Steakgate: a blow-by-blow account of 'fracas' with Irish Top Gear producer that got Jeremy Clarkson fired
Who Wants to be a Millionaire? returns this weekend, in a mini-series celebrating the show's 20th anniversary. But it also represents a more controversial TV landmark: the return of Jeremy Clarkson.
Saturday's episode will see the motor-head presenter back on terrestrial television for the first time since "steakgate": the foul-mouthed row over a beef dinner that lost him his job on Top Gear, and eventually led him and the BBC to fork out a six-figure sum in compensation. It might well be the most expensive steak in history. But why did it happen?
Long before that night in March 2015, there were already storm clouds brewing. Clarkson had been placed on a final warning by the BBC in May the previous year, after footage surfaced of him apparently using the word "n-----" while quoting a nursery rhyme.
"I've been told by the BBC that if I make one more offensive remark, anywhere, at any time, I will be sacked," he grumbled in his weekly column for the Sun. "Even the angel Gabriel would struggle to survive with that hanging over his head."
Of course, the angel Gabriel never had to deal with bereavement or divorce. Clarkson has said he was "very close" to his mother Shirley, the creator of the original Paddington Bear toy, who had passed away the previous April. Shortly after her death, the presenter separated from his wife and agent of 21 years Frances Clarkson, who had also been a mothering influence in his life.
"My wife organises my diary, gets me in the right clothes, reminds me when to be in and where to go when I'm out," he once said. To make matters worse, his previous wife Alex Hall had responded to news of the split by crowing about it in an interview with the Telegraph ("I don’t think he ever loved [Frances] – he loved me"). Clarkson needed a tactful, compassionate shoulder to cry on. Unexpectedly, the shoulder he chose belonged to Piers Morgan.
The pair had hated each other for years. Morgan still has a scar above his right temple from when Clarkson punched him in the face at the 2004 British Press Awards – a punch that also broke Clarkson's pinkie-finger. And yet, in a moment of vulnerability, it was the former Daily Mirror editor Clarkson turned to, unburdening himself over five emotional hours in the pub.
Morgan repaid Clarkson's candour by spilling every detail of their private conversation in the tabloids as soon as news of steakgate broke. In a Daily Mail article, Morgan described that heady night in the summer of 2014, when he had "consumed four pints of London Pride, and two bottles of St Emilion Grand Cru", whilst Clarkson "swilled buckets of rosé, and puffed endless packets of nicotine".
According to Morgan, the Top Gear presenter told him with a sigh: "I’m going through a difficult divorce, my first ex-wife has also came out of the woodwork to give me hell, I’m smoking and drinking too much, my back hurts, I’m all over the papers with this N-word scandal, I’m at war with my BBC bosses, and my mother has just died. I don’t have the energy for you any more.”
As Samuel Johnson nearly wrote, when a man is tired of hating Piers Morgan, he is tired of life.
It was, one might assume, a fairly tired and bedraggled Clarkson who arrived at the Simonstone Hall hotel, near Hawes, North Yorkshire, on March 4, 2015. After a long day of filming for Top Gear's 22nd series, Clarkson had been drinking in a local pub with his co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May.
When he returned to the hotel, he asked for a steak. It was late at night, and there was no steak to be had; the chef had packed up for the evening. According to one hotel guest, a Mrs Sue Ward from Leeds, the hungry star began hotly complaining that it was “ridiculous there was nothing to eat”.
In fact, there was plenty to eat. He was reportedly offered a platter of cold meats and cheeses, as well as soup. Sadly, no report of the incident has revealed the flavour of soup.
"Clarkson erupted when told there was only a cold platter," another eyewitness said. "The general manager offered them everything. We were all thinking, 'Meat platter and soup? Surely that's food.'"
The victim of Clarkson's ire was an embarrassed producer standing on the hotel patio: Oisin Tymon, then a 36-year-old rising talent at the BBC. It wasn't just a brief outburst, but a sustained tirade. Clarkson hit Tymon, leaving the younger man – who did not retaliate – with a bleeding lip. An internal investigation into the "unprovoked physical and verbal attack" confirmed that "the verbal abuse was directed at Oisin Tymon on more than one occasion – both during the attack and subsequently inside the hotel – and contained the strongest expletives and threats to sack him".
The shocked producer drove himself to A&E. He thought he had been fired. But, as it turned out, the BBC were keen to keep him. "We believe Oisin has a very exciting future at the BBC," a spokesman for the corporation would claim in February 2016, after the BBC had paid out a settlement for both injury and racial discrimination (Clarkson had reportedly called Tymon a "lazy Irish c--t").
