Top Gear is notorious for many reasons. Fast cars. Outlandish stunts. Celebrities gunning around a Surrey airfield in a ‘Reasonably Priced Car.’ But undoubtedly one of the major contributors to its renaissance in recent years is due to three middle aged men making prats of themselves on national television.

Label caught up with presenter James May on a recent visit to Loughborough.

(As a condition of the interview, we can’t publish the exact details of May’s visit as it’s all fairly covert, but reading about May’s quirky eccentricities are still just as fascinating.)

Born in Bristol in 1963, James May’s path to becoming a household name was unorthodox to say the least; hardly surprising for man who has delved his way into the hearts of many for his old fashioned, dry humour and unkempt haircut.

“A few years after I left university I did some s**t jobs. I think one of them was assembling cardboard boxes and I even got fired from that.

“I blagged my way into a job as a sub-editor on a trade magazine and from there I went into a job on a newsstand magazine about cars.

“I was a production person at first, then had a go at writing and went freelance and nearly starved to death. I got some work on car and travel magazines for about 10 years and then somebody said ‘do you want to have a go at the telly?’

“None of it was planned,” May told Label.

Indeed, a career in broadcasting is a far cry from May’s first love – Music. A choirboy, flautist and pianist as a child, May studied for a degree in the subject at Lancaster University, graduating in the early 80s.

He told Label that Loughborough was actually on his radar as a teenager.

“I seem to remember that we had ‘UCCA’ [The University Central Council for Admissions] in those days.

“Loughborough came up as a possible choice but I think I rejected it on the basis that I’d have to play tennis or something.

“[At Loughborough] You drank very hard and then you played rugby. I was always very interested in drinking very hard but I wasn’t very interested in sport.”

It came to a shock to the 48-year-old that not all students in Loughborough were of the athletic variety. Some have creative flair!

“I met some dramatists earlier on and I thought ‘surely they don’t play rugby as well.’ I did a music degree and you don’t do that here, do you?”

On learning about Loughborough’s strong musical societies, May couldn’t resist tying them in with the sporting heritage on campus.

“So you probably do ‘Piano Hockey’ or ‘Violin Tennis?’

“Oh actually, I don’t like the abuse of musical instruments. It’s one of the few things I’m actually quite good at.”

Although his entry path into TV was ‘completely by accident,’ the man nicknamed Captain Slow by his Top Gear colleagues is passionate about what he does.

Speaking about the variety of programmes he has the pleasure of working on, May told Label: “I enjoy it all equally."

“You get a lot of ideas sent to you. It’s difficult to get into something that you’re not really involved with. I would never do a programme about something I don’t feel very strongly about one way or another.

“I’m either very enthusiastic about it, for example cars, motorcycles or aeroplanes, or it’s something I’d like to know more about, like the universe or the history of art.”

Being famed and adored on Top Gear has given May the platform to build a hugely successful broadcasting career, expanding his repertoire into science, wines and gadgetry.

Yet for the BBC presenter, it’s his intrinsic passions that drive him to make new shows.

“ManLab was an idea I had years ago and I couldn’t get anybody in the BBC interested in it and then more recently we went back to them again and they thought there might be something in this idea.”

“Toy Stories was something I dreamt up at least eight years ago and it took until two years ago for them to take any notice.

“I’d rather do my own things because by the time they eventually agree to them I’m gagging to do it and I’ve thought of everything I need to do it.

“Somebody asked me to do something about domestic bacteria. I said no!”

Indeed May is resolute, well versed and utterly engaging when talking about the direction of modern television.

“The era of the professional TV presenter, where a person can turn up a present anything, is over in my opinion.

“People are only convincing on the telly if they’re dealing with something they’re genuinely excited about or knowledgeable about.

“It’s best to stick with that.”

And stick with that May does with effortless aplomb.

With Clarkson’s popularity waning, evident in the destruction of his Isle of Man property, and Hammond’s brief foray into primetime TV a distant memory, it’s May’s unbridled enthusiasm for what he does that is truly inspiring to absorb.

Yes, his documentaries might be a little dry for the student taste buds and he might not be as fast as the Stig around the Top Gear test track, but May is a man that is traversing an impressive path across the television genres, almost exclusively due to the passion, enjoyment and control that he exerts over his own career.

James May is going places. And not just testing another Top Gear car…


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