'I want the antithesis of what most broadcasting aims at': Why Danny Baker remains King of radio
Danny Baker tells Robert Chalmers what he’d like to do to the BBC middle-managers who let him go.
Sunday 02 June 2013
To the best of my knowledge, the many eclectic phone-in subjects proposed for discussion by Danny Baker's hugely popular Saturday- morning show on BBC Radio 5 Live have not yet included "Occupations and Titles that No Longer Exist". In addition to the obvious – jobs such as wheel-tapper, lamplighter and snood-fitter – there's another noble calling that, as a noun at least, has become extinct.
"Wit," I suggest to the presenter. "So long after the passing of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker, it's no longer a plausible way to describe anybody, is it?"
As a discipline, Baker concedes, wit has gone the way of blimp-greaser and phrenologist.
Which is unfortunate, given that we live in an age populated by so broad a range of inventive humourists, from Stephen Fry to Dara O Briain and Johnny Vegas. Were we ever to appoint a National Grand Master of Wit and Repartee, my own choice, I tell the broadcaster, would be Danny Baker himself.
"Well," he says, "that's very kind of you. Not that I'm sure I deserve it."
Last month, Danny Baker's bravura performances on his Saturday show, presented jointly with Lynsey Hipgrave, helped earn them the Gold Sony Radio Award for Entertainment Show of the Year. (This was Baker's fifth gold Sony; he also took the bronze this year for Speech Radio Broadcaster.) It's a highly unusual programme, compelling to the point of addiction, which masquerades as a sports phone-in show.
In an age dominated by visual media, The Danny Baker Show is a phenomenon that seemed to have disappeared for ever: a radio broadcast that people structure their weekend around, for the simple reason that they can't wait for the podcast. The arcane nature of the subjects suggested to callers, and the conspiratorial vigour with which Baker encourages digression, attracts a diverse constituency, both in terms of the age and gender of callers. Only the other week a woman called in, lured by the theme of Retail Outlets Found in Unusual Places, to claim that she had stumbled upon a branch of the furnishing store Courts while exploring the jungles of Bolivia.
Was she lying?
"I hope so," says Baker.
And all this on a station sometimes ridiculed as "Radio Bloke". Write down his themes of the day – subjects such as Random Acts of Kindness by the Famous, and Mortal Dangers You Were Facing Without Your Knowledge, and they don't necessarily appear riveting. The key to this show is Baker, with his contagious curiosity and stubborn determination to allow other people to shine. Other presenters of light-hearted phone-ins come across as Gerry and the Pacemakers to Danny Baker's Beatles.
"How do you manage it?" I ask him. "So many presenters try, and do it really badly."
"By sheer will and instinct," he says. "Sometimes I feel the show is almost like an ambush, in that the BBC leaves us entirely alone. I write most of the topics on the train, going in. Then when we are on air, Lynsey and I – to use that horrible phrase – are in a zone. Analyse it, and it would vanish."
"I find it utterly compulsive, in the way that – so I've heard – you can waste entire evenings pursuing random threads of thought on the internet. It's like listening to some kind of surreal poetic free-association."
"The subjects," he says, "are getting less and less vital to the show. The other week we suggested 16 topics and addressed none."
We're talking in the sitting room of his large house in south-east London. Baker, 55, who was once described as "the Bermuda Triangle of Fashion", is wearing a grey T-shirt and jeans. He has to sip from a water bottle at regular intervals, a legacy of the successful treatment of his head and neck cancer a couple of years back, which required the removal of his saliva glands. Excessive attention to appearance has never seemed necessary to him. Though not a conceited man, Danny Baker knows he's good.
"All I ever want," he says, "is the antithesis of what most broadcasting aims at. What I do is not generic. I am not some lucky sap saying to the listener: You could do this. This could be you."
"I do believe that he is the best live radio broadcaster in the kingdom," says film-maker Chris Morris. "He just is. I can't think of anybody remotely capable of working with his pace, his humour and his invention. That so-called 'zoo format': there are so very few people who can do that well. Howard Stern is another, although obviously he's very different in many ways. And if some people can't hear how brilliant Danny Baker is, I'd say that is because they can't get past the London accent; or, to put it another way, they just aren't listening properly.
