in 2015, he has co-hosted four series of The Grand Tour (basically Top Gear with 300 times the budget) on Amazon Prime Video. In his most recent Amazon venture – Clarkson’s Farm – he attempts to cultivate the 1,000 acres of land he’s owned since 2008 but didn’t give an agricultural hoot about until the actual farmer who worked them retired in 2019. “I didn’t have a clue what was growing in my fields,” he says, gesturing all around. “Now I know what’s in them all.”

Clarkson’s Farm has delighted Clarksonphiles by showing TV’s leading boor/buffoon utterly out of his comfort zone and sinking fast. “I had the most awful accident last week,” he says at one point. “I hit a telegraph pole with a very expensive piece of borrowed equipment. So I’m in deep shit.” But there has, inevitably, been criticism from Clarksonphobes, whose existence he acknowledges with the words: “A lot of people don’t like cars, or me, and certainly don’t like the combination of the two.”

‘I kind of know about cars’ … Clarkson with James May on Top Gear.
‘I kind of know about cars’ … Clarkson with James May on Top Gear. Photograph: BBC

Clarkson doesn’t grant many interviews. “You inevitably say something stupid. Then they say, ‘He’s stupid.’ So it’s easier not to bother.” But there is a reason why I’m sitting in front of this mud-splattered figure: he’s got a book out, a collection of his newspaper columns on farming. “I look like a farmer,” he says. “I’ve even bought a check shirt and a pair of steel-toed boots, which are incredibly heavy. I don’t know how farmers walk about.”

Clarkson’s Farm split the Guardian’s TV writers. “Unlike his motoring shows,” wrote Stuart Heritage, “where his stock reaction to any problem was to blast out of it in an orgy of explosive cluelessness, the Clarkson we meet here is actively willing to learn. Better yet, he isn’t the in-your-face alpha of this show, because everyone else knows so much more than him.” However, in her one-star review, Lucy Mangan called the show, which she renamed Jeremy Buys a Tractor, “wearisome, meretricious rubbish”.

Clarkson is 61 now. When I ask him how he hopes to die, he pops a piece of Nicorette in his mouth and says: “I used to think I’d put out my last cigarette age 107 and just die. But I stopped smoking four years ago. When my dad died at 61, I thought, ‘That’s a pretty good innings.’ Now I’m 61, if I died, I’d be furious. I’m nowhere near finished. So, yes, I think about dying every day. There’s your headline. In 40 years, I shall be dead and nobody shall remember me.” Although some channel will probably still be showing Top Gear repeats, I suggest. “No blue plaque,” he agrees with a laugh, “but I’ll be on Dave.”

Clarkson found himself in hospital with pneumonia in 2017 and, last Christmas, feared he would “die alone in a plastic tent” after contracting Covid. How’s his health now? “I’ve got my first medical for two and half years next week – the full anus – and I’m terrified. They begin with a prostate exam and it gets more undignified as the day goes on. Then a doctor summons you into this dimly lit surgery to look at your results. You sit there thinking, ‘Have I got cancer?’ That’s all I care about. I don’t listen to the rest – drink less, lose weight. You’d have thought with all the exercise, I’d look like a whippet.”

With The Grand Tour now appearing only as specials (but still carrying on a lot longer than the Guardian would hope, he says) and his agricultural adventure now filming its second series, is the farm Clarkson’s retirement plan? “No. I’m not farmer stock. You spend 30 years blowing everything up” – this included his own farmhouse in a 2016 episode of The Grand Tour – “then make this rather gentle programme with some lovely people from a village. It’s so far removed, like David Attenborough doing a programme on jet-skiing, or Nicholas Witchell saying, ‘I’m going to be a cage fighter.’ But I’m still the same person. I kind of know about cars, so I can be bombastic. I don’t know anything about farming, so you’re watching me learn. I was nursing a semi yesterday because I was driving past one of the fields in a tractor.”

‘I’ve even bought a check shirt’ … Clarkson and his digger.
‘I’ve even bought a check shirt’ … Clarkson and his digger. Photograph: Ellis O’Brien / Amazon Prime

A semi? “Priapic,” he says. “Tumescent.” Oh, I see. “And then I noticed a strip that hasn’t been seeded. So I busted Kaleb for making his first mistake in two years.” That’s Kaleb Cooper, Clarkson’s 22-year-old farming assistant. “I haven’t seen him all morning. He’s in a sulk.”

One of the most enjoyable things about Clarkson’s Farm is that absolutely everyone treats him with a genuine, complete and utter lack of awe. “Why would they do otherwise?” he says. “I’m just one of those rich fuckers who moved to the Cotswolds.” Local opinion is certainly divided, though. The taxi driver who takes me to his house is a fan, referring to him as “Lord Clarkson”. But a person I talk to in the pub, who has met him once, describes him as “clearly a massive knob”.

Clarkson doesn’t seem too concerned and mentions that he has set up a Google alert on himself. “If I get up in the morning and there’s no alert,” he says, “I’m thrilled. But the red trousers brigade object to everything. One turned around last night at the parish council meeting and said, ‘It’s not your job to be rude.’ I said, ‘It kind of is.’”

Flying the flag … with Kaleb Cooper at the British Farming Awards.
Flying the flag … with his assistant Kaleb Cooper at the British Farming Awards. Photograph: Amazon Prime Video Clarkson’s Farm/PA

There is also something quite refreshing about seeing Clarkson doing an actual hard day’s graft. “I definitely sleep better after a day on the farm,” he says. “There’s no cameras here today, though. I’ve had to write a column and I’m seeing you. But as soon as you’re gone, weather permitting, I’m back on the tractor.”

The week after we speak, Clarkson scores a win at the British Farming Awards, in the Flying the Flag for British Agriculture category. He dedicates it to Cooper, saying he couldn’t have done it without him. This echoes recent remarks made by the sheep farmer and author James Rebanks, who said Clarkson had done “more for farmers in one series than Countryfile achieved in 30 years”.

If Clarkson really has become the new voice of British farming, no one is more surprised than him. “If somebody said to me two years previously, ‘The president of the National Farmers Union wants to take you out for lunch’, I’d have thought, ‘What is going to happen in my life to cause that?’”

Does he think an OBE could be on the cards? “You’re very sweet. But I’m more annoyed I’ve never won a Bafta. I’ve done some bloody good shows over the years: a good one on Brunel and some military documentaries. You’d think the Bafta committee might think, ‘We should at least nominate him. Drag him to London to disappoint him.’ But as soon as the newspapers say, ‘Jeremy Clarkson, friend of David Cameron’, that’s it: ‘He’s not having a Bafta.’”

He goes on: “I can’t imagine in a million years that the honours committee are going to go, ‘Right, everyone, he’s just the man.’ Come on. Go through the cuttings. You’ll quickly discover I’m not.”

  • Diddly Squat: A Year on the Farm is published by Penguin (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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