Top Gear presenter James May is 50

While the age-gauge shows half-a-ton, the antics of the TV favourite suggest a perpetual kid. So, ponders Nick Smurthwaite, has James May grown up? 

Yes, folks, this week the broadcaster and ‘author’ James May left the comforting shores of 40-something-hood to begin the wild adventure that is one’s fifties. And if anyone has done more to help beleaguered, manopausal Britbloke rediscover his inner boy, we’d like to meet him.

For, as his TV outings have proved over recent years, James May is forever the kid who ran around with his arms outstretched pretending to be a Spitfire; the little tyke who yearned for the Dinky toy version of Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 for Christmas.

Being already established as one of the trio of arrested adolescents from Top Gear, May has been perfectly placed to rekindle those innocent fads and fancies of childhood. How we cheered on his crazy plan to construct a lifesize fighter plane out of Airfix, or his equally barmy idea of using giant Lego pieces to build a real house.

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Behind May’s sardonic, middle-aged exterior was an excitable 12-year-old boy, bursting with curiosity

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Then there was the three-mile Scalextric track, tracing the original site of Brooklands Grand Prix course. It was like being taken back in time by some mad inventor on a mission to subvert Planet Sensible.

His emergence as The One Who Does Crazy Stuff came as something of a surprise to fans of Top Gear, since he was perennially dubbed Captain Slow by his speed junkie co-presenters, the boring one who played safe, always came in last and even veered dangerously close to sounding grown-up on occasion.

Clearly it was all a front. Festering behind May’s sardonic, middle-aged exterior was an excitable 12-year-old boy, bursting with curiosity and itching to make a lifesize bridge out of Meccano.

He is also, it turns out, a genuine petrolhead, being the proud owner of five cars, including a Rolls Royce and a Porsche 911, six motorcycles and a small aeroplane (made out of aluminium rather than plastic).

Rubbish clothes and overalls

That shabby sheepdog look he appears to cultivate on screen is also the genuine article. Not only does he have no interest in his appearance but he positively resents any pressure to be stylish or fashionable.

“I spend a lot of money on clothes, and I actually have some quite nice ones, but I have a fantastic ability to make them all look rubbish,” he told The Independent in 2008.

He describes his style of choice as “normal bloke”. In 2011 he thumbed his nose at the fashion industry by making a programme in which he designed, commissioned and modelled an all-purpose boiler suit, a onesie for chaps, in the certain knowledge that “the one-piece overall is what all males secretly desire”.

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Neither is he interested in shopping – it would be a betrayal of the Top Gear Code of Ethics if he were to tell it any other way – and cites his only high street port of call as “any shop with tools, penknives, nuts and bolts”. Meat and drink to us real men, of course…..

However, on top of all the oily, engine-y stuff, May also plays the piano, cooks, appreciates fine wine and lives with the dance critic Sarah Frater – all of which hints at a more girly, artistic side to the ostensible geezer.

So, as he bids farewell to his unusually protracted youth, what does the future hold for the personable Captain Slow? With his easy manner and ready wit, it is not hard to imagine him taking on Michael Palin’s globe-trotting mantel, or returning with more of his excellent Man Lab shows, which proved as entertaining as they were bonkers. He has wormed his way into the collective psyche.

And what’s more, he isn’t Clarkson.

Video: James May’s Things You Need to Know

Video: James May eats rotten shark