So, in a week which has seen the most blatant budget attack on the poor yet devised by the Conservatives, followed by the largest strike in a generation, while the UK was severing all diplomatic ties with Iran, what is it that’s got everyone exercised the most? It’s that man Clarkson again, who has this time offended the nation with comments on The One Show, in which he said of the strikers, "I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families."
A storm of protest inevitably followed, presumably giving Jeremy masses of free publicity for the upcoming DVD he was on the show to plug. Apparently the BBC received 4700 complaints, despite The One Show apologising almost immediately, and calls were made for Clarkson to apologise personally. The Twittersphere was ablaze with (non-ironic) calls for Clarkson’s head, public sector union Unison are contemplating complaining to the police (!) and even Clarkson’s mate Call Me Dave Cameron was keen to distance himself in an interview on ITV, commenting "It was obviously a silly thing to say and I am sure he didn’t mean that." If only he could apply that to himself and his policies…
Ironically, the parties were united for once in their attempts to curry public favour by riding the wave of fury against Clarkson. Ed Miliband called on him to apologise, describing the comments as “absolutely disgraceful and disgusting" , while Pensions Minister Steve Webb, one of those busy provoking the strikers himself, said that "he should apologise and we should get on with your lives”. I can only hope that’s a BBC News typo, but it seems horribly plausible that the current government want to get on with our lives.
For myself, I’m a supporter of the strikers, an avowed liberal, and generally hate right wing politics. And you know what? I wasn’t offended. I actually thought (guiltily) that it was a little bit funny. Although not half as funny as the po-faced overreaction to it.
The thing to remember about Clarkson is that, on TV, he’s projecting a persona; virtually a caricature of himself. He’s got plenty of form at this kind of thing. Who could forget his unsubtle insinuation that all lorry drivers habitually murder prostitutes; or his description of Gordon Brown (for which he did apologise, halfheartedly) as a”one-eyed Scottish idiot”? Not to mention the recent near-diplomatic incident with Mexico after Mexicans were described on Top Gear as lazy and had a cuisine that “looked like vomit”. To be fair, the Mexican tirade was actually started by Richard Hammond, and then exacerbated by James May before Clarkson even chipped in, but Clarkson’s the show’s figurehead, so he’s ‘the one to blame’.
It’s dumb, sniggering schoolboy humour of a very low common denominator. But it is delivered with a sense of irony; even official Clarkson-hating organ The Guardian was forced to concede that the comments “appeared to be at least partly in jest”. Well, of course they were. It’s true that Clarkson is generally quite right wing, and as a friend of Call Me Dave from the same Chipping Norton set, I doubt I’d ever have much in common with him politically should we ever actually meet (except perhaps on certain aspects of transport policy). But I don’t believe that he’s right wing enough to earnestly believe that the strikers should be shot, whatever his TV persona might say.
There’s plenty of evidence on display that much of it is playing up to his image, not least on Top Gear. Clarkson’s often accused of homophobia, the evidence cited being his constant use of the word “gay” in a derogatory manner, and his frequent descriptions of his co-presenters as being “a bit gay” (because of James May’s hair and shirts, and Richard Hammond’s strangely obsessive personal grooming).
And yet he’s frequently interviewed personalities who famously are gay, such as Will Young and Stephen Fry, and appeared to have a genuine rapport with them. So he obviously doesn’t have a problem with gay people. As for the use of the word “gay” to mean “rubbish”, that’s a wider societal problem which I may write about one day; remember, Russell T Davies, crafter of the “gay agenda” himself, was castigated for using the word in this sense in a 2005 episode of Doctor Who.
The thing about the sniggering schoolboy humour on Top Gear is that it actually depends on knowing it’s going to offend (some) people – witness the gang’s smirks the week after the Mexican incident every time the script made some knowing sideways allusion to Mexico. Offense, to a greater or lesser degree, is exactly the reaction Clarkson seems to hope for, so well done to all those who’ve given him his wish.
The subject of “how far is too far” in comedy has come up with alarming frequency of late. Frankie Boyle has been on the receiving end of it many times, most notably for his jokes about Katie Price’s disabled child, and recently Ricky Gervais was taken to task for his use of the word “mong”. Boyle tends to give the offendees short shrift, which is probably the right thing to do; Gervais, on the other hand, completely mishandled the fallout by getting ridiculously defensive, and ended up having to apologise anyway.
While I don’t have the same fondness for Gervais as I do for Clarkson (I find him insufferably smug and arrogant, something I know a lot of people do with Clarkson), I do wish he’d dealt with it better. Yes, he did cause some people offence. But it’s worth reading this stout defence of “offensive comedy” from American standup Doug Stanhope. He makes the very valid point that the range of things people might get offended by is huge, and that to remove all potential causes of offence from a standup’s act, you’d be left with mime. Which, come to think of it, might still offend somebody.
This viewpoint tends to get particularly humourless liberals arguing that, by that token, I should be perfectly happy to see the return of comedians like Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson, with their acts consisting of (entirely non-ironic) racism and misogyny. And do you know what? I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Because, quite simply, they stopped doing what they did because people didn’t find it funny any more (mostly). Remember, nobody banned Manning or Davidson; they fell out of favour with the vast majority of punters because of their style, and simply weren’t selling tickets any more.
In a way, the culture that Top Gear promotes (largely driven by Clarkson) is in itself a rather archaic thing. It’s the post-PC, “ironically offensive” style popularised in the 90s by lads mags like Loaded, itself a reaction to what was perceived as an excess of “political correctness” in the 80s. And even that wasn’t quite as po-faced and humourless as the reactions to Clarkson’s latest outburst; check out Ben Elton’s mickey-taking of his popular PC image in 1994’s Harry Enfield and Chums.
You may or not believe Clarkson is being ironic. You may have a very low tolerance for dumb schoolboy humour. As it happens, I enjoy it. But if you’re worried about finding the man offensive, the answer is simple – don’t watch him. As we were all fond of reminding Mary Whitehouse whenever she took umbrage at a racy TV show such as Doctor Who, your TV set has an ‘off’ button. All of us liberals got pretty exercised when she demanded to control the viewing of adults based on her own personal code of morality, so why are so many of us acting like her opposite number?
I actually hope Clarkson doesn’t have to apologise, and that Unison do make a complaint to the police, which will almost certainly provoke more laughter than Clarkson ever could. In the mean time, I’m sorry some people don’t enjoy his brand of humour. But it shouldn’t mean that you go spoiling it for those of us who do.