Jonathan Ross: Chattering class

'He has the fastest mind to mouth of anybody that I have ever worked with in my long career'
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This week he was being talked of as the most valuable commodity in British broadcasting, the subject of a bidding war between the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV that could see him offered a £15m contract over three years. Leaked BBC salaries reveal he is already paid £56.62 a minute for his Saturday morning Radio 2 show, for which he has said he does "no work" in advance. His television job too he has described as "not that hard if you know what you are doing".

Ross, with his vaudevillian dress sense and stream-of-consciousness delivery, knows what he is doing. The BBC, which currently pays him in the region of £2m a year to present his phenomenally successful Friday night BBC1 chat show, as well as Film 2006 and the series Hollywood Greats, is desperate to hold on to him and thought to be willing to double his money when his contract expires in July 2007. But at a time when the corporation is facing criticism for throwing too much licence-fee money at already well-paid presenters, it will face a struggle.

Kevin Lygo, Channel 4's shrewd director of television, sees Ross and his chat show, with its appeal to audiences of thinking 25-44-year-olds, as single-handedly reviving his Friday night schedule, which is still pining for the loss of the US sitcom Friends.

Ross, 45, grew up in Leytonstone, east London, as one of six children and is the son of a lorry driver (although one interviewer who met his father noted that he was "better spoken" than the famous presenter). His mother has regularly featured as an extra on EastEnders and his five siblings, including the television presenter Paul Ross, all work in the media. The children were encouraged to audition for television commercials, and Jonathan appeared in ads for Rice Krispies and Persil. When he finished his modern history degree at London's School of East European and Slavonic Studies, he used Paul's CV to land a researcher's job at Channel 4.

Demonstrating an extraordinary self-belief, Ross - with fellow researcher Alan Marke - then set up a production company Channel X with the intention of creating a British version of the famous US late -night chat show hosted by David Letterman.

When Ross failed to persuade the comedian Jeremy Hardy to present the show (he received a volley of abuse after making his request in the toilet of a London pub), the young researcher decided to host it himself, prompting the title The Last Resort.

Verbose, irreverent and clad in Yamamoto suits, the 26-year-old Ross was an irritant to some but delighted his Channel 4 bosses by regularly delivering an audience of more than four million. He was paid a relatively modest £500 a show, but quickly became an icon of Eighties television.

When he announced his decision to quit the show in 1988, his sense of self-worth was already palpable. He didn't fancy going into chat shows, he said, somewhat ironically, because "that kind of television interview has had its day, and anyway Parkinson did it best". Instead he fancied something more heavyweight. "I'd like to try something more intellectual. I wouldn't mind trying my hand at the odd political interview."

As it has turned out, he has become the BBC's replacement for Parkinson (whom he refers to as "the king") and has assumed a ubiquity on television and radio not achieved since Terry Wogan in his golden era, 15 years ago.

But Ross's path to that lofty peak has been anything but smooth. Channel X's subsequent projects, including the talk/ entertainment show One Hour with Jonathan Ross, were far from a success. After Ross twice impressively deputised for Wogan on BBC1, the Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade (now the chairman of the BBC) persuaded him to sign up for a thrice-weekly chat show called Tonight with Jonathan Ross. But looking back, Ross has claimed that Grade "talked me into it". He said: "I walked in saying 'No way' and walked out saying 'What a fantastic opportunity'."

His initial instinct was the right one although Channel X was growing to a point where it would turn over £10m a year. Ross, who was by now partying so hard that his weight was growing to 15 stone, felt confident enough in 1992 to boast: "I'm always going to have a huge disposable income."

Shortly after finishing The Last Resort in 1988, Ross had flown to Las Vegas to marry Jane Goldman, a journalist whom he had met two year earlier, when she was a precocious 16-year-old, just out of public school. The couple have since had three children, named Betty Kitten, Harvey Kirby and Honey Kinny.

Ahead of the marriage, he commented: "I believe in being totally faithful in a relationship. There's no point otherwise. I never look at anyone else." Subsequently he has made a point of repeated public declarations of his love for his wife. A devoted father, he insists on making the breakfast for his children and doing the school run, saying his desire, above all else, is "to be a good dad".

Despite Ross's unashamed belief in his earning potential and his apparent swagger in front of the camera he was, from early on in his career, dissatisfied with the work he was producing. The Last Resort had been a revelation for its cult audience but the presenter himself was not impressed. "Probably a third of those shows were rubbish, but I got away with it because I was young and seemed confident, and I had the suits going for me and all that stuff."

