A binge too far: Virgin sacks Chris Evans for 'breach of contract'

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The Independent Online

Chris Evans, Britain's most loved and loathed media personality, was sacked from his job at Virgin Radio yesterday after failing to turn up for work for five consecutive days.

In spite of being pictured on drinking binges while supposedly sick, Mr Evans claimed he was genuinely ill. His masters in the City decided they had had enough. A statement issued by Virgin Radio ­ a company he used to own ­ said simply: "Chris Evans has been in breach of his contract and Virgin Radio was left with no option but to terminate it."

In a reference to his highly publicised drinking sessions, it said: "It is not just the events of the last week, although his high-profile absence from work has obviously brought it to a head. We are all sad that it has ended this way, but Chris clearly has not been focused on his show."

Behind the statement lies a deep rift at the station over Mr Evans's show, the choice of music he could play and the future direction in which Virgin's owner, the Scottish Media Group (SMG), wants to take it. SMG bought Mr Evans's Ginger Media Group, which included Virgin Radio, last year for £225m; yesterday, there was initially concern in the City that while it still owned the group, it had let its biggest asset ­ Mr Ginger himself ­ go. By the end of the day, however, media analysts were suggesting the group was better off without him.

Mr Evans, who uncharacteristically eschewed media attention with his wife, the 18-year-old pop singer Billie Piper, had seen the writing on the wall but declared himself upset by his impending dismissal.

He has not done badly from his experiences, however. His deal with SMG netted £38m of his £77m fortune while, in truth, his popularity had been on the wane.

Many in the City had felt the partnership was always destined to end in tears. When the SMG board announced in January last year that it was to buy Ginger, Granada, one of its shareholders, expressed grave concern. Granada's chairman, Gerry Robinson, was said to have been worried by the mercurial nature of Ginger's premier asset ­ could Evans be relied upon? The answer after 18 months, appears to be "no".

Yesterday, in an interview with The Mirror, Mr Evans said that it had been artistic disagreements over the style of his Virgin breakfast show and its playlist that forced him out. He claimed there was too much interference, thought to have been from Paul Jackson, recently appointed head of Virgin Radio. But Mr Evans's commitment to a show that required him to rise at 4am must also have been in doubt.

"He's only been married for a month and he's having too much of a good time to care as much as he did," said one executive who used to work with him. "With all that money in the bank, aged just 35, with a beautiful young wife, lots of celebrity friends and a penchant for a drink, it's amazing he's managed to get out of bed to go to work for so long."

In spite of being pictured in tabloid newspapers this week drinking heavily in pubs and shopping for alcohol while missing Virgin's breakfast show, Mr Evans claimed yesterday that he was genuinely ill. He said he had been asked to leave in return for a £3m pay-off, an offer he found insulting. "I feel hurt," he said. "This is just totally unfair. I am the best DJ in Britain and I have worked my guts out for these people. Now they repay me with this. They offered me a lump sum payment of £3m to quit now. This is supposed to cover the last tranche of five million shares they owe me for the deal when SMG bought my company.

"But the current share price is £1.60 and it's been as high as £3.75 so they know if I accept this offer they will be saving themselves up to £15m. The offer is supposed to mean that I don't talk to anyone or do any work until next March. But they can stuff that.

"I don't want their money. I want my freedom and I want to carry on doing the job I love ­ presenting the best show on radio."

Mr Evans grew up on a tough council estate in Warrington. As well as having a mischievous nature, he garnered a sense for business from his parents, who ran a corner shop and a bookmakers. Leaving school at 16, he tried trading in back street markets, busked and worked as a strip-o-gram before gaining casual work at Manchester's Piccadilly Radio where he developed a taste for DJ-ing.

In the late 1980s he moved to London and landed a job as an assistant to Jonathan Ross before finding a slot of his own on the local station GLR under Matthew Bannister, the man who was later to hire him to revive the fortunes of BBC Radio 1. He appeared to turn to gold everything he touched, orchestrating the successful launch of Channel 4's Big Breakfast and TFI Friday, but it was the latter that conflicted with his Radio 1 breakfast show and resulted in his sacking in 1997.

In each case, Evans presided over increases in ratings but left as the ratings began to drop.

In 1997, he raised £85m to buy Virgin Radio from Sir Richard Branson. Part of the draw for investors was that he would present the breakfast show. Initially, he presided over a 20 per cent increase in listeners and took the programme to a peak audience of 4.7 million. By last week, however, it had fallen to just 1.74 million.

"With all due respect to Chris, the programme wasn't doing very well," said Ben Brewerton, a spokesman for SMG. "No one DJ is bigger than any station. Radio 1 survived and prospered after Chris left it, and so will Virgin."

In his Mirror interview, Mr Evans said the station's management had changed its music policy four times in 18 months. A close friend, who asked not to be identified, said: "There have been disagreements about the direction the station is going. In fairness, Chris hasn't met Paul Jackson but his appointment, from Capital Radio, is significant. Capital is a very safe and conservative operation that doesn't take chances; not the sort of operation that would put up with some of Chris's antics.

"His dismissal is a classic case of a corporate culture not being able to manage its creative talent. Virgin Radio without Chris Evans is going to be a much-diminished entity."

Yesterday morning, SMG's share price stood at 165.5p; after news of Mr Evans's dismissal, it closed at 171.5p, encouraged by the news that his replacement was Steve Penk, an established and popular former Capital Radio DJ best known for landing a spoof conversation with Tony Blair by pretending to be William Hague. SMG was delighted by the City's reaction but Mr Evans may not feel too offended. He still holds 9.8 million SMG shares, so even on a day when he lost his job and turned down a pay-off he managed to make a £600,000 paper profit.