Richard Bacon: How to keep your nose clean: a cautionary tale

Six years ago, a cocky young Blue Peter presenter was fired by the BBC after being caught snorting cocaine. It's been a long journey, but last week he signed a new broadcasting deal - with the BBC. Ryan Gilbey discovers what saved Richard Bacon
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It is approaching happy hour in a brightly lit bar in west London, and Richard Bacon is getting the banana smoothies in. No effort is required to imagine him in his days as an eager young pup knocking out on-the-hoof reports for BBC Radio Nottingham. That was in his late teens, but he retains the look of a cub reporter. Indeed, it's probably this that allows him to get away with murder. Just as the spiffiness of his beige checked suit is undercut by a T-shirt and trainers, so his most impertinent or sardonic remarks are tempered by a face that always seems poised to ask for a raise in pocket money, or to stay up late to watch Red Dwarf.

He's trim and gangly, and wears his short, feathery hair spiked up. A smirk lingers at the corners of his mouth at all times. Bacon, 27, has just landed his first full-time contract with the BBC since being sacked nearly six years ago from the children's show Blue Peter after tabloid revelations about cocaine use. The News of the World splash on 18 October 1998 was suitably lurid: "Blue Peter goody-goody is a cocaine snorting sneak". The story told of binges and squalor, vodka and raves. His sacking was followed by an on-screen apology to children and their parents by the BBC's Lorraine Heggessey. Richard Bacon was a social and broadcasting pariah.

He's apologised enough times, but says he can't imagine a time when the scandal isn't mentioned whenever his name crops up. "I'd rather it wasn't always discussed," he sighs, "but it would be odd if it wasn't. It's got boring, hasn't it? Anyone who knows anything about me - well, that's the one thing they'll know for sure. I get asked all the same questions - 'How did your parents feel?' and so on. To tell you the truth, I flick into robot mode. I just can't be arsed."

By all accounts, he now keeps his nose clean, and I'm sure he will do well as Edwina Currie's replacement on Radio Five's Sunday night talk-show. It's not altogether clear, though, whether he has yet fully absorbed the atmosphere at the contrite, post-Hutton BBC. "I went into the office a few days after the Hutton report," he says, "and everyone's going, 'Oh, we've all been a bit down.' I was like, 'Come on, it's the weekend! That was three days ago!'" He shakes his head.

Bacon has about him the air of someone who will never again be flummoxed or wrongfooted. In the years after his departure from Blue Peter, he has cultivated a persona that seems to comment on the absurdity of showbiz culture even as it wallows in it. His first post-scandal gig, for instance, was as a roving reporter on The Big Breakfast, during which he was required to knock on people's doors and invite them to take up some ridiculous challenge or other. Mostly, it provided proof that folk will surrender their dignity if there is a camera in the general vicinity - although there were a few notable exceptions. "Often we'd go to housing estates," he recalls. "You'd bang on someone's door and they'd think it was the police. They'd set the dogs on you, or tell you to fuck off."

For most of his stint on The Big Breakfast - during which he was promoted to chief presenter - he focused on Richard Bacon, becoming a deliberately buffoonish host whose contempt for the media circus of which he was the ringmaster grew increasingly apparent as the show progressed. You could never be sure if he was kidding, or whom the joke was on. It has been said many times that he turned himself into a real-life Alan Partridge. Even Partridge's creator, Steve Coogan, began to notice and warned Bacon to stop ripping him off. "Or words to that effect," winces Bacon, looking fantastically embarrassed for the first and only time in the interview.

All this was a good short-term response to the fallout from the Blue Peter scandal, but the downside is that we may never again believe anything Bacon says. It will be some way into his tenure as a serious host on Radio Five before we discover whether he has quipped himself into a corner.

"Most of the work I do is quite flippant and shallow, but my interest is really in serious news," he says, visibly trying to wipe the smile from his lips. "People always tell me that everything I say sounds sarcastic, even when I'm trying to have a serious conversation." He calls to his friend, Sarah, who's sitting nearby. He had joked about having her sit in on the interview to protect him from hostile questions, but he is more likely to canvass her opinion about matters of tone or interpretation. "Sarah, do you think everything I say sounds sarcastic?" Sarah mulls it over. "You could say that," she says. "If someone didn't know you."

The trouble is that it may not be in Bacon's power to let the public become acquainted with any other side of him. After all, it was one of his best friends who shopped him to the tabloids after a hedonistic night on the tiles. "I am harder to get to know than I used to be," he reflected afterwards. It was only natural that his defences would come up after this betrayal. But the test will be whether he can pull off sincerity when he needs to.

There are flashes of it during our conversation, most obviously when he's paid a compliment or reflects on a time of contentment. He seems genuinely pleased that one of the film reviews he writes for the Sunday People has been quoted in a radio campaign. "It actually said my name! 'Astounding, says Richard Bacon'. I mean, I've been put on posters before, but this..." When I tell him that a colleague made positive remarks about the irreverent show Bacon hosts on XFM, he is plainly over the moon. "Really?" he whoops. "Oh, that's great. Someone wrote the other day that the show is 'well-regarded'. That's usually as close to actual praise as you get."

