Bloke's quest for his chat-up line: Once billed as the new Parkie, Danny Baker has ended up on Pets Win Prizes. Can a new-look talk show rescue his reputation? Rhys Williams reports
Wednesday 14 September 1994
And it was all going so well for Baker. The former punk fanzine creator turned star NME writer (feted alongside Tony Parsons and Paul Morley) had made a sparkling transition to broadcast media. Expertly fielding calls from angry football fans on his Radio 5 phone- in show, Six-O-Six, Baker effortlessly displayed an ability to talk off the cuff for long periods on air and make people laugh.
The embattled station rejoiced in a rare discovery of genuine talent and immediately offered him a talk show every weekday morning. Baker admitted that the Morning Edition 'might be the best thing I ever do'. When Mars and Procter & Gamble (makers of Daz) selected Baker as their advertising front man, it served only to confirm his creeping acceptance by the broadcasting establishment.
All the BBC then wanted him to do was to weave the Radio 5 magic on a larger scale - the same pattern of thought that saw another chat-show host, Terry Wogan, similarly liberated from behind the microphone. How could he fail? After all, here was a man who, according to John Birt, flowed with 'invigorating torrents of thought' and was blessed with the ability to impart them to the dullest of minds (Baker is a lifelong supporter of Millwall).
Parsons, a former colleague at the NME, was only playing back the received wisdom of the time when he said that 'the TV chat show is his natural habitat and he will turn out to be the Michael Parkinson of the millennium'.
Last September, Baker was handed a prime-time Saturday night chat show, Danny Baker After All. Modelled slavishly on the David Letterman Show (as was Jonathan Ross's Last Resort before it), it contained barely a frame of originality. So uncharacteristically nervous and ill at ease was he on air that it was almost as though he was living the discomfort of the crib. Perhaps a programme representing a genre that was being so devastatingly parodied on BBC 2 in the Larry Sanders Show was always going to struggle. After All was caned by the critics and ignored by viewers.
At the same time, Baker was paraded by Matthew Bannister, the controller of Radio 1, as one of the bright new faces in the station's brave new world. He would bring his street chat and eclectic musical tastes to Dave Lee Travis's weekend morning shows.
One critic theorised that Baker had worked well on a station under siege, but wondered whether he could ever be as funny or as sharp when he had to interact with people whose idea of a good time was DLT. In Radio 1's general audience decline, Baker's slot haemorrhaged 750,000 listeners.
Elsewhere on BBC televsion, TV Heroes, a series of 10-minute tributes to the likes of Rolf Harris and John Noakes, was more successful, but Bygones, a Seventies nostalgia gameshow, was axed after one series.
Observers noticed a theme in Baker's work. This paper's television critic pointed out that Baker was not so much tomorrow's Terry Wogan, as today's 'one-trick pony with an incurable strain of verbal diarrhoea' based on a 'nostalgia for the forgettable . . . Obituaries will observe that there is a fine line between celebrating the past and living in it, between deep nostalgia and shallow ideas for wallowing in it, and that Baker was more often than not to be found on the wrong side of the line.'
His qualified success has been Pets Win Prizes, the early Saturday evening gameshow maligned as 'insipid inanity', but edging out ITV for audience share (then again it has been up against Scavengers).
This Saturday night (after Match of the Day), Baker returns to chat with The Danny Baker Show. The executive producer tasked with overseeing Baker's latest bid to get it right is Beatrice Ballard. Her talk-show credentials are impeccable. At LWT she produced Aspel and Company, Gloria Hunniford's talk slot Sunday Sunday, An Audience with Peter Ustinov and shows for Clive James. She moved over to the BBC with James two- and-a-half years ago to develop what became Saturday Night Clive.
In January this year, David Liddiment, BBC TV head of entertainment, invited her to take on Baker's new show. 'Yes, I have done a lot of talk shows - I love them because I'm fundamentally interested in people, but more at the popular end, celebrities if you like. I think Danny fits into that. He's extremely bright, he's got an extraordinary knowledge of popular culture. There's nobody quite like him at the moment, who's got as original a mind.'
Baker's personality will be reflected in the guests invited to come on (all drawn from sport, film and television): Adam 'Batman' West, Keith Chegwin, Terry Venables, Gazza, Sister Wendy Beckett, Jo Brand, Malcolm McLaren, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Hill and so on. Music will be popular in feel, but not necessarily chart-oriented - for example, The Cranberries, Roachford, Del Amitri, Bryan Ferry and, more tangentially, Tony Bennett.
The format is simple: two celebrities, two numbers from musical guests and what Ballard is calling a 'maverick - an ordinary member of the public doing something extraordinary or with an unusual belief'. Already scheduled to appear are a 'real-life Crocodile Dundee' who wrestles crocodiles for a living, and a bloke who catches rats by day, then uses them in his cabaret routines in the evening.
'The spine of the show will be his relationship with public and studio audiences,' Ballard explains. Borrowing from the themes explored in his radio phone-ins, Baker will challenge members of the studio audience to 'tell us about your scar' or get them to admit to appalling gaps in their upbringing - rather like the woman who rang Radio 1 last weekend to say she had never seen a James Bond film and that her video recorder was Betamax.
Baker's apparent obsession with cultural referencing will inevitably punctuate the banter, but perhaps anxious to avoid the sense of generational exclusivity that alienated so many Bygones viewers, or to save Baker from disappearing into his own retrospection, Ballard insists that the focus will be broader.
The interview style, she says, will be direct but not confrontational. And strict rules will govern what guests can do: no appearances on other talk shows first, no shameless plugging of their latest project unless it is of genuine interest (to Baker, at least).
Above all, the programme will entertain. 'When Parkinson started, talk shows were an incredible event. But the genre became far too bland. I think people got bored with an unending stream of celebs plugging their latest work. Then you saw the form being subverted with Jonathan Ross, Clive Anderson and Dame Edna. But now it's come round again,' says Ballard.
'Some people were saying the talk show was dead. That's nonsense. The public fascination for celebrities is never-ending. People will always want to turn on
for entertaining and intelligent conversation.'
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