Adrian Chiles: Why ITV want the Beeb's bloke
The most popular Brummie on British television is currently presenting three hit BBC shows and being aggressively courted by its commercial rival. He tells Ian Burrell how his nightly magazine programme, 'The One Show', made him a bankable star
Monday 07 April 2008
In spite of – or perhaps because of – the fact that he has just completed an eye-watering 355-mile cycle ride across England for Sport Relief with the former England captain Alan Shearer, Adrian Chiles has ordered a motorcycle courier to ferry him around West London.
He has a lot of journeys to make and not much time in which to make them. For Chiles is one of the most in-demand figures in British broadcasting, currently hosting three major BBC shows while weighing up the offer of a small fortune from ITV to cross the great television divide.
Chiles, who turned 41 last month, agrees to meet in a wine bar within the BBC's Media Village, ahead of working on the script for The One Show, the surprise-hit magazine programme that has revitalised the BBC1 early-evening schedule and also sent the presenter's market value soaring.
When he has written his script he must jump on the motorbike and head for Riverside Studios to rehearse an episode of the new series of The Apprentice: You're Fired! before racing back to film The One Show live, then back to Riverside for the actual recording of You're Fired!
Chiles, who has two young children and is married to the Radio 4 Woman's Hour presenter Jane Garvey, unwinds on Sunday evenings by hosting Match of the Day 2 for BBC2.
He arrives clutching a pink shirt for the studio but wearing a khaki green jumper that suggests he is not quite as worried about being mistaken for the survivalist presenter Ray Mears as he has previously suggested, though he orders a Caesar salad, rather than bush meat. "I've a ravenous desire for a glass of wine. I've got a huge day ahead of me," he says.
Not since the golden days of motel odd-job man Benny Hawkins has a TV star made such a virtue of a Brummie accent and, just like the soap character, Chiles is at the crossroads. Should he go straight ahead, developing his 15-year relationship with the BBC and building on the success of The One Show, his first big peak-time success? Or should he sign the most lucrative deal of his life, one reputedly worth £6m?
"You fall into the same clichés that footballers come out with all the time and that I talk about on Match of the Day 2," says Chiles, sticking to the line he has held until now. "I'm flattered at the interest but very happy where I am, etcetera, etcetera. All of that basically does apply."
But he's not finished speaking. "It's a next to impossible decision to have to make and I still don't know what that decision is," he says. He has not ruled ITV's offer out? "No, no, far from it."
So what is it he has to weigh up? "ITV would let me carry on doing The One Show, the BBC wouldn't let me do The One Show and do [ITV football coverage]. It's one or the other. They have put me in a position and it's got to be one or the other. I understand their argument but nobody likes being backed into a corner."
The key advantage in staying at the corporation is greater security, as opposed to "having more eggs in one basket at ITV", he believes.
"I've always had insurance policies, always had two jobs, by happy accident really. I was doing radio and telly and now I'm doing different types of telly. There's not much crossover between The One Show audience and the Match of the Day 2 audience. If one goes you'll still have the other one."
But then again... "the advantages [of going to ITV] are also many. I'd be top dog in terms of doing their football. And there'd be factual stuff that would become available that I could do as well. And obviously Peter Fincham [ITV director of television] being there is a huge pull because executives always tell you 'I think you're fantastic' but I know he rates me because he asked me to do The One Show in the first place."
Chiles, who began his BBC career as a radio journalist specialising in business reporting, had been at the corporation for many years by the time Fincham arrived from the commercial sector as the new controller of BBC1 in 2005. Though Chiles already had a Sony Gold radio award to his name and was building his presence around the fringes of the television schedules, Fincham spotted something more: he decided to make Chiles the focus of one of the biggest commissioning gambles the BBC has ever made.
"I remember Peter Salmon, who was a controller of BBC 1, saying to me, 'respect to Peter Fincham – I would never have had the balls to commission something that big'. You've committed to making 250-odd shows for a year. There's not much wiggle-room there, is there?"
The One Show goes out five nights a week, employs four production teams and a huge roster of reporters that includes celebrity names such as Phil Tufnell, Carol Thatcher, Dan Snow and Hardeep Singh Kohli. Chiles is the star, presenting alongside co-host Christine Bleakley, who he now calls on his mobile and invites over to the wine bar.
The 2006 pilot of The One Show featured Chiles alongside Nadia Sawalha. He was given a crack at presenting on his own but "it just didn't bloody work". When it launched properly in July last year, he was paired with Myleene Klass but something was missing until Bleakley was brought in from Northern Ireland.
