Chris Evans: The longest hangover

Chris Evans was the redhead with the golden touch. But his glittering media career, both in the limelight and behind the scenes, descended into a series of drunken misadventures, disastrous ratings - and now a humiliating courtroom defeat. Thomas Sutcliffe tells the story of a spectacular fall from grace
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"I've done most of my work hungover", Chris Evans told the court during his long case against the Scottish Media Group. "It was my normal working zone." It was a typical Evans remark - a little raffish, indifferent to propriety and angling for the approval of his core audience. Well, he's certainly got a hangover now. With a neatness that will probably satisfy those irritated by Evans's prodigious successes as a broadcaster and media star, he's reached that point in his career when the very qualities that elevated him have left him with a serious headache. The last few months have been crapulous ones for Evans - with two failed television shows and one underperforming in the schedules, and now an expensive courtroom defeat. And, in nearly every case, this is the story of a man bought low by his strengths. That Evans has a talent for popular entertainment isn't really in question. That he knows how to control it and prevent it turn- ing toxic is another matter altogether.

Take his most conspicuous quality - the mischievous scampishness that made his GLR radio show a cult listen and that underpinned his huge success on Channel 4's The Big Breakfast. On both shows Evans was having fun, often at the expense of the done thing. Running orders would be jettisoned and the illusion of seamless fluency was simply abandoned. The audience at home looked on him as one of them, an outsider who had somehow got past the security guards and in front of the cameras. He broadcast as if he'd got lucky and wasn't going to go quietly. But as seductive as this virtue is in a presenter, it's nitroglycerine - a highly unstable compound that can easily blow up in your face. Radio 1 eventually heard the bang and so did Virgin - both of them partial victims of Evans's failure to find a way for the enfant terrible to grow up a little. The recklessness always seeped from his on-air performance to his off-air professional relationships - and the result was inevitable. Evans simply doesn't have access to the winning self-deprecation that his hero and model Terry Wogan uses to cut the ubiquity of his presence.

Then there's the in-crowd conviviality that is the other hallmark of Evans's broadcasting. He was never alone when he seized control of the microphone, being always accompanied by a gang of accomplices, and the result was a raucous sense of celebration. His disciples and sidekicks both provoked his invention and instantly rewarded it - and since they were having such a good time it seemed almost churlish for you not to join them. This intimacy wasn't simply a confection, either: Evans met his first wife, Carol McGiffin, on air at GLR, and memorably conducted some salient parts of the courtship while the microphone was open. But, like the scampishness, cronyism is dangerously volatile stuff. It can corrode your sense of judgement and entirely clog your self-critical mechanisms. The slacker laziness of Live With..., Evans's ill-fated show for Channel 5, and the later days of TFI Friday - both of which involved underpowered conceits propped up by an alcohol-fuelled studio audience - was the natural con- sequence of his cliquish tendencies. Nobody told him that he could get things wrong - and he certainly wasn't about to say it to himself.

But go wrong they did. At first, his deal-making was astoundingly successful. In 1997, he raised £85m to buy Virgin Radio from Richard Branson. Asked then if this was a case of the clown wanting to be taken seriously, he agreed: "That's true. It gives you a kind of weight and solidity that you wouldn't otherwise have."

In January 2000, he sold his Ginger Media operations, including Virgin Radio, to the Scottish Media Group for £225m. The court case that ended so disastrously for him yesterday, hinged on Evans's claim that he was due £8.6m worth of shares as part of that deal. Virgin, which sacked Evans in 2001 as its breakfast-show presenter, counter-sued for £20m for breach of contract. Under his Virgin contract, Evans was paid £1.7m a year and received a reputed £35m upfront and 15.8 million shares in three tranches to be paid out over two years. But following the 2001 sacking, SMG refused point-blank to pay out the final installment of 4.9m shares.

