'Jeremy Clarkson and I simply didn't gel and suddenly my dream job on Top Gear was no more,' reveals Jason Barlow
Jason Barlow (45), from Newtownards, tells Claire McNeilly about his time working on the world’s top motoring show, where he thinks the revamped BBC programme has gone wrong... and why pal Jimmy Nesbitt is a world-class actor.
Q. You're a former presenter of Top Gear, headhunted from Channel 4's motoring programme. That must have been an exciting time?
A. I look back on it now and can't quite believe it happened - and at the time I couldn't quite believe it either. I was approached about Top Gear in early 2000. At that point Jeremy Clarkson had left the programme for the first time. I was only there for 18 months because, unbeknown to me, they were secretly doing a deal to bring Jeremy back. I did 53 episodes of Top Gear, which is quite a significant number when you think about it.
Q. Were you disappointed you weren't part of the relaunched Top Gear back then?
A. Yes I was. At one point I had lunch with Jeremy in a posh restaurant in Notting Hill and it looked like it was all systems go - and then it didn't happen.
Q. Why do you think it didn't happen?
A. I did a screen test and I don't think Jeremy and I gelled, to be brutally honest. It happens. They're always looking for chemistry. They got Richard Hammond out of those screen tests, and a guy called Jason Dawe who did one season of the rebooted programme.
People talk about the failure of the post-Clarkson Top Gear but they forget that when it was first rebooted in 2002 it was a good three or four series before it really hit its stride.
And now it's all part of that whole instant gratification thing/download culture where everyone expects everything to be absolutely brilliant out of the box and it takes time. People need to be patient and, in the case of the season just past, no one was.
Q. Are you friends with Clarkson? Do you agree with the BBC letting him go in the light of the 'punching a producer' scandal?
A. I know him. Let's put it this way, one of my projects involves managing a small team (there are five or six of us) and if one of my team assaulted another member of my team then I would have no option but to discipline them formally and almost certainly have them removed.
Q. What actually happened between them?
A. From what I understand they were supposed to be flying a helicopter up north to Yorkshire. They got there late because of some delay and Clarkson was disappointed to learn there was no hot food left for him. He lost his rag.
What I will say is that, although it looks like those guys just have a fantastic time in cars all over the world, it's phenomenally hard work. It's not working in a coal mine; it's not manual labour but the hours are very long. You often don't eat at the right time, it can be very repetitive.
It's very, very hard work and they're well paid for it. It's a lot of fun but it's demanding. The bottom line, however, is that you can't go round punching people.
Q. Has Chris Evans made the right decision by quitting as Top Gear's lead presenter after just one series?
A. I think he has, yes. He's a polarising character. For some reason the format of Top Gear didn't suit him. We live in a world of Twitter trolls now and feeble people who hide behind anonymity.
I know him reasonably well, I've met his wife Natasha (left) and his kids. He's a family man. And the abuse he was getting during Top Gear was unforgivable. I don't think he was particularly brilliant on the programme, but he wasn't that bad.
Q. Do you think the programme itself has 'jumped the shark', as it were?
A. No, not at all. Just give it time. Let the people on it gel and it'll be fine. Who knows, it might go back to being a car programme again.
Q. Who would you have as a replacement for Evans? What about yourself? You tick a lot of boxes. If they asked you would you go back?
A. No, I wouldn't. I had some very low-level conversations but it was never a serious possibility. For anybody who dares to go anywhere near Top Gear now, it's a poisoned chalice I think. But I need to qualify that by saying that the talent that's involved with it - and I know a few of them - they are very, very clever.
Q. Have you high hopes for the new Clarkson programme, The Grand Tour, which will of course be shown only on Amazon? Is it something you'll watch?
A. I'm sure it will be great. But I'm not that bothered about it. I'm not going to sign up for Amazon Prime just to watch it. They (Clarkson, Hammond and James May) are very good at what they do, though. Very funny.
Q. Tell us about your early years growing up in Bangor... family life, schools, siblings, first real job.
A. One sister Kelly (42), who lives in Australia, and four step-brothers - Ben (30), Oliver (22) (whose girlfriend is former Miss NI Tiffany Brien), Ryan (20) and Stephen (40) - and one step-sister, Leigh (42).