Chiles admits that the first months were "painful" as the show struggled to find its audience. Fincham came across with some advice about the tone. "He said it was too cool for school, too arch and clever – a bit like a party you hadn't been invited to. We hadn't earned the right to be so self-reverential," remembers Chiles. "You'd get the odd puff of smoke out of [Fincham's] chimney and half the time you'd want to mortar bomb his office and then a couple of times you'd think, 'Oh, he might have something there.'"
So the writing, much of which Chiles himself takes great pride in, was pared down. He avoided being "sardonic, laconic, sarcastic" and the audience began to grow, up from 2.8 million to more than 5 million. Fincham came back to see his presenting team, unaware that days later he would be forced to resign after the scandal over the Queen trailer. "He gave Christine a big bunch of flowers and she was really chuffed," remembers Chiles. "That was on the Monday and before the flowers had wilted he was on his way by the Friday. We were just sitting and looking at the flowers."
It is a big ask to go up against ITV1's Emmerdale and the BBC has done intensive research in targeting The One Show's audience. Asked to define the viewership, Chiles says it's the "biggest available audience" then pauses and, typically, tells it as it is: "...basically it's an older audience." So when presenting he keeps in mind "a couple in late middle age, 55-60, who want something to watch on the telly". He says: "My knee-jerk reaction would be to have a load of stuff about haemorrhoid plugs but that would be a terrible mistake. These were people who were only 35 when Madonna first came on the scene, they're young at heart."
The One Show can have 200 pieces under production, on all manner of subjects. Following an item on pensions, Chiles felt obliged to ask ageing rock star studio guest Joe Walsh of The Eagles about his own savings plans. "He said: 'Well, ah nevah thought ahd live this long.' That was his sole contribution."
At the end of last year Chiles had to follow a studio interview with the sister of OJ Simpson murder case victim Ron Goldman, with a link to the turning on of some spectacular Christmas lights at a residential house in Staffordshire. "It was a shambles, like a scene from Little Britain," says Chiles of the outside broadcast. "Production-wise everything went entirely wrong. I looked round and saw Ron Goldman's sister, who hadn't smiled for 15 years and she had tears rolling down her cheeks."
Bleakley, who is now sitting at the end of the table, says the show is not meant to be too challenging. "I think it's all about being relaxed. It's the time at 7pm. If I was sitting at home I wouldn't want to be pushed in any way, yes you want to think about what you're watching but you've just had the news and maybe you're making the dinner and trying to get kids to bed. You don't want anything overly stressful, but a companion, a bit of a friend."
She notes that Chiles was sent "arse cream" by a viewer concerned for his comfort during the charity ride. "Calamitously I forgot to take it with me. We had to stop the whole convoy on the A19, so I could get something from the physio to put on my cobblers. He came with this knacker cream and it was absolutely show-stopping stuff."
Chiles has lost so much weight that a recent The One Show appearance alongside a troupe of over-size Russian ballerinas might have earned him a cover of Heat alongside a headline saying "For God's sake Adrian, eat!"
Yet his MOTD2 persona is less sporty and more half-time meat pies. "I'm no football expert, I read the game very badly. I watch an enormous amount of football but when [pundit and ex-player] Lee Dixon tells me what's been going on it's like the fog clears," says Chiles, who nonetheless has an empathy with the fans.
"Lee says I'm his 'idiotometer' because if he can explain something to me he knows he's getting to the audience. I will ask him a question if I don't know the answer, which is something [Match of the Day presenter] Gary [Lineker] can't do. I mean, Gary's got great advantages over me, he's been a football legend which I haven't but you kind of bring another perspective to it."
This brings us back to ITV, which he compliments for its live football coverage, noting its new rights to FA Cup and Champions League games. "But if I do it I'd have to do it differently, subvert things a little bit otherwise there's no point in me doing it. Subvert is the wrong word but you know what I mean? There's a way of approaching football which I've always tried to do. I do take it incredibly seriously, West Brom absolutely govern my life. But at the same time I do know that it doesn't amount to a string of beans. So you can be absolutely deadly serious about something but completely take the piss out of it at the same time."
Though he is clearly ambitious, he is consciously trying to avoid being on TV too much, reluctantly agreeing to do You're Fired! again because someone else presenting the show would have felt like an act of adultery.
Every Adrian Chiles article seems to use the phrase down-to-earth. But he's also someone who knows his worth. "Everything I've done in the past has been niche but with something like The One Show, getting a factual programme to deliver in peak time, that's the school of hard knocks that is. That's really, really hard," he says. "Now I suppose commissioners are bound to like me more because I've had a hand in delivering a big audience."
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