James May: We were 'stilted' and 'old-fashioned' in the early days of Top Gear

The TV presenter reflects on his life and career with Yahoo UK for Origin Story

Watch: James May shares his Origin Story

James May has long been a mainstay of British TV, entertaining viewers alongside his regular co-presenters Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond for decades in Top Gear and The Grand Tour before venturing into solo travel and cooking shows with Prime Video.

His newest show is Our Man in India, which sees him travel to the country and explore Indian culture in all its splendour. It is the latest in his Our Man series, for which he previously travelled to Japan and Italy, and continues his run of solo shows ahead of the return of The Grand Tour in 2024 (which is said to be its last outing).

May looked back at his, Clarkson and Hammond's relationship over the years with Yahoo UK, admitting he feels they were "stilted" and old-fashioned" during Top Gear's early years. Joking that he's found it "terrible" to work with his co-presenters, May reflected on the BBC and Prime Video car shows, his upcoming travel series, and the defining moments of his life to present his Origin Story.

Cars, Top Gear and The Grand Tour

Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond return for The Grand Tour Presents: Lochdown (Amazon Prime Video)
Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond have presented together for years on Top Gear and The Grand Tour (pictured), and James May reflected on their history with Yahoo. (Prime Video)

How did your interest in cars first start?

I was quite interested in them as a lad and I used to read car magazines, but we all did to be honest back then. And then I sort of fell into it, I did a lot of jobs that were unsuitable for me, including working at the civil service during which time I produced a brochure for schools on behalf of the Department of Trade. Don't ask me how that happened, it's just something that happened and as a result of that I blagged my way into a sub-editing job on a technical magazine and then it went from there.

When I was young and I didn't really know what I was doing and I learned as I went along, and then after being fired by quite a few places I had a go at writing stuff. There was no plan and there definitely wasn't any ambition, it's just what happened.

How would you describe your experience working with Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond for all these years?

Top Gear Live
James May (pictured in 2007) said he feels he, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond were quite 'stilted' in the early years of presenting Top Gear. (Getty Images)

Terrible, just awful. I think if you look back at the early stuff we did, the early Top Gear, it now looks quite old fashioned. It looks old fashioned and it looks quite stilted because it is a long time ago, it's over 2 decades and TV has changed a lot. I think we've probably got to a point now where we don't quite know what the other one's going to say, but we've got a pretty good idea.

We don't live in each other's pockets, we don't all live in a big house like some people imagine with all our cars parked outside, we have our separate lives. But when we're together making our specials and things it's a pretty intensive, completely immersive experience apart from when we're actually asleep, which we tend to do separately. The rest of the time we're together and in each other's pockets, and getting on each other's nerves and in each other's hair. So yeah, I think I know them pretty well.

What do you feel you have learned from your time presenting with them?

Well, not just with them, doing the other things as well. I didn't know anything about it when I started, there aren't really any instruction books or courses and I don't know that other TV presenters are particularly keen to share their secrets in the same way that chefs aren't all painters and decorators.

I remember Quentin Wilson when I had my first false start on Top Gear in the Pebble Mill days, he was always very helpful. I've always loved crediting him for that, he used to say to me, 'James, relax, relax.' He used to give me these because I was a complete beginner then. It's something that you learn as you go along like everything else, I'm not a very good role model for young people I'm afraid, cause I don't have any handy hints apart from that 95% of advice is rubbish.

James May: Our Man in India

James May will star in a new season of his travel series. (Prime Video)
James May will star in a new season of his travel series. (Prime Video)

When would you say you first became interested in travelling and exploring other cultures?

Well, not as a child because we didn't really go abroad apart from I went on the school German exchange... I think it really started after I've left university and I went inter-railing, so I did a bit looking at things in Europe that I've always been intrigued about.

Earlier in my working life, I never really planned proper holidays with my mates because I was too disorganised so there was a shop in Kilburn that sold what we used to call bucket seats, which were leftover flights on airlines. You could go in there and say 'what have you got for £50?' and I ended up going to Croatia, I went back to Italy, I went somewhere in Spain. So I suppose it comes from there, but it's not from childhood. In childhood, we went to the British seaside and British countryside.

How would you describe your experiences in India, and how did they compare to your time in Italy and Japan?

James May: Our Man in India (Prime Video)
James May described India as a 'rather remarkable place'. (Prime Video)

They are three very different countries. They don't really have anything in common I wouldn't say, apart from you can eat very well in all of them. India I've been to before, I know that it can be a bit challenging if you're British, or if you're a Westerner, but it's not actually as difficult as people imagine.

