Do we need Chris Evans?

He's brash, he's rude and he's hot property on radio and TV. But, John Lyttle, asks ...
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I comb through the clippings on this colourful figure who has given me and the Great British public so much pointed pleasure, and I clock the quotation and am reminded of how I used to feel and what I'm now reluctantly beginning to believe. I'm not sure how to react. Laugh? Wince? Sneer? Or should I cut out the article and send it to Radio 1 (where he hosts the breakfast show) or Channel 4 (where he fronts TFI Friday, a music, chat and game show) or Ginger Productions (the multimillion-pound TV company that he owns). Or maybe I should DHL it to Freud Communications, the PR agency charged with overseeing our teetering idol's increasingly split public image, those overworked hired hands who too often crop up in the tabloids with artfully sincere excuses: "He's very sorry," "It won't happen again," "It was a misunderstanding," "It was meant to be a joke ..."

It's tempting. But I suspect it would be a wasted effort. These days, it's obvious that Chris Evans isn't listening to anyone.

If he were lending an ear, he'd have known last month not to ... well, you could take your pick, so let's just go for the most obvious example. He'd have known not to use the airwaves to humiliate a member of his own research staff by broadcasting the details of a pounds 20 expenses fiddle, and then reading out a painful letter of apology to an audience of millions. If he was still in the market for advice from those with his best interests at heart - if he were yet the man once described as being able "to gauge exactly what the audience wants" - he'd have instinctively realised that the person most nakedly exposed was not the poor, dumb fool who altered a restaurant bill from pounds 8.22 to pounds 18.22, but the man behind the microphone, the man whose legendary ill treatment of underlings was once kept (barely) confined to off-air confrontations, but who now behaves as he likes, when he likes and where he likes - yes, even to the point of punching the punishment home: "Listeners, this is not a wind-up."

Back to that quotation. The words I came across date from 1993, not that long ago, really - which only serves as a reminder of how quickly media "personalities" can forget themselves (their original selves, that is). So let's hear it from Paula Yates, Chris Evans' then co-presenter on Channel 4's Big Breakfast show, a mere year into our cheeky red-headed motormouth's elevation to national fame: "Oh Chris!" said Paula, "Chris is Mr Throbby Love Gusset. He's nice to work with, but he nearly kills himself trying not to upset people."

Paula - he got over it. The spontaneous barbs and cruelly accurate one- liners that used to display not just a second-to-none savvy grasp of pop culture but also an off-kilter charm that made Evans nigh on impossible to resist are fast devolving into arrogance and self-righteousness. Wasn't Chris Evans meant to be Mr Good Times? ("Don't call," as he used to say on The Big Breakfast, "it's just for fun ...")

Let me take you through a typical working week for Chris Evans: the children's television host Andi Peters is branded as "talentless"; celebrity sports pundit David Mellor dismissed as a "joke" who "knows nothing about football"; Anthea Turner's latest TV vehicle denounced as "total shit". And so on. It's not that one might quarrel with the assessments. It's that from the quickest kid in the class - and that's how Evans once justifiably viewed himself - one still expects stiletto wit, not crude verbal mugging that manages (erroneously) to suggest that Evans is somehow sacrosanct, wholly separate from such louche Light Entertainment performers, but at the same time hinting at an insecurity so deep-rooted that not even a shelf full of Bafta and Variety Club and Broadcasting Press Guild awards can stop it from raging out of control.

Insecurity? The constant complaint against Chris Evans is invariably the opposite: that he has a rampant ego. To which his supporters might retort that he's got a lot to be rampantly egotistical about. After humble beginnings on a northern housing estate and being hired and fired from some 23 previous forms of employment (including a stint as a Tarzan-o- gram) before landing a job as a tea-boy on Manchester's Piccadilly Radio (courtesy of then-hero Timmy Mallett), Evans has shot from provincial pipsqueak to big noise at warp speed. Today, at the age of 30, he is probably the most highly paid star on British television and radio (Cilla Black and Noel Edmonds might give him a run for his money).

The numbers are impressive. Paid pounds 10,000 a week in 1992 for the Big Breakfast, he then landed a slot on Virgin Radio for pounds 1,700 a show (he bowed out after seven weeks) before being wooed to a ratings-desperate Radio 1 by controller Matthew Bannister. The initial contract was for eight months at pounds 400,000; top-ups eventually added a cool million to that, although in 1995 rumours suggesting a further three-year deal at pounds 1m a year did the rounds. And this is before we pause to consider his Channel 4 obligations. Michael Grade paid a flat pounds 1.3m for his signature, and the wholesale international franchising of the wacko Don't Forget Your Toothbrush has generated further revenues of a million plus. The latest number from Evans' Ginger Productions, TFI Friday, promises to add yet more zeros to a personal fortune estimated at pounds 5m.

