Interview with Top Gear's James May
14 Oct 2009 at 22:22
Top Gear's James May has presented TV shows on everything from cars and wine to toys and sharks. He talks to Alex Mead about his haphazard journey from studying music at Lancaster University to fame, fortune, and bickering with Jeremy Clarkson.
How did you get into journalism?
It happened by accident. I'm famous for my poor sense of direction and I didn't have one in life. I worked at The Engineer and that was a serious-minded publication that gave me a good grounding in the media. The editor, John Pullin, gave me the job and he probably shouldn't have, because I had nothing to offer. But he thought I could do it. I've been fired from every other job I've had, so if that hadn't happened, I'd probably have ended up as a tramp.
Why did you go back to Top Gear after leaving it to 'forget about telly for a bit'?
I came back to the show after it had been reinvented. It has changed a bit since then, though we've done 11 series now. But a new look was necessary to broaden the appeal. We needed more of an entertainment-based programme, rather than just something for the hard-core enthusiast. It's not so much about cars; it's about life.
What do you think of the other Top Gear presenters?
I knew Jeremy a bit and I knew Hammond a bit from car launches and freelancing. But I'd never worked with them and I don't think we realised quite how well we'd contrast each other. Hammond is the impetuous one, Jeremy is bombastic, and I'm pedantic. We all have different tastes. I disagree with Jeremy as a matter of principle. But we do have a different take on cars, which shows when we have to choose an old car for £500.
What cars do you have in your collection?
I've got a couple of Porsches, an old Rolls-Royce and an old Fiat Panda. People laugh at me for having that, but I really like small, simple cars.
When you're on Top Gear, you seem to prefer life in the slow lane… why is that?
It's not that I can't go fast; I just can't be bothered. I've done a bit of track driving and I've had a great time doing it. But I wouldn't do it at the weekend as a hobby - it takes far too much effort.
How do you come up with the ideas for Top Gear?
We basically all just sit around together and argue a lot and come up with stupid ideas.
Do you ever fake the Top Gear races?
People think we must fake our races but it's not true. We run them in real time with the cameramen chasing us. If we didn't do it for real, it wouldn't make good telly because we could never act it.
What about the race with the train?
It's no secret that Hammond and I raced Jeremy on a train, but to get shots of it they had to go back and film the train, because we were on it at the time. We did that to help tell the story but we'd never fudge the result. What'd be the point?
How was driving to the North Pole?
It was quite an odd feeling at night - such as it was, it never got dark - knowing that if you went outside in your pants it was minus 30 degrees and you'd die.
Can you reveal the true identity of Stig?
Did you know much about wine before presenting Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure?
I can't pretend to have an interest in wine. But that's why they asked me, because I was a complete novice. Having done that, I'm now great mates with Oz Clarke and I do enjoy a nice glass of wine, especially his.
Would you ever quit Top Gear?
A lot of people do say that it would be hard to leave. I wouldn't know what to do with myself because it takes up so much of my time. I won't be on it forever though. None of us will be on it forever, because no television show lasts forever. Even if it goes on, it will one day survive without us because we'll be too old. In fact, we're all a bit old now.
To see more of James May, visit the Top Gear website..