The Week In Radio: The doubters keep knocking on Evans' door
Thursday 18 March 2010
Chris Evans says that he is woken up every morning with a telephone message that gives him a "word of the day". The other day it was Armageddon. Leaving aside the ominous vibe of having someone whisper "Armageddon" in your ear at the crack of dawn, you have to ask what kind of person actually chooses to be woken with an electronic vocabulary update. You'd have to be an autodidact, certainly, and an eccentric. And undoubtedly someone who has a serious penchant for electronic gimmickry.
This little insight into Chris's psyche matters, because the amount of people whispering "Armageddon" about The Chris Evans Breakfast Show is gathering pace. Since he took over from Wogan in January there have been more than 650 complaints to the BBC, and his curious decision to take a week off just six weeks after starting the show, invited more outrage. That was a little rich, given that his replacement Richard Allinson, the herbal tea to Evan's Red Bull Max, was then applauded by the Chris-haters for his soothing bedside manner. But the BBC message boards – not a hugely reliable indicator of listeners' opinion but a guide to what gets them disgruntled – reveal one overwhelming dislike. The show is cluttered with more games and gimmicks than a toyshop at Christmas. There is the megaphone message, Hello Goodbye, the cute kid, the wrong bongs, the cockerel, the fanfares, the canned applause. Among these, while Chris frolics, a legion of listeners flinch.
I hate all these gimmicks too, but here's the curious thing. I can't listen to Evans without loving him. His intelligence, his kind, unpatronising way with children, the way he plays The Candy Man on Fridays to cheer people up. One of the difficulties for the BBC is that at a time when it is determined to refocus on the needs of Radio 2's post-50 audience, the Breakfast Show risks alienating the older demographic who long for Terry's more intimate tones. Indeed, Chris revealed last week that Wogan had advised him to imagine he was addressing just one friend. It's a good tip. At the moment, he still sounds as if he's addressing a hundred holiday campers on Wacky Saturday. Listeners want less game show and more natural genius.
Getting cross with Chris Evans is one thing, but how about voluntarily closeting yourself with someone whose hateful and ill-informed opinions you detest? I always thought that was called a dinner party, but according to Radio 4, it's a new initiative called Living Books. In this weird Scandinavian venture, which is allegedly taking off in UK libraries, people loan themselves out as "human books" to challenge prejudices. Thus, you can acquire a burglar, a Nazi or a transsexual, and spend a joyful evening ironing out your differences. Exactly which prejudices we want challenged varies from nation to nation. In Canada, the best-selling living books people with Aids sufferer and phone-sex worker, whereas in Hungary the most popular dinner guest is the ex-bank robber. It says it all that in the UK we get drearier roster of police officers, asylum seekers, recovering alcoholics and graffiti artists.
Still, it seems to work for some. As the lady from Wollongong, Australia, remarked when she borrowed a Muslim: "I had a perception that Muslims weren't all terrorists but in Wollongong we didn't have anything to do with them." And to her credit even the presenter Sandi Toksvig, who started out believing that as a bourgeois liberal she didn't have any prejudices, discovered a few in company of an anti-abortionist. Living Books is an odd idea and who knows if it will catch on, but I'm thinking, if the BBC really want people to understand Chris Evans...
Talking of dream dinner parties, one person who would be on my list for certain is Horace Walpole. The Oscar Wilde of his day, wit, epic epistolarian and creator of Strawberry Hill, Walpole is way overdue a revival and A Guided Tour of The Castle of Otranto was a fair introduction. OK, so Otranto, his debut novel, is pretty awful and you wouldn't want to be pitching the plot today. The son of the evil baron Manfred is crushed by a giant helmet on the eve of his wedding, leaving dad to seduce the bride. Freud would have a field day with that helmet, as he would with the hidden passages of the castle, but as Rory McGrath pointed out in this revealing programme, the novel's haunted castle inaugurated an entire school of Gothic literature, from Dracula to Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Rebecca and ultimately of course Hogwarts.
Walpole was fanatical about language and would have loved Chris Evans's Armageddon wake-up call. He personally coined the word "serendipity", to mean chance discoveries of delight – a word so often appropriate to the schedules of Radio 4.
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