From a career as a local journalist in northern England, Clarkson rose to public prominence as a presenter of the original format of Top Gear in 1988. Since the mid-1990s, he has become a recognised public personality, regularly appearing on British television presenting his own shows for BBC and appearing as a guest on other shows. As well as motoring, Clarkson has produced programmes and books on subjects such as history and engineering. In 1998 he hosted the first series of Robot Wars, and from 1998 to 2000 he also hosted his own talk show, Clarkson.
In 2015 the BBC decided not to renew Clarkson's contract with the company after a dispute with a Top Gear producer while filming on location. That year, Clarkson and his Top Gear co-presenters and producer Andy Wilman formed the production company W. Chump & Sons to produce The Grand Tour for Amazon Video. In 2018 he presented the 20th anniversary specials of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for ITV.
His opinionated but humorous tongue-in-cheek writing and presenting style has often provoked public reaction. His actions both privately and as a Top Gear presenter have also sometimes resulted in criticism from the media, politicians, pressure groups and the public. He also has a significant public following, being credited as a major factor in the resurgence of Top Gear as one of the most popular shows on the BBC.
Clarkson was born in Doncaster, the son of Shirley Gabrielle Clarkson, a teacher, and Edward Grenville Clarkson, a travelling salesman. His parents, who ran a business selling tea cosies, put their son's name down in advance for private schools, with no idea how they were going to pay the fees, until at the last moment, when he was 13, they made two Paddington Bear stuffed toys for each of their children. These proved so popular that they started selling them through the business with sufficient success to be able to pay the fees for Clarkson to attend Hill House School, Doncaster, and later Repton School.
Clarkson has stated he was deeply unhappy at Repton School, saying that he had been a "suicidal wreck" there, having experienced extreme bullying, which he alleged included: being thrown into a cold plunge pool, night time beatings, being forced to lick the lavatories clean, routine damage to his property, defecation in his tuck box, and the cutting up of his clothing.