"It is so very rare in life," Morris adds, "to find someone you can praise without reservation."
"Do you remember, a while back," I ask Baker, "I emailed a suggestion [as a complete stranger] and you replied, saying: 'That is the best radio idea I have heard this year. It is now mine. So long, sucker.'"
"What was the idea?" Baker asks.
"I'd suggested that – for Children in Need – you persuade Sir Alex Ferguson to read out Hester Thwaite's notes on Samuel Johnson's observations about the Scots. [Responding to the suggestion that God made Scotland, Johnson remarked that, "God made Hell."] And that you get Arsène Wenger to recite the St Crispin's Day speech, celebrating Agincourt, from Shakespeare's Henry V. And so on."
"Ah, I remember now. That mutated into this other thing, where we got footballers to read passages from erotic literature."
"Your callers are quite remarkable."
"That's because they are people who would never normally ring a phone-in. Most programmes choose subjects that any listener could have an opinion on. We go for the strangest subjects. Things like…" Baker smooths out a crumpled, hand-written page. "Ever Been Upside Down?; Failures that Escalated; Funerals for Toys; Things that you have Spilled on a Famous Person. That," he explains, "is the fun. People can't resist calling if they know they have a unique memory to discuss."
"And is that really you – the man we hear on the radio?"
"No. It's a device. Albeit a good one. I am not like that."
"It's a performance."
"Although the Radio Danny Baker does seem to overlap rather heavily with your own personality."
"Yes, in terms of that mania for bizarre trivia. The other week on the show it emerged that the ideal accompaniment to red wine was not cheese or beef, as indicated on the label, but rockets."
Pardon? "Rockets; fireworks."
"You hear so many broadcasters on Radio 5 Live desperately pursuing the youthful, or female, demographic. With your show, it's not old or young, or women or men, is it? I know I'd have been captivated by the programme when I was 10. My kids love it. It's strangely ageless – even when you're banging on about some forgotten supporting actor like Sam Kydd."
"Yes, and Lynsey  is absolutely vital to that. She doesn't know any of those references; they are so remote and ludicrous. I'm five years away from 60 but I still feel like some tearaway kid, getting away with it."
Danny Baker (first recruited to television by Janet Street Porter at LWT in 1979) was probably best known to a mass audience when he was presenting his own BBC Saturday-night chat show, 20 years ago. In the late 1990s he was regularly featured in the red-tops, on excursions with Chris Evans and Paul Gascoigne. At the time of writing, he is preparing to surf another, greater wave in his career.
Baker is completing the second volume of his memoirs (his first, the highly entertaining, Going to Sea in a Sieve, appeared in November 2012) and has two television programmes going into production. The first, called From the Cradle, is an ITV drama based on his autobiography; the second project is commissioned but still in development. His profile was also recently raised by his furious on-air rant against the decision of BBC London 94.9 to end his enormously popular show for them, the savagery and length of which tirade made him something of a YouTube sensation. (A week after his dismissal, last November, he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.)
"Oh. Yes. That brouhaha. That contretemps. Some would prefer imbroglio. I have been forced back on to television. But you know, days like these are the ones I really like. Sitting around the house. Flicking cards into top hats. Glass of red in the evening."
"You never had a plan?"
"No. Because I have no real drive. No impetus. I goof off. I don't have a mobile phone. My personality is like a harlequin suit; an agglomeration of things that stave off having to be identified with anything. It is kind of private and it will not be defined."
That last remark turns out to be no idle boast. When I was nine, I tell Baker, my father found me reading an autobiography by a Manchester United player. "I asked him if he'd read it and he said he'd had to stop because, 'It's all me, me, me.' Even then I can remember thinking: hang on; this is an autobiography. And your book, Going to Sea in a Sieve, is rather old-fashioned in that way: resolutely optimistic, evocative of an era and perceptively observational of others. But there isn't a great deal of introspection.
"Because that just isn't me. That first book ended in 1982. The next one will begin then." 1982, he recalls, is the year his brother, Michael, died. "And I simply haven't got the interest to write that up. It strikes me as boring."
"How old was he?"
