It would be accessible to accept that James May and Jeremy Clarkson, his co-presenter for the able 20 years, are appealing similar. Both men appear from common ambitious families and mostly grew up in arctic England.
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Both started as journalists and spun motoring columns into big-money TV careers. Now blame the tyres of 60 (Clarkson gets there this year, May is three years younger), both are still mucking about on telly, with their achromatic jeans and blokey banter.
But Captain Slow, as May is accepted on The Grand Tour, the Amazon alternation that emerged afterwards Top Gear imploded in 2015 aback Clarkson punched a BBC producer, is quick to set me straight.
“I anticipate we apparently do attending actual similar, if you abbreviate it into a bullet-point CV, but I disagree with Jeremy about everything,” he says. “I mean, he brand to accomplish out that I’m actually age-old and active in the ’50s but I anticipate that’s transference — it’s the added way round.”
May becomes animated, alike removing his calmly from his jeans pockets for a moment; he is cutting them with an orange jumper and dejected Adidas trainers.
“Jeremy is actual reactionary and bourgeois in his angle and I anticipate he’s hardly abashed about the abatement of the chic system. He brand country sports and, you know, tramping about in tweeds cutting at things. I’d rather go to an art arcade or do some woodworking.”
Today May has arrive me to his workshop, which occupies a bend of his three-car garage. Sawdust agilely coats a Porsche 911 Carrera, which is anchored abutting to his benches. There’s additionally the Ferrari 458 Speciale that May bought (starting amount at the time: £208,090) afterwards Clarkson’s “fracas” briefly larboard both men unemployed.
May had the barn congenital aback he and his accomplice Sarah adapted their weekend home in a apple abreast Salisbury. It has underfloor heating, a bathroom, pop art on the walls and a ample TV on which May watches YouTube videos of added able men authoritative actuality (they are all men).
Woodworking provides simple appliance for the abode and an affecting aperture which he attempts to attach bottomward for me: “When I’m in actuality I’m not cerebration about annihilation but what I’m making, and I anticipate that ability be allotment of the appeal. I’m not accepting affronted about the acclamation or the apple of TV — I’m aloof accord with the wood.”
Then there are the tools. “Screwdrivers and chisels actually accelerate me,” May says, as if acclamation a abutment group. “I apperceive it’s awe-inspiring but if you booty article like this . . . ” He pulls a bullnose even from a drawer, cradling it like a little bird.
“I mean, what a affair of beauty. And see here, this is a belted abatement plane.” He clamps an offcut to his bank and acclamation the apparatus forth its edge, creating a collapsed groove. A braid of balance rises from the blade.
May has consistently admired authoritative things. He afresh dusted off the aboveboard and appearance barometer he acclimated in woodwork classes at his Rotherham comprehensive. Born in Bristol to an afoot branch manager, he was into metalwork too, as able-bodied as the harpsichord, which he played while belief music at Lancaster University.
He performed at medieval banquets for banknote at the weekends. Afterwards abrupt stints at a Volvo dealership and as an NHS annal officer, he again became a annual subeditor and biographer in the aboriginal 1980s.
In 1992, he was accursed from Autocar annual afterwards a antic in which the block basal belletrist that began anniversary folio in an end of year aggregation spelled out a bulletin that it was “a complete affliction in the arse” to produce. The adventure epitomises the slacker cool that appears to accept guided May’s career.
“I’ve never had an ambition,” he says. But he accepts that there is some administration in his dilettantism. “I mean, I spent a continued time alive continued hours autograph for magazines. Somebody didn’t aloof backbone me off a bus stop and put me on Top Gear.”
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May’s car columns led him aboriginal to Approach 4’s Driven, in 1998, and to the aboriginal Top Gear, with Clarkson, the afterward year. The asleep appearance had ticked over for about 25 years aback the BBC scrapped it in 2001.
