Whether engineered or not, "punchgate" looks like a convenient opportunity for the parting of the ways between Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC. Though still popular with young boys, Top Gear's healthy foreign sales, like Clarkson's increasingly desperate attention-seeking, are a clear sign that the vehicle is now running on fumes. While the Beeb might try and refresh the cast, like Last of the Summer Wine, it might equally just cut to the chase and create an entirely new series where ageing men are set ridiculous challenges in which pratfalls and hilarity ensue, like Last of the Summer Wine. The cast are obviously rich enough to retire, while writing gigs in the Tory press will satisfy the urge to take the ego out for the occasional spin.
In historical terms, Jeremy Clarkson successfully recycled and combined two particular strands of British humour: the casual bigotry of The Comedians, which had provided an "authentic" working-class contrast to the whimsy of middle-class comedy in the 1970s; and the sarcastic tone and overt political content of 1980s alternative comedy, which he repurposed to misanthropic ends long before the graduates of The Comic Strip started moaning about the Mansion Tax. Of course, the comedians of the northern club circuit in the 70s were never truly authentic, in the sense of reflecting their audience. Their reactionary "plain-speaking" reflected the comedians' own position as small businessmen: anti-government, anti-tax, pro-golf etc. Politically, they were less representative of the punters than the lunchtime strippers.
Born to a small businessman and a teacher in Doncaster in 1960, and starting out as a journalist on local newspapers, Clarkson was very much a product of the same milieu, albeit with middle-class pretensions - hence the private schooling. In many respects, he is far more representative of "Middle England" than Nigel Farage. If the UKIP leader is a de haut en bas populist who appeals to the social and geographic margins that regret the end of the twentieth century, Clarkson is a right of centre Tory loyalist who is comfortable with big capital, hierarchy and abroad (the Chipping Norton set are instinctive supremacists, not xenophobes). As an ideologist, Clarkson helped maintain the fiction of political correctness as an external imposition, particularly in the form of health and safety "gone mad", at a time when big capital was pushing for greater regulation as a deliberate strategy for the car industry. We have much safer cars today for the same reason we have fewer manufacturers and more automated factories.
British comedy has traditionally relied on innuendo and puns. This produced a range of styles in the twentieth century as comedy migrated from the stage to radio and TV, from the mock-offended (Frankie Howerd) through the befuddled (Tommy Cooper) to the cynical (Les Dawson). Arguably the most successful variant was the tease, the comedian who threatened to cross the line into outrage but never quite did, its most famous exponent being Max Miller. The basic dynamic of comedy - that "we" can safely laugh at "them" - meant that the jokes became increasingly vicious as the range of acceptable topics broadened and social tensions mounted from the 1960s onward. This was obvious not only in the "blue humour" of the clubs and the casual racism and misogyny of The Comedians, but in the increasing contempt shown by comics in the 70s for organised labour and the Irish.
Alternative comedy was a conscious response to this bigotry, but it was also a class project. Thatcherism allowed liberal middle class comedians who hadn't qualified for Footlights to indirectly patronise the working class for their material aspirations and ignorance. Clarkson took the political position of the 70s comedians and overlayed it with the style of the alternative comedians of the 80s. His persona was a mix of Lennie Bennett and Bill Hicks - including the hair of the former and the dress sense of the latter. His delivery was modelled on the classic tease, but done in a deliberately laconic, louche manner: mouthing the "n-word", employing ambiguity ("slope"), using "gay" as a derogatory term etc. This allowed a wide range of viewers either to imagine that Clarkson secretly shared their own prejudices or to excuse his flirting as ill-judged but essentially harmless.
It might appear odd that the BBC should take a dim view when he acts according to type. After all, they don't pay him handsomely for his opinion on cars but for his entertainment value. And while the essence of Top Gear is three privileged, middle-aged men playing at being kids again, it is clear that the show's popularity has much to do with the tension arising from the expectation that head boy Clarkson will skirt the border of acceptability. But taking a swing at someone during a tantrum is another matter entirely, even if it is behaviour consistent with a spoilt brat. Stepping over the line into physical abuse is not the sort of thing that the post-Savile BBC can take lightly. The question is, did Clarkson actually land a punch, or is this, in the style of a 1970s stripper on a Saturday lunchtime, just another tease?