Jeremy Clarkson is notorious for his love of snazzy cars, speed and pyrotechnics from his decades hosting first the BBC ’s Top Gear, then, since 2016, Amazon Prime’s The Grand Tour. So it’s a jolt to see him in his new smaller-scale incarnation as farmer: chasing sheep around a field, hammering in fence posts (with a lot of huffing and puffing) and attending agricultural auctions.
All the same, as the first episode of Clarkson’s Farm - the new Amazon Prime series documenting Jeremy running his 1,000-acre Diddly Squat farm in Oxfordshire - reminds us, you can take the man off the racetrack, but you can’t take the spirit of the racetrack out of the man.
Disgusted by the feeble horsepower of Massey Ferguson tractors, instead he buys a Lamborghini number that has 48 gears but is so vast he ends up building a new barn to accommodate it – and a new driveway after it wouldn’t fit through his gates.
‘The tractor looked brilliant but turned out to be entirely inappropriate; it’s the least fun thing in the world to drive and it actually doesn’t do its job very well,’ sighs Jeremy, sitting in Diddly Squat’s offices, where his hapless farm manager frequently annoys him by reminding him of government health and safety regulations.
‘That was a lesson learned. But when it comes to the farm, I have few regrets. I’ve enjoyed everything about it.’
That’s surprising to hear since the series, covering September 2019 to August 2020 (once lockdown kicked in, filming was done on a handheld camera by Jeremy’s girlfriend Lisa Hogan) is packed with his travails.
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‘People talk about farmers whining,’ he says. ‘I thought it wasn’t a difficult job – well, you try it! Your life can be ruined by some idiotic government initiative or the weather; you have to be a tractor driver, midwife, agronomist, mechanic, gambler, entrepreneur, businessman and be up to speed with global events.’
The main obstacle was the seemingly endless rain. At one point a local man berates him for contributing to climate change and such extreme weather. Jeremy shrugs, ‘There’s a delicious irony to the fact I’ve spent 30 years driving around in fast cars, I’ve got two Range Rovers and a Bentley. And now I’ve been clobbered. This probably is my penance.’
With time, he’s got better at farming. ‘But I’m a very long way from being an actual farmer. I still can’t attach anything to the back of my tractor, everything looks to me like it might take my arm off and it’s covered in hydraulic fluid and oil.’
Yet he admits the experience has been manna for the soul. ‘Every day you get those moments when you lean on a gatepost and look out at the landscape and it’s joyous,’ he says, without a hint of sarcasm. He’s delighted that viewers will finally see life on a bog-standard farm, whose crops are prosaic barley, wheat and oilseed rape rather than the usual television clichés. ‘Usually, you either see Kate Humble bottle-feeding a sweet lamb in lovely countryside, or it’s some hideous American indoor thing where they’re incredibly cruel to pigs or cows. But you never see a farm like mine where people are kind to animals, and everything we do is with one eye on the environment and future generations.’
Jeremy grew up on a non-working, 400-year-old farm in South Yorkshire, where his parents owned the factory that made Paddington Bears (‘I had to sew up the backs, put in the eyes and stuffing. I was proficient with a needle by the time I was 12’). Is this quest to get back to his roots a midlife crisis? ‘I’m way past midlife,’ says Jeremy. ‘I’m in late autumn. And it wasn’t a crisis. I’d bought the farm in 2008, then ten years later the chap who had done the farming for me said he was retiring. On the spur of the moment I said, “Why don’t I do it?” and then I realised we could make a programme about it.’
Jeremy had been living virtually full-time at the farm since before the first lockdown. ‘I’ve pretty much abdicated London life,’ he says. ‘If I hadn’t had the farm, I’d have climbed the walls in lockdown.’
Having been married twice – once for just six months, the second time for 21 years to Frances Cain, the mother of his three children – for the past four years Jeremy’s lived with Lisa, 49, a former model and actor who now develops film scripts. She comes across as a good sport, painting the new farm shop walls (planning regulations mean it closes after one day) and chasing escapologist chickens.
Less hilarious are Jeremy’s adventures with sheep. Having decided to keep a flock, he discovers that three are unable to feed any future lambs and have to be slaughtered. ‘It’s farming,’ he says. ‘Everything dies and you eat it.’
It all seems a lot of pain for financially tiny gain. ‘There’s no money in sheep farming. You could buy Ferraris and drive them into walls all day and it would be cheaper,’ he says. ‘Then the morons, because all vegetarians are morons, are saying, “Oh we’re not eating the sheep”, so then they have even less value, when those same vegetarians are paying an airline to ship an avocado to the other side of the world so they can have it for breakfast.’
Avocados come up ceaselessly in Jeremy’s conversations with his three children, Emily, 26, Finlo, 24, and Katya, 21, who espouse various ‘woke’ values of their generation. ‘I’m not “right-on”, as we used to call woke, but we get on terribly well by skirting around a lot of issues.’
It’s been six years since Jeremy was sacked by the BBC after assaulting a Top Gear producer on location. ‘For five minutes it looked like a disaster,’ he says. ‘But ten minutes later I’m at Amazon and it’s the best news ever.’ He and his co-presenters, James May and Richard Hammond, were offered a £160m deal for The Grand Tour.
Meanwhile Jeremy’s also attracted a new fanbase from hosting ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. He seems genuinely to care about the contestants. ‘I care about some of them getting kicked off as quickly as possible,’ retorts Jeremy. ‘I know how desperate some really bright people are to get on the show, but then you get some halfwit who’s just got quick fingers. Anyone can get to £8,000, then you phone a friend and get £16,000, you phone another friend and suddenly they’re going away with a very large amount of money, having shown that they know nothing at all. That happens occasionally and I really object to it.’
At Christmas, Jeremy caught Covid. ‘I was worried because I’m overweight, I don’t smoke now but I have smoked half a million cigarettes and I’ve had double pneumonia, so I’m a poster boy for bad Covid. But the only thing that was bad was when the doctor said, “Between nine and 11 days, you’ll either get better or you’ll go to hospital”. I spent the first day googling “Can you drink?” and I found one website that said you could, so I took a case of wine up to the bedroom and some Bond films and in the end, it was very mild.’
He’s not thrilled about having turned 61. ‘Everyone I know dies at 61,’ he says. Everyone? ‘All my friends did, my dad did, that’s when you go, so I have 12 months left. If I make it to 62, I’ll be here for ever. The weird thing is when Dad died, I thought of him as an old man, but I don’t feel old. When I see myself on screen I think, “Who’s that?” I always expect a 19-year-old to be looking back at me. But old people don’t look like we think they should look. When my generation is in old people’s homes we’re not going to be dancing to Vera Lynn, it’ll be White Riot by The Clash.’ Although new, (slightly) mellower Farmer Clarkson might also request a Wurzels barn-dance number.
Clarkson’s Farm, a brand new UK Amazon original series, launches exclusively on Prime Video in June