Jeremy Clarkson's made a great living out of looking like an oaf with two left thumbs, says the man behind his success
WHAT does the name Andy Wilman mean to you?
Maybe nothing at first.
He sounds like he could be anyone, the bloke selling you fags at the newsagents, your postman.
Now picture Jeremy Clarkson saying the following: “I wonder what Mr Wilman has got in store for us today?”
Any Top Gear or The Grand Tour fan will immediately know who I’m talking about.
Or maybe you won’t.
Because even though Andy Wilman’s name has been mentioned on the biggest car shows on the planet for the last 20 years, no one really knows who he is.
Let me lift the lid.
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Wilman is Clarkson’s right-hand man. His wingman. The genius producer behind our favourite Top Gear and The Grand Tour adventures.
And now also Clarkson’s Farm. He did appear in early episodes of Top Gear in the Nineties, just to be 100 per cent accurate.
But this isn’t a friendship forged over lucrative TV deals. Wilman and Clarkson go back to their school days. They’re tight. Properly tight.
You can tell that by the way Wilman talks about his mate.
Wilman was discussing Carnage A Trois — the new Grand Tour special on French cars — when I asked him to shed some light on why Clarkson is so universally adored.
It was a long answer but he nailed it all the same.
Wilman said: “Are you looking for Clarkson running for Prime Minister?
"We were at school together and if you wanted to be popular or get girls when you were at school in the Seventies, you were either good at sports or got into trouble.
“And he was s**t at sports. So he had one option.
“And then when it comes to getting into trouble I think, at our best, we’d say Top Gear and The Grand Tour, if the papers were on our case on a Monday morning, the Mirror, Mail, or whatever, that we’d spark fury about X, Y and Z.
To be popular at school you had to be either good at sport or get in trouble. Jezza was s**t at sport.
“I think 90 per cent of the time we got away with it because it was always done with a bit of charm. That was important. And we learned that at school.
"To get into trouble at a public school in the Seventies and not get expelled, you actually had to do it with some charm, so that you’d be forgiven.
“You kind of learn that you have to do it with a bit of a smile on your face.
“Then couple that with him being a natural show-off and his love of print journalism.
“He discovered that really early on when he was finally booted out of Repton. He kind of found his home when he worked at the Rotherham Advertiser.
“He’s never lost that love of tabloid print journalism. It’s shot through everything that we do today. It’s shot through the Farm and everything.
“He’s very strict about story- telling. And then on top of that, he’s a great communicator.
“He knows that self-deprecation works. He knows that if you get in trouble today, it’s chip paper tomorrow. So he doesn’t go to bed worrying about things like that.
“And his feet are on the ground. He knows what’s what.
"And then he’s smart enough to let the passion come out, which I think we see in the Farm.
The Grand Tour is a toy box for car fans and9-year-olds. The Farmis more serious.
"When Kaleb b*****ks him for the first time, when he gets all the tractoring wrong, he wasn’t expecting that.
“But you can see on his face, he knew in about two seconds to keep his gob shut and take it on the chin, because he knew that was amazing television.
“He’s made a great living out of looking like an oaf who’s got two left thumbs but actually he’s incredibly bright.
“He knows The Grand Tour is a toy box for car fans and nine-year-olds. And the Farm was always going to be something more serious and different.
“And like I say, because of his journalism head, he’s always switched on. He knows which way he’s got to go.
“But the Farm is underpinned by this genuine thing of, ‘This is my farm. I’m going to try to give it a go. I know I’ve got to learn’.
“You don’t have those thoughts when you’re making The Grand Tour. You think about how you’re going to entertain people.
“Whereas the Farm, he thought, ‘This is actually wrapped up in my life’.
“He’s not thick. Farmers have a tough time. He knew he had to walk a line whereby he shows what farming’s like, but everybody knows he’s got a few quid.
“He gets paid by The Grand Tour. He does Millionaire. He’s not going to have everything taken away from him if something goes wrong.
THE clue is the name, really: Carnage A Trois. Three mates wrecking (mostly) French cars.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say a Citroen 2CV is dropped from a helicopter and a Citroen C3 Pluriel is last seen heading towards France via a trebuchet (giant catapult).
There’s also a hot hatch race at Lydden Hill rallycross track and some genuine affection for weird and entertaining French classics.
Clarkson said: “We tried to look at the quirkiness of French cars. We live in a homogenised world. Everything is the same, everybody eats at McDonald’s, everybody has an iPhone.
“And yet the French, they don’t think like us – and when I say ‘us’, I mean the whole rest of the world. They have different rules, different regulations, and this is evident in their cars
“French cars are, and have always been, odd.
“The strange thing is that neither Richard Hammond nor I – and we’ve owned Italian cars, Japanese cars, American cars, British cars, Swedish cars, German cars, obviously – have ever owned a French car. Neither had May until very recently, but James is odd.
“The car race is genuinely the best we’ve ever done. It’s brilliantly shot, and very exciting.
“The thing about Lydden Hill is, even rank amateurs like Hammond and me can go completely mental.
“There are a couple of stunts. Lots of useful advice, like how to defuse a bomb in the back of a BMW.
“And there’s the Citroen SM, which we had to sit back and drool at because it’s so beautiful.”
“So what he just then has to do is highlight the plight, but on behalf of other farmers who don’t have Amazon film crews and what have you.”
When I suggest that Clarkson is one of the hardest-working people I know — I used to look after his Saturday Sun column — Wilman can’t resist having a little dig, like a true mate would.
Wilman said: “He spends about an hour a day reminding you how he hasn’t got any hours in the day.
“He’d get another hour back if he stopped reminding everybody in a sort of drama queen way about how much he’s got to do. ‘I’ve got this to do’. And on it goes.
“But he’s driven. Completely driven. He’s like a force of nature going through things. If he has a drink at a party, he will empty the bar, that sort of thing. There’s not much moderation.”
We should perhaps finish with a few thoughts on Carnage A Trois.
It’s very different. There’s no road trip. No adventure. And it was filmed in the UK because of Covid.
Yet it finds its groove quickly and it is a wonderful homage to French car culture.
Make that, weird French car culture. And lots of cars still get wrecked, blown up or dropped from a helicopter.
Wilman said: “I think it might be a bit Marmite. I think the road trip fans will go, ‘What the hell?’. But I’m hoping they’ll go, ‘Actually, if you like cars, there’s a s**t ton of car stuff in this’.
“It was a lot of fun to do. Jeremy is absolutely in love with that film.”
Almost as much as his best mate.
Thank you, Mr Wilman.
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