Chris Evans returns: Uncontrollable impulse versus indestructible talent

Chris Evans is back in the headlines, with 'Top Gear' rumours and a 'TFI Friday' reunion. Jack Seale celebrates the resurrection of a TV presenter who's always on the edge

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Since his days as a "Tarzanogram" in his native Warrington, Chris Evans – "Christoff" to his friends – has been brilliant at what he does, and even better at messing up whatever he's achieved. But now, at the age of 49, he's quietly one of Britain's most talented broadcasters, when once he was obnoxiously so.

"He was like a big ginger tsunami," his first wife, Carol McGiffin, once wrote. By the time Evans and McGiffin actually divorced in 1998, he had become the most powerful entertainer in British TV and radio, and was on the verge of a calamitous meltdown.

Evans is simply a natural mainstream broadcaster, enormously adept at creating and fronting shows that appear as if they happen spontaneously and make the audience feel they are part of a colossal gang. The nation first experienced this in 1992 when he left his weekend Radio 1 show and took a job as co-host of Channel 4's The Big Breakfast.

Soon, Evans realised what power he could wield and how much money he could make. In 1994 he hosted the game show Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, crucially doing so for his own company, Ginger Productions. The format was sold globally, making Evans wealthy, but by then he had landed the Radio 1 breakfast show, increasing its ratings and complaints with a combination of a genius broadcasting imagination and the sort of laddish banter that was dominating British culture at the time.

TFI Friday, a Friday-evening music and chat show, followed in 1996 and was Evans at his best and worst. The show exemplified the braggadocio of the already dying Britpop era, championing now-forgotten bands such as Reef and stodgy Dad-rockers Ocean Colour Scene. Segments such as Fat Lookalikes probably wouldn't be aired today and divided opinion then. But hunt down the very first episode on YouTube: it begins with Evans attempting, and nailing, a suicidally complex first link, walking through the corridors of Riverside Studios in Hammersmith before charging through the audience, never missing a beat.

By the time TFI Friday limped to a close in 2000, Evans had left Radio 1 in a blaze of public arguments and unreasonable demands. He sold his production company in 1999 for £225m, netting Evans £20m, of which he personally gave out £800,000 to Virgin Radio staff in bonuses, having bought the station. His marriage to Billie Piper in 2001 lasted six years and coincided with his lowest professional point, but Evans' book Memoirs of a Fruitcake paints it as a salvation.

In 2007 he married the writer/model Natasha Shishmanian and the modern, settled Evans came into focus. He and Shishmanian decided to start a family, while Evans finally reconciled with his grown-up daughter Jade, ending a long estrangement from her and Evans's former fiancée Alison Ward.

It's now a whole decade since Evans registered his last major tabloid-friendly wobble. He added 1.5 million listeners to his Radio 2 Breakfast Show in the first three months after finally replacing Terry Wogan in January 2010. He's become dependable and consistent without losing his gift for interacting with an audience. In January, he announced that his daughter Jade had given birth to his first grandchild and discussed a prostate cancer scare, live on air.

"He makes the big small, and the small big," says Helen Thomas, who produced all Evans's Radio 2 programmes.

This week Evans let slip that he has been filming "a Top Gear sequence… " Top Gear is synonymous with controversy but whatever happens there, and whatever plans he has for this week's mathematically questionable "20th anniversary" live edition of TFI Friday, the prospect of Evans once again pressing self-destruct now seems as remote as the idea of a stable Chris Evans did 20 years ago.