His XFM Friday drive-time slot finds him at his most enjoyably prickly. A high point has been the film reviews phoned in by Elaine, a deadpan housewife from Ashton-under-Lyne, who sounds like she's in the throes of a Mogadon overdose. Bacon ribs her mercilessly, but, as with his own persona, there's no guarantee that Elaine isn't some perverse comic invention. The pleasure comes from not knowing.

Bacon was raised in Mansfield, near Nottingham. "It's best known for being a former mining town with a high crime-rate," he says. "My dad's a defence lawyer, and it's a good town in which to have that job. Lots of work." He still goes back to visit his parents, though the place has changed. "They'd just got a KFC before I left. I thought, 'Oh, the big boys are taking notice of Mansfield.' Now they've got everything. A multiplex, a gym, a Burger King."

He says he was a cheeky kid at school, but not particularly wayward or rebellious. "I would only flirt with danger. I'd always pull back before it got too serious." His closest schoolfriends were expelled after being caught joyriding. "They invited me to go, but I didn't. Maybe I knew they were overstepping the mark." It would be hard to make the case that Bacon's brush with youthful infamy was not revisited in some way in his early twenties - only this time he didn't quite pull back in time.

He was hired to co-present Blue Peter after sending in a letter pleading with the BBC to rescue him from L!ive TV, where he had been working with the notorious News Bunny and having beer thrown over him by surly superstars. Even now, he speaks of his brief spell in children's television with immense affection.

"It's a comfortable world," he says. "A rock of stability. Week in, week out, they make you feel safe. I loved watching Blue Peter as a kid, and I loved working on it." I point out to him that for many schoolchildren it was a swot's show: admitting that you watched it was akin to asking the teacher for extra homework. Grange Hill was much more important in preserving your credibility. "Really?" he says, looking aghast. "You mean Zammo taking heroin was more entertaining than watching someone make birdseed cake?" His eyes suddenly light up. "They did birdseed cake on there the other day, did you see it? They recycle items all the time. I was there for 20 months and even within that time the same items were coming up."

He has a reason for keeping tabs on the show: his girlfriend Konnie Huq, whom he began dating shortly after being sacked, is a presenter on it. You can believe, though, that he would still be watching it regardless. "You get amazing access," he enthuses. "I actually stood inside Mission Control in Houston while a shuttle mission was under way. I bet even Newsnight wouldn't get that. And I saw the biggest swimming pool I've ever seen, where the astronauts learn weightlessness." He looks around, searching for a way to explain its size. "You just can't. You can't represent how big it is." He gives up and looks charmingly flustered.

The fact remains that, however much he enjoyed the show, he jeopardised his place on it and paid the price. He will concede, though, that the experience provided him with new opportunities. "Oh, I'm not afraid to say that! I used to be, in case people said, 'So taking drugs is a good career move, then?' But I'm a grown-up, and the truth is that getting sacked did allow me to become a different kind of presenter. It did have its advantages; it was in some ways a good thing. The danger back then was that I found it very easy to go mental when I had a night out. But that just doesn't happen now. I don't go to clubs any more."

It's evident that he misses the combination of adventure and discipline provided by Blue Peter, but he's hardly short of work. "I love radio," he beams. "I like to turn up, get something on the air very quickly, then walk away from it. I've got a very short attention-span." Perhaps it is for this reason that he has his fingers in a number of modest pies. As well as the radio shows and the reviewing job, he is still fronting TV series, the latest of which, Back to Reality - Channel 5's novelty entry into the reality-TV stakes - started last night.

Bacon is also keeping busy with Flipside TV, a digital satellite programme conceived and executive-produced by him with his pal James Brown, founder of Loaded magazine. The concept, as Bacon explains it, is to get celebrity guests to channel-surf, commenting on what they discover across the digital stations. "So they might find a documentary about Magnum PI on Bravo and they'll say, 'It's got some interesting facts. I've just found out that Tom Selleck wasn't the first choice to play Magnum.'" He's practically bouncing in his seat. "When it works, it works really well."

There is restlessness in all this activity, but there is also a palpable need for security. "I suppose if I've got five or six things on the go," he reasons, "it doesn't matter too much if one falls through." Suddenly you can understand what it must have been like for him to have months of enforced unemployment after Blue Peter, during which he claims to have done little more than play computer games. Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy are all very well, but they're a long way from Mission Control, Houston. As is Back to Reality, you might say, or any of the other game shows Bacon has fronted on various digital channels.

Still, there's no doubting his enthusiasm, and at least his addictions are restricted to work these days. And to banana smoothies. "Did I have two or three?" he says vaguely, studying the creamy suds in his glass.

Richard Bacon is presenting 'Back to Reality' nightly at 8pm on Channel 5