Jeremy Clarkson has been forced to apologise after a joke he made about executing public sector workers for going on strike triggered a political row and thousands of complaints.
The outspoken TV presenter faced a storm of protest after saying public sector strikers should be 'executed' in front of their families.
In a day of extraordinary overreaction to what was clearly meant as a joke, one union official threatened to report him to police, while another said his comments were worthy of Colonel Gaddafi.
Even the Prime Minister, a friend of Mr Clarkson, was dragged into the row, describing the remarks as 'silly', while Ed Miliband said they were 'disgusting'.
By yesterday evening, when Mr Clarkson was finally forced to issue an apology, the BBC had received almost 5,000 complaints about the interview on Wednesday night's edition of The One Show.
The row erupted after millions saw the Top Gear host asked for his views on the day's nationwide strikes.
He started by saying he liked the strikers, because the industrial action had meant there was no traffic on the roads.
But after insisting he had to be balanced as he worked for the impartial BBC, he launched into a satirical rant.
He said: 'Frankly, I would have them shot. I would have them taken outside and executed in front of their families.'
Later in the show, he also complained about people who commit suicide by throwing themselves on railway lines, saying trains should not stop for them.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister, whose 'Chipping Norton Set' of friends includes Mr Clarkson, former News of the World and Sun editor Rebekah Brooks and PR man Matthew Freud, was forced to disassociate himself from the comments.
Asked about them on ITV's This Morning show, Mr Cameron said it was 'a silly thing to say - I'm sure he didn't mean it'.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said the remark was 'absolutely disgraceful and disgusting', adding: 'He obviously does not understand the lives of the people who were going out on strike yesterday.'
The unions exploded in fury, with Unison calling on the BBC to sack the presenter and even contacting lawyers to consider whether he could be reported to the police for inciting violence.
Dave Prentis, Unison's general secretary, said: 'The One Show is broadcast at a time when children are watching: they could have been scared and upset by his aggressive statements.
'While he is driving round in fast cars for a living, public sector workers are busy holding our society together: they save others' lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly.
'They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins - they deserve all our thanks - certainly not the unbelievable level of abuse he threw at them.'
The union's health spokesman Karen Jennings went so far as describing the comments as 'almost like Gaddafi'.
Bob Crow, leader of the RMT union, said Mr Clarkson was a 'man who bleeds a fortune out of the licence-payer for poncing around the world driving luxury cars'.
'Clarkson's incitement to violence, and the refusal of David Cameron to roundly condemn it, is grossly offensive to all public sector workers but even more so to our members on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary who were on strike on Wednesday and who risk their lives in trouble spots around the world servicing the Naval fleet,' he said.
Bert Schouwenburg, of the GMB union, said: 'Jeremy Clarkson's vile and offensive comments are insensitive in the extreme.
'GMB works with trade unions representing employees on banana and pineapple plantations in Latin America where activists have met exactly the fate that Mr Clarkson describes.'
By 5pm yesterday, the presenter had issued an apology.
When Mr Clarkson was asked for his reaction before flying out of the country, he said:
'See what I actually said and then judge. I didn't for a moment intend these remarks to be taken seriously - as I believe is clear if they're seen in context. If the BBC and I have caused any offence, I'm quite happy to apologise for it alongside them.' The BBC said: 'The One Show is a live topical programme which often reflects the day's talking points. Usually we get it right, but on this occasion we feel the item wasn't perfectly judged. The BBC and Jeremy would like to apologise for any offence caused.'
Last night Tory MP Douglas Carswell called for a sense of perspective.
'We shouldn't rise to the bait on this,' he said. 'This is politicians causing mischief.'
Clarkson's comments have regularly landed him in hot water.
Earlier this year, an item on Top Gear led to a complaint from the Mexican ambassador over 'vulgar' insults about Mexicans.
He called the then prime minister Gordon Brown a 'one-eyed Scottish idiot' and triggered 2,000 complaints when he joked about lorry drivers murdering prostitutes.
THE CONTROVERSIAL EXCHANGE
Matt Baker [presenter]: Do you think the strikes have been a good idea?
Jeremy Clarkson: I think they have been fantastic. Absolutely. London today has just been empty. Everybody stayed at home, you can whizz about, restaurants are empty.
Alex Jones [presenter]: The traffic, actually, has been very good today.
JC: Airports, people streaming through with no problems at all. And it's also like being back in the 70s. It makes me feel at home somehow.
MB: Do you know anyone who has been on strike today?
JC: Of course I don't, no... No, I don't. No, absolutely. But we have to balance this though, because this is the BBC.
MB: Yes, exactly.
JC: Frankly, I'd have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living?