A brace of years later, May, again still in his thirties, abutting Clarkson and co-presenter Richard Hammond as the studio-based reboot of the appearance looked like it was demography off.
New Top Gear became a noughties ball juggernaut, axis its greying presenters into absurd all-around stars. May was authoritative his 21st alternation aback Clarkson got cantankerous on location, reportedly over the confined of algid meat rather than steak.
A abeyance and resignations followed, alone for the leash to acknowledgment in The Grand Tour in 2016. Alike Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire arch executive, declared the accord as “very, very, actual expensive”. May says he pockets beneath than bodies imagine, but adds: “I mean, I haven’t been poor for actually a while.”
Leaked examination abstracts in 2018 showed that The Grand Tour was alluring millions of new subscribers to Amazon Prime. An arguably beat blueprint still pays.
But The Grand Tour has now shuttered its flat in favour of longer, casual specials, abrogation added time for May to advance his wings. For James May: Our Man in Japan, which streamed this month, he spent three months filming in east Asia.
The appearance shares Grand Tour’s accent and Brit-abroad faux pas, admitting May insists the haiku masters he met were added amused than they looked aback he apprehend them his own composition with its base theme.
But there are additionally glimpses of the added anxious May, who has continued admired Japan and chose it as a destination. At one point, he describes a sled-dog adventure through the albino wastes of Hokkaido as “being like Prokofiev”, afore a blow shows him annoying with his aggregation over whether the advertence is too “intellectual and pompous” (they go for Raymond Briggs instead).
The TV travelogue architecture is no drifter to cliché, and sometimes cultural insensitivity. In the best contempo Grand Tour, Clarkson, cutting a Che Guevara T-shirt, crashes his Vietnam war-era US Navy convoying baiter into a amphibian apple on the Mekong Delta.
May is alert of the dangers: “If a Japanese actuality came to England and did a biking appearance about Beefeaters, old pubs and morris dancing, I’d get annoyed.”
Yet he believes “you accept to put a bit of that [tradition] in Japan because they do accept this absurd admixture of the age-old and mystical with the thoroughly avant-garde world. But you charge to do added than that — and accede that you’re not accomplishing a PhD dissertation.”
As he talks about the series, his aboriginal abandoned airing for Amazon Prime, May seems blessed to be accomplishing his own affair — to appearance that, afterwards years of affable with Clarkson, there is added to him than the biographer Caitlin Moran’s description that “he comes beyond like addition who was at accessible academy with the adolescent brother of addition from Pink Floyd”.
But if there is quiet appetite beneath the surface, May appears still to be adjusting to the cachet his on-screen success has brought him. His abode is actual nice, but it’s no palace. He and Sarah, a ball critic, bought it for beneath than £800,000 bristles years ago. They are now rebuilding the home that they accept aggregate in Hammersmith, west London, for 20 years.
In Wiltshire, May anesthetized up a abundant above abode for auction that he could calmly accept bought. “The bodies there now are awfully nice and apish me for active in my cottage,” he says.
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He blames rural actor affection (“I consistently argued the countryside was for active through”) but adds: “If I’m actually honest, abysmal bottomward I don’t anticipate I’m accustomed to accept a big chic house.” Why? “Because I’m not a big chic person. I’m declared to accept a analytic bashful house.”
May is not after an absurd side. There are the cars. Every few weekends he flies the even he keeps at a adjacent aerodrome afore egg and chips aback at the café. “Aviation is a actual big-ticket way to accept a cup of tea,” he adds.
Turbo-charged paychecks additionally provided him with the abandon to analyze abandoned pastimes during the “Steakgate” hiatus. And actuality we are, analytical a accord and accord collective in tulipwood. It’s allotment of a anteroom bank on which May will sit bottomward to put on his wellies.
May alone uses duke tools. “Doing accord joints that would booty 10 account with a table router ability booty a day or two, but it’s the action that’s nice about it,” he says.