This is not a recent revelation either. When he was making the show, he was "paralysed, sick with nerves". Looking back in 2001, he admitted: "I would spend all week getting increasingly unhappy, and more and more paranoid about what was going to happen. Then I would do the show, and I was amazed people said 'You looked really comfortable in it'. I really didn't feel comfortable."

The work at Channel X of which Ross feels proudest centred on his love of feature films, notably a documentary on David Lynch and a piece on the little-known Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, which he has cited as the best television he has ever produced.

But he still struggled to find the right entertainment format. When Saturday Zoo flopped, he walked out on Channel X. Ross signed a two-year deal with ITV, which culminated in his co-hosting with Garry Bushell a panel-based programme about television called The Big Big Talent Show. Ross admits that his friends might have been "embarrassed for me". Ross was by now earning much of his income from commercials for pizza and deodorant, though he drew the line at a kissing scene with the model Caprice on the grounds that it might send the wrong message to his children.

The renaissance finally arrived thanks to Chris Evans, another live-wired broadcaster, whose career has intertwined with Ross's. (They are now colleagues on Radio 2.) A teenage Evans had produced a radio show which Ross had made for Richard Branson's first radio station in 1988. A decade on, having bought Virgin Radio from Branson, Evans offered Ross a presenter's job.

The show was such a hit that Ross was lured to Radio 2, where the controller Jim Moir said: "He has the fastest mind to mouth of anybody that I have ever worked with in my long career."

Ross was emphatically back. His extensive knowledge of cinema (the study of his Hampstead home contains a library of movies behind a secret door) led to him replacing Barry Norman as the BBC's film critic and immediately reinvigorating the role.

In spite of his near total lack of interest in sport, having grown up as a shy and short-sighted boy who "didn't even like getting myself wet in the swimming pool", Ross was also a winner on BBC1's They Think It's All Over.

Not even the trauma of the near breakdown of his marriage, as he was pictured crying outside a London café following reports that his wife had had a liaison with the comedian Sean Hughes, could deflect the upturn in his working life. That said, following headlines such as the Daily Mail's "A drunken liaison, a restless young wife. Is Jonathan Ross's marriage doomed to failure?", the great interviewer has rarely given any interviews himself.

With his fast wit, love of eccentric Jean-Paul Gaultier haute couture - the subject of both admiration and derision - and his obsession with films, comics and gadgetry (he collects Japanese robots), Ross is popular with a young audience. But equally key to his revived career is a maturity that has seen him become more relaxed and at ease with himself. "He appears to have taken his foot off the gas and relaxed into his own no-nonsense style which the audience is really comfortable with," said a friend.

BBC1 recognised this in 2001 when it gave him the platform of Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, on which his guests have included Madonna, Bob Geldof, Samuel L Jackson, and (five times) Jack Dee. He selects his guests personally and he will not allow celebrities to dictate what's discussed - unlike on previous shows. Many years ago, he allowed the former model Pamella Bordes to talk for 15 minutes about her wildlife photography after she refused to talk about her affair with Andrew Neil. Ross no longer worries about offending guests, no matter how famous, knowing that he has a hit show which is more of a vehicle for him than for them.

When Ross went to Buckingham Palace in November to be given an OBE, Prince Charles expressed surprise that he had time to attend.

The BBC will have its work cut out to hold on to Ross, but he may yet stay. A bidding war is no bad thing when your contract is coming to an end. Jonathan Ross has experienced enough in his broadcasting career to appreciate his current value, and as he observed as he started Friday Night with Jonathan Ross: "Nobody gets the big audience for ever."

A Life in Brief

BORN: 17 November 1960.

EDUCATION: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London (BA history).

CAREER: Researcher, Channel 4; founding co-producer, Channel X. Television includes: chat shows The Last Resort, 1987; One Hour with Jonathan Ross, 1990; Tonight with Jonathan Ross, 1990; The Late Jonathan Ross, 1996; Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, 2001-present. As presenter: The Incredibly Strange Film Show, 1988-89; Jonathan Ross Presents; For One Week Only, 1991; Gag Tag; In Search of ... ; The Big Big Talent Show; Film 1999, etc. Panel games: (host) It's Only TV ... But I Like It, 1999-present; (team member) They Think It's All Over, 1999-present. Radio presenter, 1987-present.

HE SAYS: "My reputation seems to be built on garrulousness, but sometimes I'm capable of listening and I think that's important, too."

THEY SAY: "I like the way he manages to be such a personal interviewer without becoming cynical. It's his humour and his wit and his integrity, and the way he taps into what you're doing to make you feel better." - Gordon Ramsay, chef