Interview: Clever being stupid: William Leith meets Danny Baker, a chat show host whose secret is that he risks looking like an idiot but doesn't - most of the time

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IT'S HARD to catch everything Danny Baker says in his late night Saturday chat show, Danny Baker After All, because he says it so fast, burbling most things off the top of his head. It looks like he's unprepared, like he's making it up on the spot. With its house band and its mildly anarchic humour, it looks like a more off-the-cuff version of Jonathan Ross's The Last Resort, which, in its turn, resembles the prototype of its kind, the US show Late Night With David Letterman.

Baker is about to introduce one of his guests, the singer Nick Heyward, who has just released an album. The picture on the album sleeve is a plateful of food. So Baker, a former rock journalist, says: 'As I say in my forthcoming autobiography about the world of rock journalism, Five Years In A Dope- Filled Room, the question we always used to ask about an album was: 'Does it have a fry-up on the cover?' ' He's talking a lot of nonsense, and everybody in the studio audience is laughing, and you wonder how dreadfully embarrassing it would be if they weren't.

But this, essentially, is what Danny Baker does: he takes the risk of looking like an idiot, and usually doesn't. It's what has made his daily Radio 5 show, the Morning Edition, such a success; it's why his extraordinary football phone-in show, also on Radio 5, Six-O-Six, was so funny, and it's why Baker has just been poached by Radio 1 to replace Dave Lee Travis. He's entertaining, but not too slick. Sometimes he does slip up - and it's embarrassing, because he has much less protective smarm than the hosts of other talk shows. Two weeks ago, on the first episode of After All, he began to get nervous, to dry up. 'It's rip and read television,' he tells me later, 'ie immediate. I go to work when the show's on.'

Baker, described by his executive producer, John Whiston, as 'a thirtysomething guy with attitude', looks out towards the studio audience, and says: 'I was going through the centre of London . . . and I saw this group of Muslim women, dressed up in the full whack, just the eyes and everything, taking photographs of each other in rotation]' That's the sort of thing he says; it's what John Birt calls his 'invigorating torrents of thought'.

Next, Baker interviews the actor Richard E Grant, who was in Dracula, and who tells Baker: 'Don't ask about Keanu (Reeves)'s accent.' Baker: 'Makes Dick Van Dyke sleep easier these days.'

Later, after Grant has walked off, Baker says to camera: 'I think for the first time in my life I just found a man attractive. There's something strange about Richard E Grant . . . don't want to shag him, though.' At this point, Fred Baker, Danny's father, who is sitting in the audience, turns to his wife, his mouth and eyes wide open. They nod at each other; they are familiar with this kind of thing. Their son's been doing it for years. 'There's a line of garrulous performers running through the family,' Baker tells me. 'It comes from me nan, me father's mother.'

DANNY BAKER, 36, still lives where he grew up, in Deptford, south London, and sends his two children, Bonny, nine, and Sonny, six, to the local school. 'It's not some kind of principled stand,' he says. 'We just have nice neighbours, it's a nice place to live.' His father was a docker; his mother worked in a biscuit factory.

Baker left school at 16 to work in a record shop in the West End. In 1976, one of his friends, Mark Perry, started Sniffin' Glue, the first punk fanzine. Baker wrote for it, notably satirising the vagaries of punk, rather than just saying how great it was, the staple of most subsequent fanzines. Perry and Baker were interviewed on television by Janet Street-Porter. Now, Perry works for Lewisham council; Baker still sees him occasionally.

In 1977, Baker was in a punk club on the day Elvis died. When the DJ read the news over the PA system, a cheer went up. 'I thought this was awful,' Baker tells me. 'I got up on stage and told 'em off.' This became a famous incident in the annals of punk - the fanzine writer, berating his fellow punks for their nihilism. 'Here was a guy getting up on stage with long hair telling them to respect Elvis,' says the journalist Charles Shaar Murray, who has known Baker since the Seventies. 'And they took it because it was Baker.' Danny Baker says: 'I was shocked when Elvis died. I'm a traditionalist. I like Elvis. I like Sinatra. I like P G Wodehouse.'