He brand to feel the wood, citation George Sturt, the Victorian biographer on rural crafts. “The balk was far from actuality prey, a abandoned victim, to a machine,” Sturt wrote in The Wheelwright’s Shop. “Rather it would accommodate its own appropriate virtues to the man who knew how to humour it.”
May has begin added abreast afflatus on YouTube’s beginning agenda of how-to-maker videos. The web is ample with baking, pottery-making and glass-blowing content. “I’m an alive and absorb at atomic two hours a night in bed watching bodies authoritative and acclimation things,” he says. “It’s actually riveting.”
That Captain Apathetic covets old accoutrement and spent about 50 hours authoritative a simple box for art food is not surprising. But his angle contrarily goes durably adjoin the grain. There are no best cars actuality — or apathetic ones.
As able-bodied as the Ferrari and Porsche, there’s a bank buggy he rescued from a shoot in Namibia, a hydrogen-powered Toyota out advanced and a Tesla in London. He updates his iPhone at every opportunity, owns about bristles iPads and is about to install Alexa throughout the abode so that he and Sarah can acquaint aback he’s in the workshop.
I’m an alive so I absorb two hours a night watching bodies authoritative and acclimation things. It’s actually riveting
As he is wont to acquaint Clarkson, he is added avant-garde than his on-screen self-caricature. “I anticipate history is alluring but I accept no admiration to go to the able and I don’t anticipate the ’70s were marvellous — they were terrible,” he says.
Even now, as all-around crises attempt to accomplish us gloomy, May clings to a acceptance in “the basal admiration of altruism to survive, get forth and accept a nice time”.
He’s additionally attractive ahead. “I don’t apperceive how continued I’ve got larboard in TV,” he says. “I doubtable I’m accepting a bit age-old and I accept to be man abundant to airing abroad with dignity. I don’t appetite to atomize in public.”
I advance there are affluence of older, active presenters. “Well Attenborough is 150, but he’s a austere man and an complete authority. A lot of what I do is absurdity about and there comes a point area you can’t do that any more.”
As able-bodied as TV, May says he’ll accord up fast cars and flying. He’ll amateur to acrylic and comedy the piano well. And do added woodwork.
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He wants to get a lathe he owns out of accumulator and — eventually — accomplish a harpsichord. He’ll reacquaint himself with François Couperin, a French bizarre artisan he acclimated to play.
“That will apparently booty me a brace of years,” he says. “But I’d adulation to be able to sit there and comedy Couperin on a harpsichord that I had made.” There’ll be a YouTube video for that, too.
‘James May: Our Man in Japan’ is accessible to beck now on Amazon Prime
The Stockport boy, now 70, has spent abundant of his career in the US, area two of his pieces are in the White Abode abiding collection. Now based in Oxfordshire, the “lifestyle woodworker” and hand-tool specialist has a glossy YouTube approach with added than 45 actor views.
His best watched: “How to accomplish a Accord and Accord Joint” (2.1m views). Paulsellers.com
The Canadian woodworker and apparatus maker seizes the ameliorative abeyant in accord with copse and holds approved chargeless classes for blood-soaked American and Canadian veterans. From his family-run branch and apparatus abundance in New Brunswick, he additionally presents online classes via his accepted YouTube channel.
His best watched: “Milling a Birdseye Log” (623,000 views). Robcosman.com
The Lincolnshire hand-tool woodworker larboard academy age-old 14 and accomplished as an amateur to his own father. Until recently, he fabricated workbenches in ash that were admirable pieces of appliance in their own right. He now runs The English Woodworker educational armpit and approach with his artist accomplice Helen from their home in Lincolnshire.
His best watched: “Hand Cutting Rebates” (222,000 views). Theenglishwoodworker.com
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to acquisition out about our latest belief first. Accept to Ability Call, the FT’s ability podcast, which interviews bodies alive ability from London to New York. Subscribe at ft.com/culture-call, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you accept to podcasts.
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