He had said he was stepping into shoes that are bigger than his own, and he did try not to put his foot in it. But when Chris Evans took the helm of Europe’s most popular breakfast show today it was not unlike a children’s entertainer trying to stay wacky for a bunch of stony-faced five-year-olds.
Those Radio 2 listeners accustomed to Wogan’s mellifluous stream of consciousness were plunged into an upbeat mix of “family fun”, quirky phone-ins and a feature on a man who blows up hot water bottles. Will the TOGS ever take to Tigger?
The most symbolic concession to Terry’s Old Geezers and Gals, the 8 million-strong band who were bereft when Wogan left the breakfast slot after 27 years, came in the shape of newsreader Moira Stuart. The gravelly Stuart, 60, who was sacked from her TV job in 2007 amid accusations of ageism, is now required to indulge in chirpy banter, which is an experience as unsettling as hearing the Queen shoot the breeze. Although her reinstatement ticks lots of BBC boxes – the director-general recently called for older female newsreaders – Moira still can’t escape a bit of tokenism, being obliged henceforth to choose a “Golden Oldie” track every day.
Evans’s tracks were all subtly coded to send out the same underlying message: reassurance. He kicked off with “All You Need Is Love” from The Beatles, followed by “Got To Get You Into My Life” and Frank Sinatra. Later there were The Seekers and Madonna. “See! I told you there would be nothing to worry about!” he told the TOGs. The banter was interspersed with ringing up listeners to ask what they were wearing, and a feature called “Hello! Goodbye!” consisting solely of people shouting those two words down the line.
There was also a message from Terry who had taken time off from his south of France holiday to leave a characteristically emollient voice mail on Evans’s phone. “I know you will do a marvellous job. You’ll be brilliant. I know you will.”
But the weirdest element in the mix had to be the appearance of the Reverend Rob Gillion in the Pause for Thought slot, who drew a parallel between Chris and Christ, saying just as the Holy Spirit had confirmed Jesus as “the right man for the job” so he had brought some holy water to sprinkle in Evans’s studio to confirm “you are the right man for the job”.
Whether Wogan’s wishes or the holy water will work is yet to seen. But if BBC nerves are jangling it is because they still can’t forget the 43-year-old’s track record. He walked out of Radio 1 in 1997 after going on a 17-hour pub crawl, and was subsequently fired from Virgin radio in 2001, an episode which culminated in a High Court judge calling him “a petulant prima donna of overbearing arrogance and conceit, as well as a liar”. Memorable images like this take time to be erased, despite the fact that Evans has since built an audience of 5 million on the Radio 2 Drivetime show and settled down with a wife and baby son.
Despite his pledges to cause “very little turbulence”, Evans’s appeal to a slightly younger demographic will inevitably be a step change for the TOGs. Wake Up To Wogan gave them the sense of being in a surreal club laughing at the strangeness of life. Terry’s show was an oblique, ironic comment on the mantras of the day. By contrast, apart from a game about “why is snow white?”, Evans’s banter seemed strangely insulated from the outside world. Taking a look at the reaction on BBC message boards, however, perhaps that’s a good strategy.