We moved to Bangor in 1976. I went to Bangor Grammar School and ended up living in a house that was literally across the road. The other thing I remember about growing up is the DeLorean story. When I was a kid, a friend of my father was an engineer for DeLorean and he brought a prototype to the house in 1981. I remember standing beside it.
Q. You have a law degree from the University of Manchester but didn't take up the profession. Why was that?
A. I never really wanted to study law. I went to the University of Manchester because of the BBC2 TV programme Rapido. They interviewed R.E.M., who were like gods to me, and the guitarist Peter Buck said if he was going to go to university in England he'd go to Manchester because of The Smiths and New Order - and that was precisely why I went there.
Then I did a post-graduate in journalism. I did a summer of temping working for record companies and then I got a job as a sub-editor on a now-defunct magazine called Performance Car.
Q. Tell us about a typical day in the life of Jason Barlow.
A. Fortunately there is no such thing, which is precisely how I like it. I'm consulting editor on the official Ferrari magazine which is published by Conde Naste (GQ, Glamour, Vogue, Vanity Fair etc).
I'm editor-at-large for BBC Top Gear - the magazine and online - and I'm contributing editor to GQ and have been for 19 years. I also produce films, film content, because that's the way it's going.
So somewhere in the midst of all that lies a typical day. I've converted my garage at home into my office. When my kids were younger I couldn't work in the house, so I needed to be able to go outside and shut the door and sit and write.
There was one week when I wrote over 10,000 words ... when I'm at full tilt, three features in a row, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday...
Q. How would you describe what you do?
A. I am freelance, self-employed. I make corporate films as well. I would like to do more TV. I would hesitate to describe myself as a freelance motoring journalist. I'm an editor, an ideas generator.
Q. You're a big fan of Jimmy Nesbitt. What's he like?
A. He's good fun. He likes a party. I interviewed him for GQ in 2003 and it was one of my favourite interviews. Like a lot of successful people from this part of the world, he completely fascinates me.
Jimmy is a cool guy, one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Q. Five years ago you wrote an article for GQ about going out on patrol with the PSNI on the Eleventh Night. Was that an eye-opener? And what are your own childhood experiences of the marching season?
A. I'm probably more proud of that piece than anything else I've done in 23 years as a journalist. It was an amazing opportunity, a massive eye-opener.
It did really kick off then... July 11, 2011.
I was able to do it because the now PSNI assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton was one of my two closest friends from our schooldays.
He asked me if it would make an interesting story and that's how it came about.
I've known Mark since we were 10 years old and I'm massively proud of what he's achieved. That's a man who's doing a proper job as far as I'm concerned.
Q. Your Twitter profile says you own "half a Ferrari and all of an old Merc". Can you not afford a Ferrari all for yourself?
A. They're very expensive cars. That was car that myself and my mate...basically the opportunity arose to purchase this particular car. It's an F355; we'd had a little bit to drink and we thought it'd be a good idea to buy it and share it, so we did. It's a mid-engined car so I always say I own the bit with the engine in it.
Q. What was your first car... how old was it, how much did it cost... and were you proud of it?
A. The car I learned to drive in was a 1983 Volkswagen Polo C which had faulty brakes. It cost £300. It was very special.
Q. Although you're invariably associated with cars, you've also presented other programmes such as Dispatches. And of course you are a contributing editor with GQ and also write for the Sunday Times. So, does the future for Jason Barlow involve a lot more television and a lot less writing - or vice versa?
A. Who knows? I'd like to write a film script and there is a film project in the mix at the moment that I'm involved with. It's about a famous person. I would like to do a bit more TV.
Q. Can you tell us about your private life.
A. I'm married to former journalist Andrea (45), whom I met while we were both studying a post-grad diploma in journalism at the University of Cardiff. We have two children - Gracie (13) and Willem (10) - and we live in Henham, Essex.
Q. Can you ever see yourself returning to Northern Ireland full-time?
A. I could handle coming back here. I think it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is a very special place.
I have travelled extensively over the years and I've seen a lot of cool places but I think that this country is right up there and so are the people who live here.