Then, in 1977, Baker was offered a job on the New Musical Express. He didn't accept, but agreed to become the receptionist. 'Partly I think because he was just lazy,' Neil Spencer, then editor, told the Guardian. Pretty soon, though, Baker was spending time in the office, writing reviews, headlines, captions. 'The NME at that time was pretty dour and intense,' said Spencer, 'and Danny was a brilliant counterpoint - the funniest, most populist writer the NME ever had.' His writing, like his chat show style, took off at sudden, inspired tangents. He would introduce an album review with a discussion about how, when he left his house, he was filled with 'a constant, nagging dread' that the house would burn down, and then compare this dread to some aspect of the music.

Baker's interviews were brilliant. He is one of the last people to have interviewed Michael Jackson - in 1981. He asked Jackson what he knew about the Sex Pistols, and Jackson asked him what he knew about Benny Hill.

Then came television. Baker received a call from Janet Street-

Porter, who wanted him to present a youth programme called 20th Century Box. Then, he became a presenter on LWT's The Six O'Clock Show. Paul Ross, brother of Jonathan, a researcher on the show, was impressed. 'He's steeped in popular culture,' he told the Guardian. I thought I was the Trivial Pursuit king of TV, but he made me look like an illiterate.' And then, after the show finished, Baker found himself out of work. He was employed by STV to make a game show that involved monkeys, but the programme was stopped by animal rights activists. So he was unemployed for 18 months. Finally, he got a job as a presenter on Thames's The Bottom Line. The show was a flop, and only six episodes were made. 'It went straight down the toilet without any hope of parole,' Baker has said. 'It was a stinker.'

Chastened by the experience, Baker turned down game show after game show. Then he was asked by the new Radio 5 to present a live football phone-in show, Six-O-Six. It was brilliant. Angry fans called in on a Saturday afternoon, just after the results had come through. Baker fielded the calls expertly, with wit and understanding, being a lifelong Millwall supporter himself; he still watches them almost every week. And something else emerged - his ability to talk off the cuff over long periods of airtime - and make people laugh. Radio 5 offered him a talk show every weekday morning, the Morning Edition. This was even better. 'It's innocence that leads you into a formula like that,' he tells me. 'I don't need much. I just bring along my records and open the phone lines and get on with it.'

Now Baker is leaving Radio 5 to do a weekend show on Radio 1. This is because he hopes his weekly television show, scheduled for eight episodes, will eventually be on air more than once a week - every weekday night, he hopes. 'The Morning Edition is the best thing I've ever done,' he says. 'And it might be the best thing I ever do. But I have to have some time with my family. I can't leave home in darkness and come back in darkness.'

The third episode of After All looks fine. Baker does an item where he advertises a spoof video, Danny Baker's 101 Showbiz Hugs, in which he is filmed hugging various TV stars. 'If it does as well as the football one (101 Great Goals), I'm on a gravy train with biscuit wheels,' he says. There's an item about bit-part actors - this week it's a Karl Marx impersonator who also works as a Santa Claus. 'I bet you give every kid exactly the same toy,' says Baker. 'Only kidding - just a little Communism schtick.' When he interviews Ben Elton, he gets talking about doing television ads - he's done Mars and Daz. 'I may have in my time said 'Even at 40 degrees',' he says, smirking.

Baker says: 'Sometimes I go into a bookshop and say, oh, nuts . . .'

Elton teases: 'I bet you've never thought 'oh nuts' in your life . . .'

Baker: 'Occasionally, I go into a bookshop and think: 'Oh, f--- it]' ' Later, he says to camera: 'You'd be amazed how much swearing we've edited out of this.'

After the show, he tells me: 'No, I wouldn't feel pressurised if I did this every day. I'm kicking my heels till Thursday, which is when I write it. And if there are one or two bad shots in it - people are sophisticated enough to see it and know that it's a bad shot - so what? People have just been saying, the thing with Ben, that was like a conversation. Like, I didn't know the name of his latest book - so I ask him, right? Of course it's like a conversation. It is a conversation.'

Baker talks twice as fast, and twice as enthusiastically, as a normal person. 'Rip and read,' he keeps saying. 'Rip and read.'

(Photograph omitted)

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