Radio: A perfect but slender talent for the petty

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There was a baffling sentence in one newspaper profile of Chris Evans last week - something about how people who call him a genius wonder why he doesn't do something more "substantial". Is anybody, you wonder, really that stupid - not stupid enough to call Evans a genius (how else do you describe his wit and unerring populism?), but stupid enough to think that he's remotely capable of anything substantial? Evans's talent, slender but perfect, is for the petty and the pointless. For him to attempt to apply it to something "substantial" would be about as sensible as a master of the three-minute pop melody trying to write an hour-long symphonic poem.

Evans is, above all, a big kid, and what delights us is the childish pleasure he takes in his own importance. It's that streak of childishness which makes it hard to be outraged by his excesses. If Jim Davidson, say, asked a woman colleague to fax him a photo of her breasts, it would be revoltingly sexist; with Evans, you merely feel as you would with a 14- year-old: it's very naughty but - well, boys will be boys.

Children are not always attractive, of course, especially when they have been spoilt. Earlier this week, Evans turned over large chunks of his new breakfast show on Virgin to griping at Matthew Bannister and Radio 1, and it wasn't pretty - the term isn't part of conventional critical vocabulary, I know, but the appropriate response to this brattish exhibition is surely "Diddums".

The critical vocabulary proves even less useful when one tries to pin down something like Evans's "Dr Bongo" feature, in which listeners - mostly women - call in to be cheered up, and are subjected to a stream of mild suggestiveness ("I can make you happy, baby") in a cod Caribbean accent; this is followed by a short burst of bongo-playing. There's no doubt that the joke exploits some unpleasant prejudices, but I don't think it panders to them: the humour lies in the listener's embarrassment, and in Evans's evident satisfaction in creating it. On this week's showing, Evans needs to work on the smugness and the distressing tendency to take himself too seriously. But if you're asking, "Is he still a genius?" the answer is "Oh, yes, I think so."

Over on the much-maligned Radio 1, Kevin Greening and Zoe Ball are rather less: less characterful, less compelling, but also less solipsistic, less off-putting. So far, Ball is the dominant partner - Greening, who's always had a shy, even monkish side, seems to withdraw in the face of her assertive "bubbliness". A little more of his irony would be nice, but the blend is still surprisingly effective, and better attuned to a traditional Radio 1 breakfast audience than Mark and Lard were.

Mark and Lard, meanwhile, have shifted over to the afternoons, occupying the space vacated by Nicky Campbell. He in turn has taken over The Magazine on Radio 5 Live (Monday to Friday), where he has been displaying a mixture of sententiousness, plodding demagoguery and sycophancy. Things reached their nadir yesterday morning with a phone-in on the subject of banning paedophiles from parks and public places. Campbell's strategy, it's clear, is to act as the people's tribune - in other words, to figure out the most popular point of view and stick to it. The effect is to confine debate to the most primitive tabloid responses. At one point yesterday Campbell rounded on the lone libertarian he had in the studio and demanded: "Do you have children?" No, she admitted. Uh-huh, said Nicky and passed on, evidently convinced he'd scored a significant point.

There was no serious discussion of civil liberties, or of the impracticality of enforcing any exclusion laws; and calls demanding public torture of paedophiles were treated as serious contributions to the debate. Campbell is out of his depth; and, frankly, I wouldn't toss him a lifebelt.

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