The payment, to which Clarkson contributed, is understood to have been more than £100,000. But it seems it wasn't enough to woo Tymon back to Top Gear. He was offered a job on the programme when it returned with Chris Evans behind the wheel, but turned it down, and now works with a London company called Carnage, "the world's first specialist automotive film production company".
It wasn't Tymon who reported the incident, however. Clarkson was the first to inform BBC managment, almost five full days after the attack, on March 9. The next day, the BBC announced that he had been suspended. A few hours later, the presenter's daughter Em tweeted: "Oh God, BBC please take him back... He's started cooking..." Just as violence begets more violence, one disappointing meal begets another.
The next few days brought a flurry of reports about the incident. James May insisted it was only "a bit of a dust-up". One of the Sun's unnamed "insiders" spoke of "a massive bust-up". But the BBC's spokesperson had called it a "fracas", and the rest of the world soon followed suit. Google searches for "fracas" spiked to record levels. "What is a fracas?" ran the Mirror's bewildered headline. Expert lexicographer Jonathan Green was on hand to explain that "it does imply some kind of fisticuffs".
If it had been any other meal, the public reaction may have been different. But there was something workmanlike about steak that caught the media's attention; it chimed so perfectly with Clarkson's red-blooded petrol-head image. Various talking heads stepped forward to defend him. "Poor Jeremy Clarkson," wrote Foyle's War actor Michael Simkins. "After a hard day's filming on Top Gear in the wilds of North Yorkshire he returned to his hotel to find he couldn’t even get a simple steak and chips."
The phrase "simple steak and chips" was bending the truth a little. What Clarkson reportedly asked for was actually "an 8oz sirloin with fondant potatoes, pan-fried wild mushrooms, grilled cherry tomatoes and peppercorn sauce". The hotel’s general manager, Robert Scott, had eventually prepared a £21.95 steak for the presenter in an attempt to calm him down.
Simkins wasn't the only unlikely pundit weigh in with an opinion. Prime Minister David Cameron called Clarkson a "major talent," and said his children would be "heartbroken" if Top Gear was pulled off air. A petition was launched by blogger Guido Fawkes begging the BBC to reinstate him. (Its rallying cry? "Freedom to fracas.") It garnered more than a million signatures, and was delivered to the BBC in a tank, with someone dressed as the Top Gear Stig perched on top.
There was a dark side to the fervour of the Clarkson army. While some of his supporters were pointing that heavy artillery gun at New Broadcasting House, others were firing off abusive tweets at Tymon. In the following weeks, one threatened to "beat him to a pulp"; another wrote "let's hope he visits the morgue VERY soon".
The remaining episodes of that series of Top Gear were pulled from the air, and although Clarkson had not yet been fired, forgiveness looked unlikely. In his first Sun on Sunday column after being suspended, he struck a note of melancholy resignation.
"All the dinosaurs died and now, years later, no one mourns their passing," he wrote. "These big, imposing creatures have no place in a world which has moved on. You can start as many campaigns as you like and call on the support of politicians from all sides, but the day must come when you have to wave goodbye to the big monsters and move on. We lose one animal and get another. The world turns.”
If there was any hope of a reprieve, it vanished after he climbed onstage at a charity auction on March 19 to tell the crowd that the BBC had "f---ed themselves".
"I didn’t foresee my sacking, but I would like to do one last lap," he said. "I’ll go down to Surrey and I’ll do one last lap of that track before the f---ing b-----ds sack me... I’ll drive somebody around in whatever I can get hold of, I’m sacked so it’s probably a Nissan Maestro."
Two bidders paid £100,000 between them for the chance to join him behind the wheel – and not in a Nissan. When Clarkson returned to Dunsfold Aerodrome for the final time, on an overcast, drizzly day in July 2015, there were three cars waiting: a Ferrari 488 GTB, a Mercedes-AMG GT S and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason's personal LaFerrari.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime memories,” gushed Zak Brown, one of the lucky bidders. But for Clarkson it was a melancholy occasion. "I was feeling a bit choked as I went through the gates for the very last time," he wrote. "The Top Gear portable office was locked to stop me taking even a small souvenir." It was a sad anti-climax for the man who had transformed a doddery TV throwback into one of the world's popular programmes. But as he returns to the small screen, will Clarkson be able to pull off a similar transformation in his new job? That's the million-pound question.