Chris Evans: Morning star
The reformed enfant terrible has had a rollercoaster career, which is peaking once more. But can he really fill Sir Terry Wogan's shoes?
Saturday 02 January 2010
Terry Wogan's are the biggest boots in broadcasting. The Radio 2 Breakfast Show he hosted for 27 years – off and on – drew the biggest audience anywhere on British radio.
And a number of his 8.1 million listeners greeted with some dismay the news that he was to be succeeded by the erstwhile enfant terrible of the airwaves Chris Evans, whose reputation goes a long way before him. Mercurial and maverick are the adjectives which more polite commentators have attached to him over the years. Others have been considerably ruder.
Evans, at 43, is almost three decades younger than Wogan and his background could not be more different from that of the urbane Irishman. Born on April Fool's Day, 1966, he grew up on the tough council estate of Padgate, Warrington, where he was bullied mercilessly for his red hair, scrawny build and spectacles. On leaving school he had a number of odd jobs including as a Tarzan stripogram in an act which involved three balloons, a carving knife, a little teddy, a raw sausage, lots of cream and a blindfold for the female victim. It was an augury of things to come.
His broadcasting career began in 1984 at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester which involved Evans being driven around the city in a radio car turning up unannounced at listeners' homes. After three years he was fired for "gross misconduct" for outraging pet-owners by suggesting that their cats should be cooked medium rare and served with garlic sauce.
That set the template of self-destruction for the 20 years which followed – with one opportunity succeeding another for every one he blew. He moved from Manchester to London where he worked as an assistant and a producer with Jonathan Ross, Emma Freud and Danny Baker on London's local radio station GLR. There again the conduct which outraged some was the very thing which attracted others.
Television saw something new in his manic ebullience. Channel 4 made him co-host of The Big Breakfast in 1992 where he built a national celebrity. There followed Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and then TFI Friday, which between them ran for five years. By the end of it the nation loved or loathed him in equal measure, but few were not aware of him.
But it was all more than a vogue success. It was the start of a roller-coaster business career, for Evans formed his own company, Ginger Productions, to produce the shows whose format was sold around the world.
Yet for all his financial acumen, Evans was sorely lacking in judgement in other areas. When he joined Radio 1 in 1995 to host its Breakfast Show, critics were not short of material. Many disliked his innuendo-laden style but there were official complaints about his on-air sexual harassment of his assistant Holly Samos, his incitement of two female guests to perform a strip and his tasteless remarks about Anne Frank and the Holocaust.
His response was routinely unrepentant, making public statements like: "All I ever wanted was to work for Radio 1 – and now I'm here it's completely crap". He turned up half an hour late for his 6.30am start and when he then demanded that his hours were changed permanently to start at 7am, BBC bosses acquiesced. He complained on air that he was medically unfit to be on the radio and his bosses doubled his holidays to twice those of other presenters. Even when he went on a 17-hour pub crawl with Danny Baker and the footballer Paul Gascoigne, which ended two hours before they were due on air, Evans was merely fined one day's pay.
When Radio 1 eventually sacked him Evans was then hired by Virgin Radio to host a rival breakfast show, immediately boosting the station's listening figures by 30 per cent. Before long Evans used his celebrity to raise cash from investors to buy the station – which he sold three years later at a massive profit, earning himself an estimated £35m.
Yet even then his contemptuous drinking binges continued. When he fell out with Virgin's new owners he went on a 18-hour bender which started after his show at 9.30 in the morning and ended with him asleep in front of a lap-dancer at Stringfellows. He then claimed he was too ill to present his show over the days that followed but was photographed in a pub with his new wife Billie Piper.
The women in his life brought him a similar mix of admiration and notoriety. His public profile, febrile sense of humour, wild behaviour and millionaire income turned the speccy red-head into an improbable magnet for some of the most beautiful women on the celebrity scene. His girlfriends reportedly included Kim Wilde, Rachel Tatton-Brown, Anthea Turner, Geri Halliwell, Melanie Sykes and Anna Friel.
"I was living the rock star's lifestyle, pulling women I'd never dreamt of ," he later said. "It was party time... and it lasted anything between five and 10 years."
