“What are you going to do if he dies?”
I stared at the text message and was gripped with terror. It was a little past midnight. I was stood in a park in the middle of Edinburgh and my heart began to pound in my rib-cage. I had just spent ten months writing and honing a show that hinged on a routine about the petrol-headed-uber-rascal Jeremy Clarkson and that very morning he had been rushed to hospital with pneumonia, and for a man of his age who smokes as much as he reportedly did, that’s no laughing matter, he could potentially have been moments away from snuffing it.
In my mid-life crisis fuelled journey through the suburbs of England, my very own Apocalypse Now, Jeremy Clarkson had become my Colonel Kurtz. I felt close to him. I felt bound to him. I felt I understood him. And I had invested ten months in a show whose marketing, premise and conclusion all rested on my new found understanding of Clarkson. If he croaked three days into the Edinburgh Festival I was well and truly banjaxed.
I had not realised what a contentious figure Clarkson was. I always just viewed him as one of the many love-to-hate figures of British society, a panto villain, a comedy figure. I had underestimated the serious feelings evoked in left-wing Guardian readers at the very mention of his name.
I had been warned. A good friend of mine cautioned that I would have to take a very dim view of Clarkson in order to win over the crowd in Edinburgh. It wasn’t my intention to take a ‘view’ on Clarkson at all, I was using him as a comic device to conclude a show. It wasn’t about picking a side. Left wing Guardian readers would enjoy the show as much as Top Gear fans. It’s not about that. And anyway it’s Jeremy Clarkson for god sake not Rudolf Hess. And it’s comedy, it’s not meant to be taken seriously. People will understand that I’m making jokes… at a comedy festival… It’s not a TED talk or a legal defence.
Why do people increasingly want moral certainty and political leadership from clowns? I don’t remember Morecambe and Wise being expected to deliver heavily didactic sketches about the membership benefits of the European economic community, it wasn’t considered to be part of their job. In any case, I reasoned that my friend had seriously underestimated the number of Top Gear fans knocking about, they’d definitely come and see it. I’d never really minded what the make up of my crowd was. I travel around doing gigs to a wide variety of people, everything from arts centres to UN peace keeping troops, so if only petrol heads wanted to see my show then I could deal with that.
But Top Gear fans don’t go to arts festivals, left wing Guardian readers go to arts festivals. Selling the show became more of a slog than I’d imagined, more often than not I’d have to take a dim view on Clarkson during my sales patter to get them through the door. It’s fair to say that in a lot of cases people just want to see shows congratulating them on opinions they already hold. But titillating people with their own options is child’s play, where’s the fun in that? I’ve always been confident that there is enough in my material to offend a wide spectrum of people.
But, what the hell was I going to do if Clarkson died?
What would Clarkson do?
I lit a cigarette and stared at the cars driving past willing them to deliver inspiration. Then it happened. A mazda sporting a Polish numberplate, clearly being driven by a woman, failed to indicate at the lights. The spirit of Jeremy flowed through me and inspiration hit. I’d do something tasteless. I’d do something unnecessarily offensive.
So I made my way over to a late night gig with an idea. I took to the stage and informed the audience that news had just reached me through a family contact that Jeremy Clarkson had died. A few members of the audience reached for their iPhones to verify my bullshit. I urged them not to bother, the news services were unlikely to have the information for the next half hour. Thinking on my feet I said that my sister was a friend of his daughter and that I’d received the information early through a trusted family friend.
I took out my iPhone and using Wikipedia I improvised a eulogy for Jeremy Charles Robert Clarkson. The crowd went wild. They erupted in cheers and laughter. They hollered with approval. They were genuinely pleased. Even when it became clear I was joking, they wished it to be true.
I had no idea that middle class festival audiences felt that strongly towards Clarkson, I would never have attempted to do a show about him if I genuinely thought the antipathy for him was anything other than light hearted. But in that moment it became clear to me that if he did die, I would be made. I’d have the ultimate marketing weapon; a needlessly offensive show, the image of a zombie Clarkson peeling out of my face that adorned my publicity would suddenly have a sick appeal for the mainstream Edinburgh audience. I’d have a hit on my hands.
But even though my success was bound to his demise I couldn’t feel comfortable joining in the revelry, I prayed for him to live. I needed him to survive. We all needed him to survive. He was vital to this whole festival. Because in a world where people can cheer the demise of someone they have never met, In a world where I can stand on stage and announce the death of a man I don’t know, and be greeted with rapturous applause, In that world, the world of arts festivals, the world of comedy, the world where we can do that and still be allowed to indulge ourselves in the notion that we are the morally superior arbiters of good taste, we needed Jeremy Charles Robert Clarkson.
He’s a symbol the rest of the country can silently gather behind. He’s a hero. If you’ve ever wanted to set fire to a caravan, if you’ve ever wanted to punch that arsehole at your office, if you’ve ever been asked to leave a dinner party because someone didn’t like what you said, if you’ve ever had a parking ticket, if you’ve ever just wanted to scream ‘aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh’ at the top of your lungs and blast down the M6 at two hundred miles an hour, to indulge in the fantasy of rebellion, he’s there for you, the dark part of you, the secret part of you.
You need him, I need him, we all need him. That’s why he’s on Dave all day. He’s stopping a revolution. There is something magical about watching a fifty year old man-child doing what ever he likes and getting away with it. He’s the kid being sent out of the class for your entertainment. He’s taking one for the team. He’s lighting up behind the bike shed. He’s getting away with it. He’s the rebellion you wish you could represent.
He’s the Scarlet Pimpernel of twats. The Bonnie Prince Billy of petrol. He’s Thelma and Louise.
A one man hope factory, the bastion of bad taste, the Tyler Durden of the Brit pop generation.
He’s Jeremy Charles Robert Clarkson and he brings balance to the force.
Garrett Millerick: Devil’s Advocate is at 2 Northdown, N1 from November 29 - December 3. Tickets and info: https://www.tickettext.co.uk/garrett-millerick/