"Hang on. Just imagine this narrative was fiction, for a moment. The death of the main character's brother at such an age; it's hardly boring, is it?"
"Well, I know, but… genuinely, I don't shrink from it. It's just not what I do. It's like when I had the cancer. Everyone wanted to talk about it. I didn't see the worth in it."
"How did your brother die?"
"He was a docker. He choked after a drinking binge. He never woke up. You see, for me, these memoirs are usually a pleasure to write, so I find myself feeling: 'Oh no. Now I have to write about this.' I don't know if I even have the tools to do it. My brother died. What are you supposed to say? Everyone feels like death themselves for a year, then you get on with your life. It's like the cancer. I have not learnt a single thing from it."
"Back to your brother: did you see it coming?"
"How would you describe your own relationship with alcohol?"
"And your brother's?" "I don't think he was particularly…" Baker stops himself from applying an adjective. "Nobody saw it coming. We were quite a hard-drinking family."
It's tricky, faced with a man who says he never gets down, not to pick at such tragedies like a scab. "There is no baggage," he says. "There is no story. I didn't either deal with it or not deal with it, I literally treat [misfortune] like a roundabout and drive straight on."
"How was the funeral?"
"I am not good at emotive subjects. It's a rotten day. Your mum," he adds, diving, as he tends to do on such subjects, for the comforting anonymity of the second person, "is crying. You all go to the pub. There's no resonance for me there. Self-analysis or even dwelling on life. I really am that shallow."
"I guess it's an effective defence."
"No. It isn't. It is absolutely true. And I don't think it's a bad thing."
"Ever get depressed?"
"But you'd accept that depression is a real condition?"
"Of course I know depression is a real thing, but what about us euphorics? I genuinely believe I am a euphoric. I do not get depressed. Euphorics… I believe we are a real constituency. That Pollyanna view of the world which I've always had," he says, "probably helped me through the illness." k
"And stopped you from brooding on what happens when you die?"
"I don't brood."
"Because you think that, with death: that's it; finished?"
"I don't ponder that idea."
"Fairly major, though, isn't it? Especially because you," I continue, "strike me as a very imaginative and curious person. Are you not curious about the next life, if any?"
"No. Not for a second. If you suddenly wake up on the other side then – yes. What-ho! Whoopee! But trying to wonder what that's like? No."
Concerning his cancer, Baker says, "I went to Blackheath Hospital, with a lump. They stuck needles in it and said they'd be in touch in a few days. I got back here and within 10 minutes the phone is ringing. It's the hospital. 'Could you come back?' 'What, now?' 'Yes. And bring somebody with you.'
"I thought, Oh. Hallo. We're not being asked to lunch, are we. But it didn't occur to me for a second that I was going to die. I thought the treatment would be murder," he adds, "and it was. But listen, Robert, if the cancer recurs, are you going to say: 'Hey, I'm really glad I spent all those days worrying about it?'"
Going to Sea in a Sieve begins with a characteristically upbeat account of his childhood on an estate in Deptford. From his mother Betty, Baker thinks, he may have inherited the encyclopaedic memory that enlivens his broadcasting style. He speaks of his father Fred as a kind of amiable chancer: a drinker, brawler and Millwall fan. (His son did not inherit Fred's appetite for street-fighting.)
"One criticism I can imagine about the book is that it is so powerfully confident," he says. "I was captain of the football team. Girls liked me. It was only when I got into television," he says, not without irony, "that I realised I was not universally popular."
I enjoyed the book, I tell him. "But I did come away thinking, I'm not sure I know this man much better than I did before."
"Oh, but you do, you do. I genuinely don't have hidden depths. I skim the surface like a stone. And that annoys people."
"You're not annoying me."
"Well, maybe not you. But I am stuck with this absolutely bulletproof personality."
"So should I worry that I finished the book wondering, what does he really think?"
"No, because he doesn't. He doesn't really think."
"I suppose what's missing in all this is guilt; in regard to past relationships, say."
"I was very precocious with women."