Or more. Evans had had a daughter, Jade, in 1986, to his girlfriend Alison Ward, who was the subject of a maintenance dispute which lasted 12 years. In 1991 he married Carol McGiffen, a presenter on the ITV series Loose Women, but the pair parted in acrimony.
It was Billie Piper who appears to have changed him. Though their six-year marriage also failed, it ended much more amicably, with Piper attending the wedding when Evans in 2007 married for the third time, to the professional golfer and part-time model Natasha Shishmanian whom Evans – a fanatical golfer with a handicap of 15 – had met in a pro-celebrity tournament. The couple had a son last July.
It was while he was with Piper than Evans steadily rebuilt his career, returning to the BBC airwaves in 2005 with a series of one-off Bank Holiday shows before being given a Saturday afternoon spot. A year later he succeeded Johnnie Walker in Radio 2's evening Drivetime slot. The BBC received more than 1,000 complaints when his appointment was announced but Evans skilfully transmogrified from a petulant Radio 1 maverick to a warm and witty Radio 2 stalwart. In 2006 he was named Sony Radio Academy music radio personality of the year. He won two other Sonys the year after.
"I'm more mature, more mellow, more considered," he told an interviewer recently. "I'm definitely happier."
Marriage and fatherhood are part of that. His new son gives him, he blogged, "all the perspective I needed" as he sent his best wishes to Terry Wogan with the pledge "I will do my utmost not to let you and your listeners down." But there is a professional maturation too.
Evans knows his audience. Following in Sir Terry's footsteps would be a daunting prospect for any presenter, one BBC executive said, "but Chris Evans is an experienced broadcaster who's built up a real rapport with listeners since joining Radio 2. It's a station which prides itself on its relationship with listeners, who want to feel part of a family. And Chris Evans has the common touch, he's rooted, in an unstuffy way, in family values. He is not cynical and lacks the cruel streak that is fashionable with some broadcasters.
"Like Terry, he genuinely likes people and is interested in them. He makes people smile and lifts their mood. And he makes you feel, as Terry did, that he is talking only to you. People feel that it would be fun to have him as a friend. I don't think there's anyone to touch him in terms of breadth of appeal to the general audience."
Evans seems to understand this. "What I've got to do is look after Terry's audience," he says. "It's going to be a very tough gig. But it's what I do for a living. It's not like I'm being asked to play football for England. It's like driving for Renault and then being asked to drive for Ferrari. It's my job to look after what Terry's left behind, so I'll try to do the best I can."
When his appointment was announced the BBC received just 195 formal complaints – quite a lot fewer than the 1,000 last time. Perhaps it will not be so much of a leap as many imagine.
A life in brief
Born: 1 April 1966 in Warrington. Youngest son of a bookmaker, who died when Evans was 13.
Education: Padgate High School, Warrington
Career: Radio: Piccadilly Radio, Manchester, 1984-85. Moved to London in 1987 to BBC GLR, then to Radio 1 in 1992. Television: The Big Breakfast, Channel 4, 1992-94; Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, Channel 4, 1994–95; TFI Friday, Channel 4, 1996–99. Radio: Breakfast Show, Radio 1, 1995–1997; The Chris Evans Breakfast Show, Virgin Radio, 1997–2001. Saturday afternoon show, BBC Radio 2, 2005–2006, Weekday Drivetime Show, BBC Radio 2, 2006–2009. Takes over Terry Wogan's Breakfast Show from 11 January.
He says: "Yes, I get drunk – who doesn't? I can be petulant and a prima donna. So what? That's why I'm successful. It's called being creative." (2003)
"I was utterly confident for all the wrong reasons. And now I'm confident for all the right reasons." (2009)
They say: "He has the temperament of a prima donna." – Judge in case between Evans and Virgin Radio. (2003)
"Following in Sir Terry Wogan's footsteps would be a daunting prospect for any presenter but Chris Evans is an experienced broadcaster, who's built up a tremendous rapport with his Drivetime listeners since joining Radio 2." – BBC official, 2009.
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