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Rarely far from our TV screens, Top Gear star James May is not short of an opinion or two. Over lunch at his local, the tousle-haired presenter tells Bill Thomas how kitchens are just like garages, why cooking is killing DIY and how the French intellectualise wine
You could never describe as complex a creature as James May in two words, but if you were restricted to only two, ‘polite’ and ‘smart’ would be a decent start. The star of Top Gear and Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure is a true English gentleman, with an inquisitive mind and a razor-sharp wit, who appears in the flesh pretty much as you see him on TV: self-effacing, mild, inquisitive, funny and more than a little shy.
We meet in a pub. Where else? May has just finished a third series of Oz and James adventures – this time Oz and James Drink to Britain, in which he and wine guru Oz Clarke toured the United Kingdom and sampled every type of booze you can imagine. So a good local pub and a pint were inevitable: we’re at The Dove in Hammersmith, not far from May’s house.
We look at the menu. May ponders the risotto briefly before ordering sea bass, with bruschetta as a starter. I start with pâté and have steak as a main. Does he do any cooking himself? ‘I cook a bit – I like mucking around in the kitchen. Even though I’m very scathing of men who cook too much, because I think cooking has usurped proper practical work for men. Nobody can mend stuff any more. Nobody can do DIY. All these blokes know how to pan-fry Thai prawns and serve them on a bed of rocket, but they can’t put up a bloody shelf. It’s pathetic. Basic cooking, which is all I do, is just one of those fundamental skills that all people should have – like sewing buttons on and changing the points on an A-series Mini engine.’
We soon get started on our third pint. It’s going down easily in this company. ‘One of the reasons I like cooking is because of the tools. A kitchen is a bit like a garage. It’s a slightly different type of tool, but it’s still a tool. Once you become a pseudo-gourmet enthusiast, you realise there’s a great lure to go and buy stuff for the kitchen. I have a soft spot for the kitchen section of John Lewis [he pronounces this ‘Jean Louis’, French-style], because of all the kit.’
The global phenomenon that is Top Gear has put James May in the public eye: he’s recognised instantly by nearly everyone in the pub. The three presenters, he and Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, are good mates, and you can see the chemistry between them when the cameras roll. The result is some of the most entertaining television that’s been made in recent years. ‘The programme is quite loosely constructed,’ says May. ‘Most of it is made up of out-takes. Which is why when people ring up and ask for out-takes, we have to say we’re terribly sorry but we’ve already shown them.’
Now he is a star in his own right, and has a number of projects to keep him busy, including a one-off BBC special about the moon landings coming in June, in which you’ll see May don a spacesuit and fly in a U2 spy plane, and a six-part series about toys later in the year. He will also be filming another series with Clarke, but they haven’t decided when this will happen.
As we start eating lunch – which is excellent, notches above average pub grub – May tells me that he doesn’t actually ‘do’ lunch. ‘I live in TV world now, so I get a lot of it. People say “how about we do lunch?” So lunch gets organised, and you go there, and you have a fairly hard-nosed thing to sort out. You might have some scallops, and then a nice bottle of Chablis, but the meeting actually spoils the food for me, because I’m sitting there thinking, “I’m going to have to tell this bloke I think he’s a bit of a c---.”
‘There are people I work with who I have heated disagreements with, but who I like immensely. I’d much rather go into a grey room, have a bit of a fight, call each other a wanker, and then say right, we’ve sorted that out, let’s go down the pub and get some lunch and get a bit clattered and have a laugh. It’s much better to celebrate the end of a rather painful argument you both knew you had to have. So I’ve made it a rule – never do lunch. Er, except today.’
Oz and James Drink to Britain is out now on DVD, priced £19.99.
The Dove, 19 Upper Mall, W6 9TA