Danny Baker: 'What I do is ephemeral and silly'
As the broadcaster brings out the first volume of his memoirs, he's happy to admit he never wanted to be taken seriously. Nick Duerden meets Danny Baker
It's 2pm on a Friday, just an hour before Danny Baker is due to present his show on BBC Radio London. But the man is leading me away from Broadcasting House and towards the pub for a bottle of Bulmers, and a meandering conversation that will take us all the way up to five to three. I'm anxious he'll be late for his show, and cannot hide it.
"Don't worry," he chides. "The closer I can arrive to three, the better."
Baker, a veteran radio host and one of our best, never does prior preparation for any of his shows. He simply turns up, sits down and talks about whatever pops into his head. This past week, he has talked about odd things people cry out in public, and the most inadvisable thing a teacher has revealed before a class. It's mostly nonsense, then, but nonsense somehow elevated into an art form. "Oh, what I do is very ephemeral and silly," he readily agrees, "but, I hope, funny and entertaining as well."
On the Tube back home afterwards, he tells me, he often basks in the assumed glory of another great show. "But I never listen to it, in case I find out that I'm not actually as funny as I thought I was. That wouldn't be good."
Rarely in his shows will he broach hard news; this, he argues, is not the point of them, not why people tune in. And so, no, he hasn't passed public judgement on the snowballing Jimmy Savile revelations, nor the fact that other celebrities are being named and shamed. When I tell him of the Daily Mail's report that the late DJ John Peel once got a 15-year-old girl pregnant, he seems genuinely shocked. Nor was he aware of claims that during one entertainment series in the 1980s, a male presenter drilled a hole in his dressing room wall to spy on a glamorous female star next door.
The series was The Six O'Clock Show, the glamorous female star Samantha Fox. Danny Baker was one of its male presenters. Incredulous at the claim, he tells me that every week the warm-up man would tell the studio audience the same joke: "I've got a dressing room next to Sam Fox, and there's a hole in the wall. I was going to cover it up but I thought, no, sod it, if she wants to look, let her."
"It was a joke," he says. "But now it's become lore?" He shakes his head and adds that, as far as he is concerned, The Six O'Clock Show was never a hotbed of that kind.
Of the Savile furore, he says: "You are either offended by it or you're not, but you don't need somebody like me saying, oh, I'm really disgusted too." Proper news, serious news, is not his forte. This is why, though regularly invited on to Question Time, he always turns it down. "I don't have the chops to do it. I'm good on big slabs of colour, but the details? Not so much. It's not what I do."
Baker, 55, publishes the first volume of his autobiography this month. Going to Sea in a Sieve recounts the story of how, essentially, the world's least troubled teenager muscled his way into showbiz by force of personality alone. On page 30, for example, he writes: "I really was the most enormously popular kid."
He laughs. "I was! Everybody liked me. I was happy around girls, and I went out with them really early. I was the captain of the football team, the cricket team. The hard kids liked me. It's an anomaly, I know, but I'm not exaggerating for comic effect. It's just how I was."
This barrelling confidence came, he says, from his father, and it was this that took a 15-year-old Baker from the streets of Deptford, south-east London, to an entirely different world: a trendy South Molton Street record shop, where he regularly mixed with The Clash, and Elton John. He then landed a job at the NME, travelling the world and interviewing some of the biggest acts. Baker, who says he gets bored easily, felt he'd exhausted the possibilities of journalism by his early twenties, and so when Janet Street-Porter suggested he try television, he was convinced he'd be a natural. "Though I will admit," he concedes, "that it took television to show me that I wasn't, in actual fact, universally popular."
Nevertheless, he thrived, making more money than seemed sensible. His book ends, ridiculously prematurely, in 1982 with him on a beach in Hawaii with Wendy, the girlfriend who would become his wife.
Whenever he finds time to write volume two – and he says he plans to, but he's terrible at focusing on one thing for long – he won't have to search far for colourful incident. By 1988, for example, he was declared bankrupt. "The bailiffs came. They wanted £15,000 from me, and I didn't have it." While making money as a television presenter, he had completely neglected to pay VAT and tax. His reaction? "Oops."
It was no coincidence, then, that soon he was advertising washing powder on TV ("I needed the money") and hosting cheesy game shows such as Pets Win Prizes, though he insists the latter was "terrific television". Nevertheless, one could argue that a man of such voluble talents had ultimately sold himself short.
At this, he laughs contemptuously. "Look, I've never been remotely interested in reputation. If some people think I'm smarter than the work I've done, fine. All I can say is I've done all sorts of things – writing, presenting, TV, radio – and I've loved it all."
By the 1990s, he was the brains behind TFI Friday, and by his own estimation, "making millions", and living an appropriately rock'*'roll lifestyle. For Baker, you make money to spend, all of it. "I'm overdrawn right now, as it happens."
He specialised in radio thereafter, presiding over award-winning football phone-in shows. But then, in 2010, the man who spoke for a living contracted cancer of the head and neck. He went through radiation and chemotherapy treatment, and could have lost his life. "It was the most revolting period, but I've got no great stories out of it. It was just a roundabout, and I drove straight on through."
He got better, returned to work "too early" after just eight months, and seems in robust health, though he has lost his taste buds and now exists on a sorry diet of porridge and soggy pasta. "Anything you can swallow like a frog," he shrugs. "It's incapacitating, but it's not like I lost a leg."
It is 10 to three. I'm worried he'll be late. Before he goes, I ask whether writing the book has made him self-reflective. He gawps and says that he doesn't do much of that – "no time" – but considers it now all the same.
"There's a lot of depression about. I suppose I ought to be bipolar, someone who is really up sometimes, then has these tremendous downs. But by some quirk of genetics, I'm not. I've never been desperate to be taken seriously, so what you're left with is this constant onrush of optimism and confidence." He laughs. "It's something I'm stuck with, but with the job I do, it does have currency. And I've always been aware of that."
Born Deptford, south-east London, on 22 June 1957.
1976 Invited by friend Mark Perry to work on influential punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue.
1977 Asked by Tony Parsons to work at the NME, initially on the reception, but subsequently becomes one of the music magazine's star writers.
1980 At the invitation of Janet Street-Porter, Baker starts fronting documentaries on popular culture for the LWT series 20th Century Box.
1982 Becomes one of the main presenters on ITV's The Six O'Clock Show, a magazine format that would influence much of the TV that followed, including BBC 1's current The One Show.
1990 After being declared bankrupt, Baker gets an agent, and starts doing TV ads - for Daz and Mars - and fronting quiz shows including Win, Lose or Draw and Pets Win Prizes.
1996 Along with Chris Evans, Baker devises the Channel 4 youth show TFI Friday, which proves wildly successful and blazes a trail for the zoo TV format.
1999 Lands a slot on Virgin Radio, and later BBC London and 5 Live, winning several awards for his work.
2005 Won DJ of the Year at the Sony awards.
2010 Baker is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes radiotherapy and chemotherapy. He returns to broadcasting in 2011, the cancer officially in remission.
'Going to Sea in a Sieve' by Danny Baker is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 25 October
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