Baker lives with his wife Wendy; the couple, who met when he was still a music journalist, have three children – Bonnie, Sonny and Mancie. I mention that I think his book is notable for the absolute absence of remorse. "I'm sure," I tell him, "that you privately lie awake thinking, 'Oh, how could I possibly have said all those things to Elizabeth Black of Carlisle…"
"Dear God, did you know Liz too? Listen, I toured with rock bands as a journalist. And I'd been around the block well before that."
I tell Baker that I can't remember everything he says about his upbringing, but I know there's one thing he couldn't possibly be.
"I wasn't, no. All my friends were."
He left school at 15 and went to work in a London record store, where he served stars such as Marc Bolan and Elton John. He enjoyed the craic among the gay community, he says, and used to wear a badge that said "Dare You Presume I'm Heterosexual?"
If he ever was camp, no vestige of that trait survives. He co-founded the magazine Sniffin' Glue in 1976, then moved to The New Musical Express.
"You were talking about wit," he continues. "I think my sense of humour, and of the absurd, was developed by having many friends, and that it's probably connected with competitiveness." Working at the NME in the 1970s, back in the days of Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Charles Shaar Murray and Max Bell, he recalls, was "learning at a very tough table. But I have always been gregarious."
Gregarious as a newt, some may mutter, given the number of red-top stories about his supposed binges with Evans and Gascoigne in the mid-1990s. Baker has published a short memoir concerning his time with Paul Gascoigne.
"It's odd," I tell the broadcaster. "There are a lot of very funny stories in that book. But when I re-read it, I kept thinking of that phrase Rodney Marsh used about George Best several years before his death: 'It's only going to end one way.' I felt uneasy, given the condition of Paul Gascoigne now, reading about all those japes. 'It was really funny when…' and so on."
"Yes, but [that book] exists in its own time. He was always cosmically bored, Paul. Restless and very lonely, but extraordinarily funny. Of all the people I met, one of the most fascinating. And Paul couldn't drink. Literally. He was one of those people who would pour a drink away. He was happy to be with me and Chris for a while. Paul used to come round here and play with the kids. This whole idea that there were 36-hour benders is pure fabrication. It's a story nobody wants to hear; that we were protective about him, and we had great fun."
So the reports of your excess were exaggerated? "I have many friends. Those became the two I was best known for. We didn't do cocaine. We went to the pub. We would hide in plain sight. The assumption was, 'Oh. It's a boozer. It must be a bender.'"
"Reporters tended to depict Evans and Gascoigne as stars, and you as a kind of hanger-on, didn't they?"
"I knew Chris because the first time I did radio at what was then GLR, they needed someone to operate the desk. This lanky red-headed kid came in. Afterwards, in the pub, a woman asked for my autograph. He said, 'Fucking hell, what does that feel like?' Two years later there I am, in the tabloids, described as part of his boot-licking entourage."
When Evans married Billie Piper in May 2001, Baker continues, "We went to Las Vegas. I never even saw the strip. One paper reported that we'd won $30,000 in a casino and shouted, 'Yes! We cracked it!' Which was entirely untrue."
"So what happened with Gascoigne?"
"He started getting surrounded by all these travelling salesmen in London hotels."
"Do you think there's any helping him now?"
"When did you last speak to him?"
"Not for ages. My phone number never changes. It doesn't need dwelling upon, the fact that he's in a really rotten place. Because he doesn't know what he does any more. If he ever did. You have got to realise that he has never been normal, Paul. He always had that sense that he didn't belong… and that quite extraordinary talent."
"You're quite fond of that phrase, 'to dwell on'," I suggest, "especially when the conversation is about…"
"Death and illness? Yes. But sometimes if someone says they don't think deeply about something, they don't. I can see that can be frustrating. And I'm acutely aware of that myself sometimes, in that I can't find an appropriate tone for certain things. I just can't."
"Listening to you just now, I remembered that first Alan Partridge series on BBC Radio 4. In one episode he talks about a kind of Judy Garland figure. 'I don't want to think about her in a nightgown on Sunset Boulevard, conducting traffic,' Partridge says. 'I want to remember her riding that haycart, in her lovely gingham dress, singing "Hopscotch Girl".'"
"Well, yes. That's me. Take a look over there." Baker shows me bookshelves that are closer to a mirror image of my own than any I've ever seen: Oscar Wilde, WC Fields, Beachcomber; even Tony Hendra's superb study of extreme comedy, Going Too Far.
