Jeremy Clarkson has attempted, through a supposedly fearless indifference, to cultivate a persona that bucks squeamish political correctness and sanitised language. In a world where the studio is populated by worried lawyers and agitated accountants, television and radio have invariably become rather dull pursuits. In a sense, a program like Top Gear, and Clarkson’s moments of faux irritation, are astonishingly mild rejections of the movement.
Then came The Daily Mirror and its canine-like digging, with a bit of amateur sleuthing that obtained old footage of a take for Top Gear in which Clarkson recites the beginning of the children’s nursery rhyme “eeny, meeny, miny, moe”. He is then caught apparently mumbling “Catch a nigger by his toe”, though the prosecution brief on that is uncertain.
The responses have been, in the main, electrifyingly unsympathetic. Aliya Mohammed, chief executive of Race Equality First, smelled legal action and decided to turn the spotlight on the BBC. “How many racist comments will the BBC allow from the presenter?” Downing Street condemned the use of the word. (Has the quality of debate plummeted that far?) The BBC, very much on the back foot, had to come out with a statement that, “We have made it absolutely clear to him, the standards of the BBC expects on air and off. We have left him in no doubt about how seriously we view this.”
Musa Okwonga, writing in The New Statesman (May 3), could barely contain himself, even if he was “going to leave this Jeremy Clarkson thing alone. Really, I was. I had a lot of laundry to do, and I hadn’t eaten yet.” He conceded to Clarkson being brilliant, but he did not require any racist trimmings via “finely calibrated jibes”.
The righteous have certainly had a happy hunting season of late, with the BBC knee-deep in a tawdry, licentious legacy of notable employees who couldn’t quite keep their hands to themselves. The ghost of Jimmy Savile stalks its studios and production teams. Its corporeal manifestation is Operation YewTree, which has to date only attained one conviction – that of publicist Max Clifford. Moral outrage is, however, everywhere.
What we see, in the scolding nature of such a reaction, is not that Clarkson was a particularly good boy (he was playing, in fact, the tenured broadcasting twit), but the desperation to find something in the archive of old footage to incriminate him for a slip. This is hardly a gold star for casual racism – its not even clear that Clarkson was intentionally pitching that old line about the ‘n’ word in eeney, meeny, which, of course, has been cleansed of its historical context. Then, commentators and language constables have been straining to hear what exactly he was saying, as if to suggest that he just might have fallen into an act of racial offense.
As Clarkson himself has asserted, he regards the word as loathsome. There were several takes, and he had been concerned which one seemed more appropriate. By his own admission, he might have done more. He might well have avoided it altogether, though such toe-stepping with language can become debilitating. His video explaining this is hybrid perversion – the non-apologist who apologised better than anyone.
Indeed, Top Gear is painfully scripted, directed and crafted, at times even an act of constipated control. “It’s clear to even an ignorant ingénue as myself,” wrote Clarissa Tan for the Spectator, “that large parts of it – the banter, the races, the speed laps, the celebrity interviews – are rehearsed, or at least planned, beforehand. Nobody watches Top Gear for its verisimilitude or because it brings us closer to real life.”
Such linguistic care, such caution, the sort that verges on stupidity, has played out in the revision of literary classics for modern audiences supposedly incapable of historical reference and unsavoury chapters. Presumably, naughty language doesn’t sell. The new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, released at the end of 2010, was excised of any reference to “nigger”, suggesting that sanitising history is one way of not telling it. The fact that the nursery rhyme cited by Clark remains told in a sugared form is, if not a greater violence, than certainly something close to it.
Then there is the man himself. When all arguments are done, there he is, smug in thought and execution. But he is hardly the hellraiser he might want some to think. He doesn’t keel over in interviews. He doesn’t turn up with a bottle of vodka and urinate on irritating guests. He seems content to hold to the avian water on set – unless its scripted. There is nothing of the Oliver Reed here – no chance that he is going to impress you with a feat of eating live gold fish or putting his plonker on the table. Clarkson has tried hard to give the impression otherwise, but this attempt at contrived fury is hardly edifying for any of the parties.
As Marina Hyde of The Guardian has suggested, disliking Clark has become a matter of convenience for progressives, a sort of “reflexive revulsion” touted as a badge of honour. It has revealed a poverty of debate – a non-debate, in a sense, one without proportion. “Behold the endless entrenching of positions,” she laments.
With all that said and done, it seems that Clarkson has been retained. As a comment doing the rounds on social media went, “Jeremy Clarkson is to the BBC what a bag of Revels is to a theatre: frivolous and completely without talent, but necessary.” A bit harsh, but that will do.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org