Did you say Big Breakfast?

What started with snap, crackle and pop long ago laid an egg. Where Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin cocked a doodle-doo and Paula Yates was great in bed, Sharron Davies sank without trace. Is it too late to bring home the bacon? By Ann Treneman
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The Independent Online
The producer of The Big Breakfast has a little problem, and he is not shy about mentioning it: he thinks I may be writing the wrong story. You know, the negative one. The one that says that The Big Breakfast is a goner, and that it is only a matter of time before Channel 4 decides to change its morning diet. "Six months ago they might have had a case, but no longer," declares Duncan Gray.

We are sitting in the show's bedroom, surrounded by leopard-skin. Behind us is the bed, piled high with enough fake wildcat to make Hugh Hefner feel at home. This is a celebrity mattress - Madonna reclined here, and Paula Yates famously fell in love - but a quick check under the cover reveals that there are no sheets. Standards are dropping; Paula would never have allowed such a thing.

This, of course, is exactly the kind of negativity that should be avoided. The story is not the sheets (or lack thereof), but the future. Unfortunately, this may be just as bare as the mattress. Last week Michael Jackson strode into his new job as chief executive of Channel 4 and smothered the programme in kindness. "The Big Breakfast has been an absolute landmark format. Everyone has learned from it ..." he said. "Obviously no programme likes to fade, and there may be a time when we want to rethink it."

What this means, according to one insider, is that Mr Jackson is not all that keen on a programme that lost much of its snap, crackle and pop when presenters Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin left, but that he has other priorities for now. Certainly his comments sound worryingly similar to those of Peter McHugh, director of programmes for GMTV: "The Big Breakfast was a brilliant concept, brilliantly executed, but it may be that it's past its sell-by date."

The knives have been out for some time - and they are not the kind for spreading butter on the show's never-ending toast. Half-a-dozen production companies are said to be standing ready to mount rival bids. The rumours are not helped at times by the show itself. At one point last week Vanessa Feltz was interviewing an ageing pop star on the bed, and it all looked so very mumsy and dated.

Amid all this, three things stand out as fact. The first is that the Big Breakfast's pounds 11m rolling contract with a 12-month notice period has not been cancelled. "We were surprised and relieved, frankly," said a GMTV spokeswoman, "because it's obviously not working, and is not offering any real competition." But, whatever the spin from the competition, this is good news for the show's creators, Planet 24, and the 300 or so people who are directly employed in making it.

The second is that ratings have gone up since Duncan Grey arrived in January. Last autumn the number of viewers dipped below 600,000. It then went up to 800,000, and then to 900,000. Channel 4 says it reached the 1 million mark last week. Arts and entertainment controller Stuart Cosgrove told Broadcast that he was "excited" by the trend: "We're not entirely out of the woods, but the decline has been halted."

Finally, many of the show's critics admit that they have not seen the show for a while, other than for the odd moment or two. "They simply do not watch the show now," says Waheed Alli, a director of Planet 24 along with Bob Geldof and Charlie Parsons. "The audience is increasing, and we are excited about things here."

A visit to the House - the lock-keeper's cottage that serve as the show's Pop art set - reveals this to be incorrect: they are over-excited about things here. The House is crazy - there is no toilet, a spaceship in the playroom and a bag of sugar in the freezer - but it needs to be. Anarchy is fuelled by enthusiasm, and that is hard to fake.

If you dropped in last Friday you would have seen Zita the tongue-reader peering into three men's mouths. Alan's tongue is proclaimed to be hot, Rick's swollen, and Roger's dry. "So would you like to snog him?" demands presenter Denise Van Outen, to snorts of laughter. In another corner stands a man called Stan, who is keeping his tongue out of sight. His job is to guard the pounds 22,000 FA Carling trophy. There are more dangerous places for the trophy to be than The Big Breakfast show, but not many. He looks relieved when it is returned to his white-gloved care amid great clapping and cheering.

Duncan Gray says bluntly that his task when he arrived as producer four months ago was to save the show. "I was in at the beginning as a 22-year- old researcher, and if anyone knows his show, it is me. I know what you need to make it work again in 1997," he says.

First he worried away as the content. This may be fluff TV, but it needs to be relevant fluff TV. "It isn't a heavyweight show, but it is a topical, news-driven entertainment. We need to be talking about the things that are happening today, and those things are really different for our viewers than for the BBC and GMTV." So when Liam and Patsy almost got married, the entire show was done with one camera and a deck outside their house. When Kevin Keegan left Newcastle, The Big Breakfast found the fan who was a singing nun and had her warbling before the credits rolled.

He believes it is the format, not the presenter, that makes the whole thing work. This is convenient for him, because presenters have come and gone with alarming speed. Nor is he hung up on finding the new Chris Evans. "Look, the guy is the most talented broadcaster of his generation, and so looking for the next Chris Evans is a bit silly because you could be looking for years."

Instead he talks of Denise Van Outen. Denise fell out of the weather helicopter and on to the fuchsia sofa a few months ago. This is 22, dressed as if in a perpetual Wonderbra advert, and looks to be rather talented. "In two years' time that girl will have her own Saturday night prime time show," he says. Channel 4 is already planning to use her in a new slot to cover fashion, pop and young culture.

Expect more changes. Duncan Gray says that he has done only 25 per cent of his job so far, and that a new, revamped look is coming next. But none of this will do the trick if it really was Chris Evans - and not the format - that made the show work. This is what William G Stewart, veteran producer and a master of enthusiasm television, believes. He predicted years ago that The Big Breakfast would not see its fifth birthday, and that happens this autumn. "I stand by that. I will be very surprised if it makes it past September. It was meant to be different from everything else, and it has now become a caricature of itself."

Duncan Gray predicted something else entirely - a bit of a celebration, I suspect - and says the Breakfast is the best kept secret in television. If so, all the more reason to invest in some leopard-skin sheets and get some hot new guests to loll upon them. After all, you never know who may be watchingn