A slice of Bacon

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Richard Bacon, as you will probably recall, was sacked from Blue Peter last year for taking drugs (or for going on a "12-hour cocaine binge," as the News of the World put it). It was a brilliantly juicy scandal at the time. Lorraine Heggessey, head of Children's BBC, even went on the box to tell the show's young audience: "Richard has not only let himself and the Blue Peter team down, but he has also let all of you down badly. We have decided that Richard cannot continue to present Blue Peter..." Apparently, children everywhere were asking: "What are drugs, Mummy?" to which, as I understand it, you were not meant to come back with: "Well, since you ask, sweetheart, here's a line I made earlier. Whoa! Save some for your poor old mum!" Still, it was pretty daft of him, wasn't it? Or were you just extremely unlucky, Richard?

"No. I can't just say I was unlucky. That would mean not accepting responsibility for what I'd done. I'd say that I was incredibly stupid to do what I did."

So, why do it?

"Well, it's certainly difficult when your dad asks you that question. I suppose I'd just been exposed to the culture for some time, I used to go to London clubs a lot, and was exposed to the scene. I was offered lines in toilets and I guess I got desensitised and..."

Look, I hate to sound like Nancy Reagan here, but you could have just said "No".

"Absolutely. I put it down to weakness of mind and too much to drink."

Do you miss the show?

"I loved the show. I particularly enjoyed the `makes' because then you didn't have to use the autocue, could be yourself. I made a stable once from an old shoebox and some hay. It was quite cute. I made banana nut bread. I made Mother's Day and Valentine's Day cards."

Richard, tell me honestly now. Did you ever sniff the glue?

"No. I did not!"

Still, he laughs. He is quite good-natured, I think. "My mum's got scrapbooks on how it all started and how it all ended. The one labelled `How Richard lost it' is considerably bigger," he reveals happily. He is very tall (6ft 2in) plus terrifically handsome in one of those brilliantly conventional, knitting-pattern kinds of ways. ("Down, Ross, down.") Still, as I see it, we could never get married because my rabbi just would not let me become "Mrs Bacon" so it'll have to be a long engagement, OK? "OK," he accepts, starting to look slightly frightened. He is wearing carpenters' jeans and a lime-and-navy T-shirt and Nike trainers and a big, fat, trendy G-shock watch. He makes me feel old, until I realise he is still only 23. And I am old. Indeed, as I inform him somewhat unhappily, I have even got to the age where I wouldn't have a sex life at all, if it weren't for the occasional frisk at Heathrow. "Oh, dear," he says, looking rather more frightened now. Further, I continue, I have now even taken to hanging about Heathrow, even when I'm not going anywhere! "Oh, dear," he repeats.

Indeed, I am now so old I can even remember Patch and Petra. And Val and John and Peter. And "down, Shep, down". And Jason, the Siamese. And Freda the tortoise. And milk-bottle tops. And guide dogs for the blind. And how to make Advent calendars. And lots of lifeboats, for some reason. And even Findus Super Mousses, which have nothing to do with anything, but in thinking about Blue Peter I find I can't help thinking about these, too. Richard, however, cannot remember any of these things. He wasn't born until 1976. His Blue Peter was Simon Groom and Tina Heath and the tortoises Maggie and Jim. And he was never especially a fan.

"I think it did go through a slump in the early to mid-Eighties. Too many steel touring bands and girls waving ribbons... it became much faster- paced in the Nineties."

I can see, now, that the unique thing about Blue Peter - aside from its spectacular prissiness and, to my mind, rather misplaced obsession with prizewinning children's clog-dancing teams from Hereford - is its ability to define generations. I had my Blue Peter; Richard had his. My own six- year-old is having his now. He has Katy (with her increasingly mad hairdos) and Konnie and Stuart and Simon and the dogs, Lucy and Mabel, and the cats, Kari and Oki, but no tortoise because the last one, George, escaped in 1988 and hasn't been seen since, which is a shame, because we don't get to do all that annual hibernation stuff any more. Still, my son did get into collecting tons of aluminium for children in Mozambique which, unfortunately and unbeknown to him, I forgot to drop off by the deadline, so just ended up chucking away in the dustbin. But my main point here is that Blue Peter has become such a national treasure that each of us feels massively protective towards it. We don't want it tampered with. We don't want it defiled. True, Richard?

"Yes, absolutely," he agrees. "I was right to be sacked. The BBC had to take a stance and send out the right message." He feels bitterness only, he says, "for the so-called friend who, for complicated reasons, partly financial, decided to set me up."

You were set up? "Yes. Still, it was my fault. I didn't have to take the stuff." How regularly did you take the stuff? "I took it when I went to clubs and things." When did you know the News of the World were on to you? "Well, I'd gone to The Blue Peter 40th anniversary party..."

Really? Did you meet John Noakes?

"Yes, and..."

Does he say "down, Shep, down" as a kind of reflex thing?