"There's not a single novel in there," he says. "Novels don't interest me. The human condition doesn't interest me."
It would be nice, Baker reflects, if he could find a novel in which everybody was really considerate towards each other and they all had a great time.
"Which explains why you don't like novels. Wasn't it the ancient Greeks who figured out that conflict equals drama? If Oliver Twist had been adopted by that nice Mr Brownlow on page three, and he'd never met Fagin…"
"I do say, in my book, that people are going to look for a whiff of the workhouse and not find one. When I was a kid we had a lovely maisonette," the broadcaster says, "with a garden."
A very distinguished psychiatrist told me that the condition of "euphoric" does not, so far as he is aware, exist as a clinical classification. That said, taking a flyer on this, I can't find any reason to doubt Baker's belief in his self-professed optimism, although his supposed superficiality seems to be incredibly odd in a person of such rampantly fertile invention.
"I suspect that the moment I leave here," I tell him, "you'll race down to the cellar and barricade yourself in your secret misery dungeon, sobbing over Ingmar Bergman films and listening to Brahms and early Leonard Cohen."
"You," he replies (with a mischievous look), "might derive nourishment from deep thought. I'm entirely the other way. I get nourishment from froth."
If he is, as he says, a stranger to guilt and depression, then he has some acquaintance with those emotions' close relation, anger.
I share Danny Baker's bemusement that the broadcaster (the one man who may deserve, slightly misquoting Howard Stern's phrase, the title of "King of Radio") could possibly have been sacked by BBC London 94.9. His daily afternoon programme, despite being on a local station, had won prizes on at least two continents. They blithely dispensed with a broadcaster who has, in recent years (as Baker isn't slow to point out) won more prestigious media awards than the station that sacked him.
"At the same time, some have criticised you for going medieval on air. One highly respected critic on The Guardian – writing just after he himself had got the bullet, despite years of distinguished service to that paper – contrasted your sacking with that of a manual labourer, and implied that you should see yourself as that holiday in France they could no longer afford."
"You can't apply that argument when they fire one individual," Baker says. "What happened to me was very personal. If you are good at your job, and if you have been publicly recognised within your industry as being good at your job, and the management, despite that, decide to get rid of you, then that is personal."
"And so you reacted personally?"
"Yes. But then it was over. Look, it would be the same on a production line. Fire one worker; that's personal. If the whole factory closes down, fair enough. That's another matter."
"So why did they pick on you?"
"Because they couldn't bear the idea that, confronted by this idiotic, mundane, abacus-gazing, grey-thinking, frightened, zero-morale mentality they have managed to instil, I wouldn't buckle. They are entirely humourless. I'm smarter than they are and I refused to acquiesce in my own suffocation. I have not milked it. This is the first time I've spoken to anybody on this subject for publication, even though I've had endless requests to do so. I wanted to turn round to these sad middle-managers and spit in their fucking eye. I was in absolute fine fettle and those fuckers knew it."
"So what explanation did they give?"
"They said, 'We were just refreshing the schedule.' Fuck off. No you weren't. Anyhow, now I'm just refreshing my anger. How about that? They sent me an email saying, 'If you have any other issues you would like to discuss, feel free to contact us.' I said, 'I will continue to speak, write and tweet as I see fit. Because I don't fucking work for you any more. Remember?'"
"What it came down to was extremely simple. I was interested in the kind of people and issues that the management neither comprehended nor cared about. I didn't fit into the horrible template of what they believe they should be producing. These kind of managers feel threatened by anybody with different and original ideas. People say, 'Oh, you had a good run.' But I don't see why that good run had to be finite when all they have done is to replace it with more of their own boring agenda, taken from copies of Metro they found on the Tube. I wish nothing but ill on those people."
"Don't hold back. Say what you really feel."
"Well, if you're going to get stabbed in the back, at least give yourself a Viking funeral. There are worse ways to sign off than that," Baker tells me. "You know what I mean?"
The paperback of 'Going to Sea in a Sieve' is published by Phoenix, priced £7.99. His second volume of memoirs, 'Going Off Alarming', will be released in October
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