WHEN you think of Jeremy Clarkson, your mind goes straight to fast cars, blokeish banter and pints of lager.
But as we sit in the bowels of MediaCity in Salford, surprisingly it is politics, rosé wine and weight loss on the agenda.
Jeremy, who is about to front his third series of legendary quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, is in fine fettle having dropped 2st.
Rewind the clock a couple of years and the 59-year-old would almost certainly have polished off a couple of pints and a steak dinner during our interview.
But today, as he slaps down a giant packet of nicotine gum and sips a cup of tea — milk, no sugar — Jeremy appears to be a changed man.
He says: “I had salad for lunch and water — well, I had water because you lot were coming.
“But I had a salad nicoise and a glass of water. I lost 2st last year.”
When I ask if he has been in the gym pumping iron to shift the weight, Jeremy says he is taking a more regal approach to dieting.
He quickly adds: “No. No, that would be unseemly. The Queen doesn’t go to the gym and she doesn’t run and she’s 93 and she’s all right.
“Apparently she only has a forkful, she only has a tiny bit, that’s what I’ve heard. She’ll sit down and just have one little bit of mousse and bit of a lettuce leaf.”
It’s a sunny day in Manchester when we chat, and Jeremy looks longingly out of the floor-to-ceiling windows to catch a glimpse of a beer garden to head to afterwards.
He admits that warm days are “beer days” but says his drink of choice is a glass of crisp rosé.
Jeremy reckons lager is no longer seen as the obvious tipple for men in pubs.
He explains: “I don’t think it is macho. It always comes in a small bottle and with a half-pint glass you do tend to have your pinky out. I don’t see much machismo in that.
“And I haven’t seen anyone drink a pint of Carling since 1973.
“There will be somewhere near here we can go and have a look at what they’re drinking.” Despite having been in the studio rehearsing all day, Jeremy is as sharp as ever.
From where we are seated you can see Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, and Chelsea fan Jeremy quickly jokes: “Oh yeah, oh how awful.
“I’ve never been in here before and that’s probably why. Not bad for a Championship club, is it?”
I have been invited to MediaCity, where Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is filmed, to chat about the ITV game show’s return tomorrow at 9.10pm for a 33rd series.
On the difficulty of the questions, Jeremy tells me: “People always say they know the answers. The producer of this show sits in the gallery and comes down after every show and says, ‘I knew all of those’. Yeah, right. No, you didn’t.
“One day we put him in the rehearsal chair. A million quid . . .”
In the new series, Jeremy gets to ask the hallowed £1million pound question for real.
The last person to win the top prize was Ingram Wilcox in 2006, with Judith Keppel the first in 2000.
Jeremy says: “I asked the million- pound question and it is very exciting. Even at half a million you still think, ‘That’s half a million quid for half an hour’s work’.
“Christ, that completely changes that guy’s life. If you think about it, that’s just because he knows the capital of Ecuador or whatever.”
So how does Jeremy think he’d fare if he swapped places? He says: “Like I said before the show, I wouldn’t even be certain of my name with that much riding on it.”
But surely a man who has enjoyed a career like his, with giant pay cheques and a very comfortable lifestyle, wouldn’t be that bothered by the sums up for grabs?
Jeremy adds: “No, I’m from Yorkshire, and Yorkshire people never ever lose the value of a Pound. Ask anyone who knows me — I’m still, ‘How much?!’
“My great-grandfather once stood in front of Harrods, and he was a wealthy man, very Northern, and he went, ‘I could afford to buy everything in that window, but I’m not going to’ — and I operate on that principle as well. I’ve got a 12-year-old Range Rover and I live in a two-bedroom cottage.”
If Jeremy was in the show’s hot seat, he knows who would be his Phone A Friend lifeline — and it is not his old Top Gear muckers Richard Hammond or James May.
He says: “My brother-in-law — my sister’s husband — would be my Phone A Friend.
“He’s tried to get on this show ever since it first began with Chris Tarrant and he rang every week and spent hundreds in phone calls and never was invited to come on.
“He can’t come on now because I think you lot might notice if my brother-in-law won £1million.”
‘BORIS IS A LIKEABLE CLOWN – LET’S GIVE HIM A FEW MONTHS’
Jeremy left Top Gear in 2015 after he was accused of punching a producer. He now hosts Netflix’s Grand Tour with Richard and James. When we chat, the new series of Top Gear has aired to critical acclaim with Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness as the new presenters. But when I ask if he has watched the reboot, Jeremy says: “No, no. Never saw Evans do it, never saw LeBlanc.”
Despite the new hosts’ success, Jeremy was voted by Radio Times readers as their favourite on the motoring show, with James and Richard ranked second and third.
But how would he have felt if his Grand Tour co-stars had triumphed?
Jeremy says with a smirk: “Well, it’s impossible — it’s like saying imagine if there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. You can’t because then you wouldn’t be able to.
“Imagine what it would be like if there were mermaids or unicorns. No, I would have just said, ‘It’s that my writing for you two is so good I’ve made you more popular than I am. Oh, bless them.”
With Boris Johnson now in No10, Sun columnist Jeremy, who is a neighbour and friend of former PM David Cameron, reckons we should give the new leader a chance.
He says: “We can all sit here and go, ‘Oh my God’ and talk ourselves into a recession and depression. Or we can say, ‘Let’s give him a few months and see what happens’.
“Anything that keeps Corbyn out. Boris is a likeable clown.”
When I add that you could say the same about James May, Jeremy adds without missing a beat: “I wouldn’t call James May likeable! Earnest is what I would call James.”
l Who Wants To Be A Millionaire returns to ITV tomorrow at 9.10pm and on Sunday at 8pm.
I'M STILL NO QUIZ WIZZ
THE last time I went toe-to-toe with Jeremy on the show, I earned myself the nickname “Dumbo gumbo” after getting a question about a Louisiana stew wrong.
So this time I was determined to perform better in our practice run, and helpfully I had all four lifelines up my sleeve.
I am usually good value in a pub quiz, with my knowledge of sport and telly decent enough to avoid being accused of hanging on to my mates’ coat-tails.
I fly through the fastest finger first round – putting RAF ranks into order of seniority in just over two seconds.
But the second I step up to the main chair, all of my general knowledge appears to seep out of me.
The first question is a straightforward one, which I thought I knew: Who directed the 1975 film Jaws?
But keen to avoid a first question flop, I turn the tables on Jeremy and Ask The Host.
He says: “It depends on what kind of a review this programme gets. I mean, I’m struggling to make the viewer think I don’t know this. But it’s Steven Spielberg.”
Correct. And I’m away.
But I need two more lifelines to reach my Millionaire career best of £8,000.
I had to Phone A Friend to crack the instrument that Ray Charles was best known for – the piano – and Ask The Audience to determine which river the German city of Cologne stands on – the Rhine.
As the buzzer sounds to tell me my spot in the chair is up before I can embarrass myself further, Jeremy says: “You didn’t answer a single question on your own. As always it’s been a pleasure.”
For him, maybe.