"No... as I was saying, I went to the party and came out flanked by other ex-presenters like Anthea Turner and Caron Keating, and there were two photographers just taking pictures of me. I thought something was up because they were ignoring everyone else... the next morning I told my agent and he said: "Is it something to do with women?" And I said: "I don't think so." He put me in touch with Stuart Higgins, ex-editor of The Sun and now a media adviser. Higgins rang round, then called to say: "It's the News of the World, and it's cocaine."

Were you scared? "I dealt with it very well, mentally, I think." Did you cry? "No. I'm not a hugely emotional person. I can't even remember the last time I cried."

The story came out that Sunday, under the headline: "Blue Peter Goody Goody is Cocaine Snorting Sneak". Richard, the story said, had gone on a 12-hour drink and drugs binge during which he not only snorted cocaine at a London night-club and out in the street, but also ended up at a pusher's flat early next morning to ask for more. The next day he was sacked. "They asked me to hand over my BBC ID card, but not my precious Blue Peter badge."

Has he learnt anything from all this? "I think it has made me grow up. Certainly, I don't do drugs any more. And I'm no longer interested in clubs." Oh? "I prefer the cinema."

We meet on the set of Channel 4's The Big Breakfast. You know, that madly painted house on the lock in east London. Richard's got a new job now, and works here as their "roving reporter" which, as far as I can make out, means he has to get up early to knock on people's doors and ask them silly things.

Tomorrow, he reveals excitedly, he will be asking women: "Do you shave your armpits?" Where do we stand on this important issue, I ask. "I'm impartial. I'm a reporter," says Richard. "It depends who the armpit is connected to," says Malcolm, the PR guy, who stays glued to us throughout the entire interview. Richard says: "Will we need a little torch, do you think, to beam up women's sleeves, to see if they're telling the truth?" I say, when you get to my age, anyone going up my sleeve would need a scythe. "Eehh!" he goes. Darling, these things just happen when you get old, I explain. "Eehh!" he repeats, pityingly. I don't think, frankly, I'm going to score today.

He is, he says, enjoying his new job a lot. He didn't work for a couple of months after the scandal because "I didn't want to cash in on my disgrace".

But then Andi Peters, the former children's presenter and now head of youth commissions at Channel 4, invited him in for a talk. "He said: `Coming to Channel 4 would be a good move. How about The Big Breakfast?' I said I'd love to. The show has a very strong image. So I then met the show's boss who said: `Hmm, Bacon. I know, we'll have a spot called Streaky Bacon in which you run up to tell people to take their clothes off!'"

I don't think Richard is an especially profound thinker. I ask if he ever reads, and he says no, not really. "Someone recently told me I had to read The Beach, that I wouldn't be able to put it down. But half-way through I was so bored I couldn't be bothered to pick it up!" Still, he is only 23.

Richard Bacon was born and brought up in Nottingham. His childhood ambition, he says, was always to be on television one day. Why? Because, he says, his father, a prominent solicitor, was often interviewed by Central TV, "which I found very exciting". And because he once saw Caron Keating filming a Blue Peter outside broadcast. "I was about 10, and Caron was gorgeous. I always had dreams it would be me one day."

He started off at Radio Nottingham while still at school, first as a researcher for the Saturday night evening programme, then as a weekend news reporter then, finally, as a full-time news reporter before moving to the cable channel L!ve TV, as a presenter.

L!ve TV, which is owned by The Mirror and is so good that absolutely nobody watches it, was, he says, a good experience.

His best moment, he says, was when he was dispatched to cover the opening of Parliament with the News Bunny and was wearing, for some reason, a latex mask of Prince Charles and a blond wig. The police complained, and in their later report said L!ve TV representatives had said: "We are going to report the state opening of Parliament with a man wearing a rabbit suit in the foreground and the soldiers and carriages in the background."

Richard was expelled from the location, and then banned. He thinks this a shame because "it would have been really funny to see News Bunny alongside the Queen's car." He has a brilliant tabloid mentality himself, I think, which is why, perhaps, he can so cheerfully accept what happened to him.

He applied for the Blue Peter job when he heard Tim Vincent had resigned. He has always been fantastically ambitious, and immediately rushed over his CV and show reel. For his audition he had to jump on a trampoline, handle a snake and make a Christmas card. "It was a house, cut from pink card. You had to outline the window shapes with glue, then sprinkle on glitter, shake the glitter off..."

When he told his mum he'd got the job "she jumped up and down with excitement. You know, the show is an institution." And when he told her he'd lost it? "She was upset, but supported me. And my dad, too." I wonder if, since his departure, he's heard of any plans to, say, turn Mabel into a sniffer dog, so that she can vet Konnie and Katy and Stuart and Simon when they arrive on set in the mornings. "No. I haven't," he says. But, again, he laughs heartily.

There is nothing evil about Richard Bacon. He isn't messed up. He doesn't seem to have any deep psychological problems. He did the coke because, quite simply, he fancied it. The only problem, if there is one, is that he is 23. And my problem? Only that, if I don't wind this up now, I'm going to miss the last airport bus to Heathrow. And, at my age, that just would not do. As I'm sure you'll understand.