(Bloomberg) -- Under normal circumstances, a 1,000-acre farm in rural England could rationally be considered the perfect antidote for a 61-year-old TV presenter with a penchant for cars, booze, and off-color jokes.
But it’ll take more than dewy sunrises over undulating barley fields and the plaintive sweet bleats of spring lambs to tranquilize Jeremy Clarkson.
For 13 years, Clarkson spearheaded the wildly successful Top Gear car show. Then his contract went unrenewed in 2015—on account of a disagreement with a crew member that turned physical, according to most reports. Co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond resigned soon after.
In his new show, Clarkson’s Farm (June 11, Amazon Prime Video), the “polarizing car fetishist” is as salt-and-vinegary as ever. The charismatic star’s particular form of zest is simply directed at different targets than the sports cars he used to accost.
His aptly named Diddly Squat Farm lies between Chipping Norton and Chadlington towns in Oxfordshire, the northern portion of the Cotswolds. Chipping Norton is renowned for its wool and tweed production and has a market that has sold such items dating back to the 13th century. Over the course of the show, Clarkson contrives to make his own market of farm produce, which in this early case sells mostly potatoes. No kale.
But what makes Clarkson’s Farm such fun to watch is that while Clarkson reigned supreme in his Top Gear role as master of the car guy universe, his knowledge and capability levels hover around zero on these grounds.
There’s something satisfying in seeing Clarkson repeatedly admonished by a woman half his age as he bumbles his way through operating the biggest (wrong) tractor he can find. He calls her to teach him how to operate its 80 gears—40 forward, 40 reverse—his “first driving lesson in 40 years.”
See how he installs a do-it-yourself electric fence in the hope of containing his newly purchased and wayward flock of sheep—you can guess how that goes. Watch as he thinks he outsmarts his young farmhand plowing 10 acres his own way and is eviscerated that evening for having made the rows “as straight as a roundabout” to boot.
But a funny thing happens along the way through the eight episodes of Clarkson’s Farm: Clarkson is possibly upstaged by his own farmhand.
Kaleb Cooper, a ruddy, round-faced 21-year-old towhead, comes on board in the first episode. Clarkson hires him having determined he absolutely cannot plow, plant, breed, birth, rotate, irrigate, harvest—and all of the myriad other farm-y things required to run the operation—by himself. Cooper had helped run the farm under a previous manager, who, after 11 years of operating it for Clarkson, decided to retire.
Salt-of-the-earth Cooper is such a delight to watch because he shows no deference to Clarkson at all. The local farming prodigy is completely unintimidated and unamused by Britain’s most notorious car guy and ends up as the perfect foil for the inept urbane celebrity who fancies himself a plot in the same Cotswolds haven as David Beckham and Kate Moss.
Those who believed the secret to Top Gear’s success involved the chemistry and banter of the three hosts more than anything related to actual cars will be relieved to discover a rapport budding between this odd couple. The occasional appearance of a toothless wall-builder whose long speeches are melodious if indecipherable and the glimpses of Clarkson’s lanky girlfriend, the Irish actress Lisa Hogan, add bright spots to each episode.
The only thing Cooper won’t touch is sheep. He doesn’t have the patience. (“With sheep, I don’t understand why people try to make any money, find it enjoyable, and not get so stressed you lose your hair,” he says.) Which is why Clarkson, Hogan, and a local shepherd are left to carry the brunt of the labor when almost 80 of them go into, well, labor over the span of several feverish days and nights.
Watching Clarkson’s face fill with elation as he helps deliver lambs in a cold, muddy barn in the middle of the night is to see a man transform. He exults when his two rams, Wayne and Leonardo, are unleashed for the first time upon a field of “lady sheep.” He cries at the market where he sold three ewes unfit for the herd—after realizing they’d been slaughtered before he had a chance “to say goodbye.”
The pathos of farm life shows well on him. If it hasn’t calmed him down, exactly, it appears to have done him good. At the end of the fifth episode, Clarkson rides off on his hulking Lamborghini tractor proclaiming this “is genuinely about the happiest I’ve ever been.”
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