David Behrens: Who'd want to be a celebrity... but did we see the real Jeremy Clarkson?

ASIDE from having too much or too little money, the life force perhaps most likely to throw someone completely off-balance is fame.

Jeremy Clarkson hosting ITV's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

I can’t speak from experience, obviously, but I’ve observed at close enough quarters to draw conclusions people who have had to juggle the expectations of their friends and families with those of an audience.

A female pop star with whom I worked at the BBC was sufficiently well-grounded to be able to navigate her twin lives as easily as slipping into a different pair of shoes. The late comedienne Caroline Aherne, on the other hand, was turned into a virtual recluse by the demands of celebrity.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

It was about 30 years ago that the phone rang at my house in Ilkley. “We’re just up the road at the Cow and Calf Hotel on a car shoot,” said an old friend. “Why don’t you join us?”

I arrived to find him and half a dozen other motoring writers and photographers downing gins and tonic and flicking through their leather filofaxes as they weighed the merits of the Audi Quattro they were going to be driving over the moor for Autocar the next day.

I asked, had they seen the new Yorkshire presenter on Top Gear? He had a nice line in commentary that sat somewhere between sarcasm and satire, and he seemed to be reinventing the way in which cars were reviewed. Jeremy Clarkson was his name.

“If you’d been here six months ago,” said my friend, “he’d have been sitting right here. One minute he’s one of us – all of a sudden, he’s a star.”

What they meant was that Clarkson, until he stepped in front of a TV camera, had been just another member of the motoring Press pack – a by-lined yet anonymous scribe from Doncaster, ordering steak and chips at the hotel after work and settling for a salad if the chef had gone home.

Their thinly-disguised envy aside, his former colleagues had not a bad word for him.

I was reminded of the episode this week when Clarkson reemerged on terrestrial TV as host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In the intervening decades, he has carved out a niche for himself as a boorish chauvinist who courts controversy and polarises opinion.

Yet the presenter we saw this week was, I sensed, closer to the real person.

“I am so sorry Sarah, I really am,” he said to a contestant after he had failed to identify that the subject of The Son of Man by the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte had been wearing a bowler hat and not a beret. Sarah, who didn’t know the answer either, had lost £7,000 by gambling on Clarkson’s hunch.

Unlike the saccharine Hughie Green, who hosted an earlier variation on Millionaire called Double Your Money, he appeared to mean it.

I don’t know Clarkson so I can’t be sure, but I’ve always assumed his brusque public persona was an act. Playing up to one’s image is a showbusiness trait that can’t always be turned off when the audience leaves.

Bernard Manning, whom I had met, was harder to read. Was he really the xenophobe he made himself out to be, or was he pandering to the vast and perhaps under-represented section of the audience who turned out to see him, week after week, at his Embassy Club in Manchester’s appalling Harpurhey district? It was a venue that made the worst working men’s club look like the Café Royal, and its spotlight became his pulpit.

Yet offstage, he lingers in the memory among the nicest people I came across – one of only a handful of famous folk who would go out of their way to be helpful.

Had Manning ever been asked to host Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? – unlikely, I grant you – a different character may have emerged. It would have been the mark of a professional, and the fact that Clarkson was able to switch gear so effortlessly between eviscerating a Vauxhall Vectra and empathising with a contestant marked him out as a weightier and more versatile communicator than we had given him credit for.

If I were a betting man, I would put my money on ITV hiring him for his own chat show before the year is out – with luck, to replace the one with Piers Morgan that they insist on recommissioning.

You don’t think so? TV thrives on the unexpected, and if Hughie Green could turn up in Leeds to appear on Stars on Sunday, as he did, anything is possible.