Five alive: Danny Baker returns to national radio

Having authored scripts for Chris Evans and Jonathan Ross, Danny Baker has written a feature film and is returning to Radio 5 Live. He tells Ian Burrell of his Amercian dream and why football is more theatrical than gags about pies and haircuts
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The Independent Online

" Look at this stuff, look at it!" says Danny Baker walking into a radio studio and groaning beneath boxes and bags stuffed with hundreds upon hundreds of CDs and minidisks. "Nobody in radio has this. These are all me own, every one of these I burnt with me loving hand."

Baker might be a radio presenter, a former Sony Awards DJ of the Year no less, but there are no banging tunes, no underground floor-fillers here. "There's about three weeks there of ludicrous stuff and sound effects. This is not music," he says toying with a burned snippet of music hall comedian Arthur "Hello Playmates!" Askey.

This love for vaudeville is nothing new. When Baker was a star writer on the NME at the height of punk, he made no secret of his tastes. "On the Sex Pistols tour bus I played a Roy Hudd music hall song and they loved it. 'The Hole in the Elephant's Bottom', I remember them all singing along to it. Steve Jones [the Pistols's guitarist] thought it was one of the greatest songs he'd ever heard."

Baker, 51, is a broadcasting paradox and delights in that. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music to rival any chin-stroking nerd but declines offers from network controllers to demonstrate it. He is a Deptford docker's son who resents being typecast as a "chirpy" south London geezer. And he is a terrace veteran who will happily host a national radio show on football, provided there is absolutely minimal content on the so-called beautiful game itself.

So it is that he will this month return to the studios of Radio 5 Live to host the phone-in 606, a show which he first nurtured 17 years ago.

Since 1976, when he and friend Mark Perry founded the most famous of the punk fanzines, Sniffin' Glue, Baker has worked across the British media, writing for the NME and The Times, fronting television shows for the BBC and ITV, broadcasting for Radio 1 and various other parts of the BBC radio network, as well as national commercial stations, Talk and Virgin Radio. Some of these roles have won him awards, others have been what Baker would describe as "dogs" and have lasted weeks.

He is probably not the easiest broadcasting talent to work with, admitting he sometimes can't be bothered to turn up for meetings, but few would doubt his abilities, least of all himself. "I'd never do down what I do, I play a studio like an instrument, I really do. You'll see in there, it's all turning round, it's like Squiddly Diddly."

This reference is classic Baker trivia. Squiddly Diddly, I later discover, is not the Blues musician I'd assumed, a possible relation of Bo Diddley, but an anthropomorphic animated squid in a sailor hat who played multiple instruments simultaneously in a 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon called The Secret Squirrel Show.

Expect more of the same on 606. When Baker made a preliminary return to 5 Live in the summer as part of coverage of the European Championships, he could not resist telling listeners that the German manager Joachim Low shared his surname with a David Bowie record. "You think Low, that's a David Bowie album, what are the other connections Bowie has with this tournament? Does The Dame's shadow loom large over the Euros? The audience was coming in with extraordinary material. If you're a football fan you might say 'Hang on, I want to hear the round up of the Spain game'. Fine, but we're not going to do that."

He intends his show to be "a bulwark against the otherwise preposterous seriousness of the modern game", and certainly doesn't intend to crusade on behalf of fans ("I'm not in any way a football supporters's champion").

"There might once have been a period of taking on the FA blazers. But I'm very aware of cliche and I don't think that would be entertaining anymore," he says. "Football supporters love being victims but if they ever thought they were in charge of football they're insane. In the 1960s, when the old pork butchers ran it, you had no more control over your club than you do now."

No, he says, "it's the high jinxes to be celebrated rather than the dragons to be slain". There is "a lot of humour to be had in football", though not the "sledge-hammer thing about haircuts and pies" that has become the common media interpretation of fans's banter. "It's faux proletarianism of the worst rank. They're living in some kind of Bovril advert from the 1960s. It's like people talking about needing spotless toilets in football grounds, nonsense, if you can't hold yourself for an hour and three quarters you should have a catheter fitted," he complains, adding that "a perfectly legitimate pie story is when you've bitten into one and found Al Jolson's wedding ring, coincidentally it happened away at Blackpool."

A lifelong Millwall supporter, he makes no apology for going to matches more rarely these days. "My only interest in football now is as a theatre, a kind of shared experience. Football and football supporting are two completely different worlds but it has been suffocated by people who think it's all about 4-5-1. I do believe it's a lot less crucial than people make out, in advertising and everything else."