And he was worth every penny. What Kenny Everett and Steve Wright individually pioneered - mass-appeal zaniness and the successful transplantation of American radio's "zoo" format - Evans updated for a younger, hipper Nineties, with an added twist. With Evans the irreverence seemed less a matter of formula and was solely about him: the much-trumpeted maverick, the wide boy with brains who also happened to be the bloke in the street. He didn't despise mass taste (remember, Timmy Mallet was his hero); he understood how it worked, and would defend it against "Them" - dull and unimaginative authority. It was very seductive. Even Evans's unprepossessing appearance worked for him. What would have smacked of undiluted laddism in other hands was defused by the heavy specs, carrot top and skinny body. New lad of Revenge of the Nerds. Whatever, it worked. Mums and grans loved him, too.

You wonder what they make of him now: the screaming at BBC security guards ("Don't you know who I am"), the non-appearances at work (drunk - fined pounds 7,000), awards ceremonies, guest DJ gigs, the threatening of non-responsive studio members after the pilot for Toothbrush bombed ("If any of you fuck this up for me, I will drag you up and humiliate you so much you'll wish you had never come"), the dumped wife, the string of girlfriends, chosen, squired and dropped, the countless complaints to the BBC and the Independent Television Commission about smut and bad language (bad to some, downright tedious to others), even the way his toaster set off the smoke alarms at Broadcasting House five times in one week and he clearly didn't give a damn.

It would be easy to lump Evans's current troubles under the cliche "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", and there may be a touch of truth in it. In the new media free market that Evans in many ways encapsulates, control over hot properties has shifted away from the institutions to those who deliver the ratings. Which is why Radio 1's Controller, Matthew Bannister, might call Evans in for what we are assured is a carpeting, but insiders know is a futile exercise. Bannister must endure Evans's transgressions and broken promises, just as Michael Grade, head of Channel 4, has to swallow TFI Friday's third breach of taste and decency guidelines in six weeks, fighting off alleged ITC demands for Evans's sacking by promising to pre-record a vehicle whose whole point was to be live. Evans may offend others - but their prime objective is not to offend Evans. But the Evans of old wouldn't have offended; no, not even while breaking wind on camera, deliberately spilling the beans on old chum Gaby Roslin's wedding day or refusing to spin Michael Jackson's "Scream" ("It's crap"). He walked a fine line with consummate skill. His wit worked wonders and when it didn't, he had reasons, arguments that were both sharp and sound, even when you disagreed. The other thing power does is convince you your word is law: you no longer need to explain yourself, and as everything you say must be right, then everything you do must be right, too. So you churn out the same old stuff (witness TFI Friday - it's not live, it's dead) and no one dares tell you you've crossed the line, that you are no longer cracking, but simply crude.

This makes Chris Evans sound lazy when he's not. He works hard for the money and he cares about what bears his trademark - he says that's why he's sometimes too tough on the staff around him. But the boy whose childhood fear was to be "insignificant" has raced too far in the opposite direction. He's spread too thin and achingly tired, in every sense of the word. Chris, you're a treasure, but it's time to give it - and yourself- a well-deserved rest.

career notes

Chris

Evans

1966 Born Warrington, Cheshire, son of a hospital clerk and a nurse.

1987 Teaboy at Manchester's Piccadilly Radio. A local garage boss takes pity on Evans when he hears DJ Tim Grundy shouting at him on air, and gives him a Skoda with "Tim Grundy's Coffee Boy" written on the side. Finds a mentor in DJ Timmy Mallett, and graduates to DJ.

1988 Has a child, Jade, with lover Alison Ward, but it fails to cement the relationship. Moves to Greater London Radio as a producer and DJ to host his own show, Round at Chris's.

1989: Presents BSkyB's short-lived TV show Pirates.

1991 Marries radio producer Carol McGiffin, and is contracted by TV-am for a 40-week series called TV Mayhem. It is cancelled after just 7 weeks. Joins Radio 1 to host the Sunday show Too Much Gravy.

1992 Hits the nation's screens as presenter of Channel 4's offbeat early morning show The Big Breakfast.

1993 Separates from his wife. Has affair with singer Kim Wilde, then begins relationship with ex-model Rachel Tatton Brown.

February 1994

Launch of game show, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. Contract for his two C4 shows thought to be pounds 1.5m a year.

September 1994 Leaves The Big Breakfast.

April 1995 Receives two BAFTA awards for Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. Splits with Rachel Tatton-Brown. Begins new breakfast show for Radio 1, on eight-month contract worth pounds 400,000. Controller Matthew Bannister offers him pounds 1m when audience research reveals the show is attracting 2 million more listeners.

May 1995 Row with Sony when he refuses to play Michael Jackson's hyped comeback single Scream at the time appointed by record bosses.

December 1995 Gives airplay to the Mike Flowers Pops' kitsch cover of Oasis's Wonderwall, which wins them a record deal and propels the song to No.2. Has his pay docked when he fails to turn up to his show after a Christmas office binge.

February 1996 Launch of Channel 4 tea-time show TFI Friday. Hosts this year's Brit Awards, during which Jarvis Cocker comically interrupts Michael Jackson's performance of Earth Song, and is named Radio Personality of the Year by the Variety Club.

April 1996 ITC warns Channel 4 after the 22 March edition of TFI Friday is peppered with expletives delivered by singer Shaun Ryder. This is claimed to be the show's third breach of the ITC's taste and decency guidelines in six weeks.

SCOTT HUGHES

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