Maybe it's easier these days, but I find India very, very stimulating and exciting and it's a rather remarkable place to be. Even if you're not doing anything in particular, just going about the daily business of existing and eating your breakfast and going for a walk to the shops it all becomes exciting in India because it's slightly riotous but not in a bad way. It's just exciting.

How did this trip to India compare to the other times you have visited the country?

I've either been on holiday or we did India with Top Gear in the old days so that was a little bit more, not scripted as such, but it's a bit more controlled because we're making a sort of sitcom really, of this time. I think I learned more in this trip about India than in all the previous ones combined because I was forced to by the nature of the job. So this one had more variety and it was also more informative.

James May: Quick fire questions

Michael Cain in 1969 film Battle of Britain, which James May described as being an important film in his childhood. (Alamy)

Movies you loved growing up: The first big feature film I went to was Battle of Britain in 1969 because I was already interested in aeroplanes, so my dad took me to see it and I found it quite scary. I was only six years old, it's quite a big noisy film, but I still watch it all the time because it has a special place in my heart.

TV obsessions: It would have been largely what was on the BBC because that was the only thing I was allowed to watch, that quite normal in British families back then. So I liked Tomorrow's World, anything with Brian Cant and Derek Griffiths in, like, Play Away. I liked the Colditz series, anything to do with escaping or spying, anything like that.

One song to define your life: It's probably Right, Said Fred or something stupid like that and something about things not going according to plan. I don't mean the band. I mean the old song about the removal men trying to move the piano, it's terrible.

Final thoughts with James May

James May: Our Man in India (Prime Video)
James May admitted there were many important mentors in his life, including the two editors who took a chance on him and helped set him on his career path. (Prime Video)

Were there any mentors in your life or career that had a defining impact on you?

There were two people I have to thank really for the way things turned out. First John Pullen, who was the editor of the Engineer magazine that was the first magazine job I had after I got fired from the civil service, and I applied for the job as the sub-editor not really knowing what I was doing and he gave me the job.

I remember ringing him up and pestering him, saying I've applied to this job and I haven't heard back. Eventually, he said, 'well come in for an interview', but I later got to know him I realised that he actually hated interviewing people and he hated that process, and he met me and he decided I was okay. So he gave me the job to get it over with, I think there was an element of that or maybe he thought I had some promise, I don't know. But I have to thank him for that, for being that first break.

And then the second one is Gavin Green, who was the editor of Car magazine and gave me my first proper writing job because he said 'come and write a column' and again that was a bit of a gamble on his part because I had no previous track record.

I wasn't a journalist in any way, but I'd written a few columns in my spare time whilst working in production on magazines and I'd sent them to him. And getting a job in Car magazine in those days was quite a plummy job, people wanted that, and they gave it to me for some reason. He gave it to me, and that's where the move into cars and then TV started.

If you could go back in time and give young James any advice on how to change his Origin Story, what would it be?

Presenter James May visits a full size house made entirely with Lego bricks. The house at Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, Surrey will feature on BBC series 'James May's Toy Stories'.   (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
James May reflected on advice he'd help give to others, saying young people 'mustn't do things that [they] don't really like doing' because they'll be wasting the most valuable years of their life. (Getty Images)

I can't really remember now whether or not I was worried about life, but I suspect I probably did. I'd go back and say 'it'll be all right'. And the other thing I would do —and this is a bit of advice I'd give to young people even though they should ignore it— when you're a teenager, when you're in your 20s and you have that vitality of youth and the energy and the imagination you mustn't do things that you don't really like doing.

You mustn't do a job, or be in a relationship, or live in a house that you don't really like because you're wasting the most valuable bit of your life, and it is pointless thinking you have to do something because that's what's expected of you, or that's what you're supposed to do, or that's what you are meant to do.

I suffered from that. I wouldn't have believed I was allowed to work in magazines or newspapers. I would have believed I was supposed to work in something quite square and quite administrative, and you shouldn't do that. I think I did waste some years of my life doing things that fundamentally I was completely uninterested in and I would have been better off going and getting a job in a vibrant bar, or pub, or shop, or something where I met more people and and had more interaction.

If you're not doing what you like you will never be very good at it, you can only be good at things that inspire you. So whatever that is, do that. That's what I would have told me. But in some ways I was very lucky.

James May: Our Man in India launches globally on 5 January 2024 on Prime Video.

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