Indeed, Evans had built up resentment with his enormous salary and shares. But he was unpopular for a variety of reasons, stemming from the earliest days of his career. He enjoyed a swift, steep climb to fame, and built up a loyal audience in his first job, presenting a night-time show on Manchester's Piccadilly Radio, and when he moved to London in the late Eighties, he landed a job as assistant to Jonathan Ross before going on to GLR. One of his bosses was Matthew Bannister, who later hired him to help reinvent Radio 1. Another senior executive at GLR was Trevor Dann, a senior music radio figure in the Nineties. Dann has recalled how Evans, lethally, loved to be the centre of attention: "He was - and is - a bit like a medieval monarch. He has to set up a court. When he was at GLR he had a circle of acolytes and admirers, who formed his court. But he is a terribly attractive bloke and very generous with people who are part of his team. I remember at GLR, even when he didn't have a lot of money, he once bought a colleague a car. He is both a bully and a charmer. You get one or the other from him. To my mind, he is a dysfunctional boy."

From GLR, Evans landed a gig as launch presenter of Channel 4's The Big Breakfast alongside Gaby Roslin, becoming a cult figure for a young audience with his manic charm and his quickfire, irreverent interview technique. There followed TFI Friday, also on Channel 4, which in its glory days was a manic mix of pop and interviews, based ever-more strongly around Evans as host. Then came the game show Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, and radio breakfast shows on both Radio 1 and later Virgin. By this time he had set up his own company, Ginger Productions, whose logo was those distinctive heavy-rimmed glasses.

In Trevor Dann's time as a Radio 1 executive he found Evans to be more bully than charmer. "Chris used Radio 1 and Matthew Bannister absolutely shamefully, he says, "because he knew that Matthew needed him there on the station. Chris insisted on bringing in his own people, which I tried to oppose. A whole floor had to be cleared for him. He never abided by the rules of the BBC. In the end even Matthew, who is the last to know he is being used, woke up to it over Chris's demand for a four-day week."

But even before Evans's decline as a businessman and broadcaster began, he had alienated many of his fans. According to Dann, this was because "his appeal was that he was one of us, an ordinary, cheeky bloke getting access to those stars, but then he suddenly became one of them. He joined precisely the class he had risen to fame taking the piss out of. He plays golf with the stars; he holidays on Mustique. And he has become irrelevant."

Evans has often provoked strong and hostile emotions in those who observed his manipulative tendencies. In the week that he married the teenage chanteuse Billie Piper, Carol McGiffin told a newspaper: "I hope he doesn't do to her what he has done to other people, like Geri Halliwell, when he just falls in love for a week."

It seems she was referring to a brief affair between Evans and Halliwell, roundly denounced as a public relations exercise cooked up with PR man Matthew Freud. Alas, according to a senior music industry figure who knows all three parties, the only person not in this cynical loop was the unfortunate Ms Halliwell. That was no way to treat a lady; but then the women who assisted Evans on his radio shows were regularly treated to studio male chauvinism; one was reluctantly forced to admit on air that she had slept with him.

McGiffin's father John was even more scathing than his daughter: "Chris is just a shooting star; he will make his money, lose it and disappear." He has not, of course, disappeared, nor lost all his money. But crucially for the cult of Chris Evans, he has lost credibility and kudos. Recent photographs reveal him to be bloated and out of shape, far from his former youthful image.

But aside from the thinning hair and expanding waistline, what should be worrying Evans now is something that lies outside his own psychology or behaviour. And that is the gold-rush mentality of British television executives. When Evans was hot they did everything possible to make him hotter, a blast-furnace effect that was almost bound to lead to burn-out. They fostered the notion that he was the King Midas of zoo-television - bolstered by the huge success of his first self-produced TV show, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, which sold in 26 countries world-wide and laid the foundation for his fortune. And when Evans came up with Boys and Girls, which tanked after just one series on Channel 4, executives fought for the chance to screen it. Channel 5, which couldn't afford it, must now be thanking the Budget Gods for its deliverance - and wondering how long it can continue to shore up the flagging Terry and Gaby Show, Evans's mid-morning chat show. Now that he's hit hard times he will find that the herd instinct that first enriched him will prove as useful as a lead life-jacket. Before his recent tribulations there had been talk about his company developing a Saturday evening chat show for the BBC. He's got time on his hands to do it, but I bet they're talking about something else by now.