He recounts the story of a former England footballer who "doesn't do joined up writing. That to me is worth 1,000 'Ronaldo leaving' stories" and then tells of a chef who attended a game at Brentford, forgetting that he had his set of 13 razor-sharp knives on his person. "The policeman patted him down and said 'In you go'. The kid behind him had a packet of Stimorol (chewing gum) taken off him."

This unwillingness to discuss 4-5-1 ensured his time presenting on what is now TalkSport ended quickly. "You couldn't do this at Talk. That's too much faux bar room, that kind of thing turns me off altogether, that kind of ballsy smell of men enjoying themselves," he says. "You're not there to bond men, in fact half the time I enjoy alienating people."

He admires Sky's coverage, especially Soccer Saturday. "[Presenter] Jeff Stelling is such a genius. That show is the great football show. It addresses football but not really, it just seems like a terrific place to be." And although he compares ex-footballers commenting on matches to actors reviewing films, he says the Match of the Day "establishment" provides him with an act. "We blow raspberries at Alan Hansen but that's all part of the fun."

Baker is talking in the offices of BBC London 94.9, where for three years he has presented a cult afternoon phone-in. The programme has a dedicated website, The Internet Treehouse, heaving with information on Baker's career, a forum for fans and numerous audio clips. It suggests that the one-time fanzine pioneer lives large online. "That's absolutely nothing to do with me, I'd be insane if I ever went to look at it. They never ever get in touch with us, which is terrific," he says promptly.

He did seriously explore the world of podcasting and he's still bitter about the experience. "The podcast was going to be the brand new future, it was terrific and flying along. But I worked for nine months without getting so much as a rail ticket out of it," he claims, nonetheless expressing pride in the material, especially a skit that put a different footballer's name to every syllable of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.

Despite his confidence in his abilities, he says he is uncomfortable hearing his name on air, which is why he is known at BBC London as "The Candyman", after his Anthony Newley theme tune. "'You're listening to Danny Baker', that makes my toes curl," he says. That said he's hardly a recluse and took his The Candyman Live show to London's Hackney Empire in March, singing the Newley classic to the backing of the BBC Concert Orchestra.

His BBC website carries pictures of Danny and celebrity guests, including old mate Paul Gascoigne and bright sparks Stephen Fry and Richard E Grant. Baker is well connected in media and showbiz circles, partly because of his abilities as a scriptwriter. "That's what I do best," he says. "There's no one I haven't written for. Jonathan Ross, Ricky Gervais, Chris (Evans), Angus Deayton, Jeremy Clarkson, I've written scripts for all of them but I prefer not to, I prefer goofing around on the radio, being a 'Cockney'...aha-ha-ha!"

This is a sore point: he hates being seen as a Pearly King of the airwaves. "It's patronising. I'm still described as 'chirpy'. I'm 51 but you're still [seen as] some kid trying to make his plucky old way," he moans, unchirpily. "Loads of people think I used to be a cab driver. They think I'm Fred Housego! They say 'Not driving the cab anymore then?'"

Baker might have been a Mastermind champion; his brain works so fast he sometimes begins making a second cultural reference before having finished his first point. He grew up in a house where Ivor Novello was appreciated as much as Frank Zappa and respects the past. "People say WC Fields was so ahead of his time! WC Fields wouldn't get a film contract today. Yet people like to think we're smarter and hipper now than we've ever been. We can't possibly be, otherwise newspapers would be full of SJ Perelman, and they're not." He doesn't feel the need to be trendy, not when his first job, aged 14, was working in a record store serving Marc Bolan, Mick Jagger and Elton John. He says he has recently turned down opportunities to work on Radio 2 and BBC 6 Music. "I said to 6, you are not going to want me to do this because I don't like your play list. They play a lot of records, I couldn't bear it. And it's just absurd for me to say 'This is The Ting Tings'."

Baker is now a reader of The Oldie, Private Eye and Mojo. "People forget I'm 51, they think I'm still some wild kid. I'm three months older than Stephen Fry."

He's at his happiest sat at home on the sofa, in his vest, watching telly. "When I'm supposed to be at a high-powered meeting, I want to be indoors with an egg sandwich, watching The World at War."

Even still, he has managed to finish a film script for Paramount about the life of a suit, not a garment that he often wears himself. "It's hellzapoppin', a terrific script, believe me," he says, without going into detail. Within five years he aims to be living in the States, not in Hollywood but retired on a beach in Florida, doing nothing except drinking beer and swapping stories about the Grateful Dead. Such a move would amount to "a tremendous victory", he maintains.

With 85 seconds left before he goes on air, Baker, without apparently having done an iota of preparation, arises from his seat and, with the words "I better go and do this", heads into the studio to adlib his show. Catch him while you can.

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