Noel's big deal: The rise and fall and resurrection of Noel Edmonds

Once he was the darling of the airwaves and the BBC's favourite presenter for the Saturday evening slot. Now, after five years in the broadcasting wilderness, he's winning audiences for his Channel 4 game show.

Terry Kirby
Thursday 23 March 2006 01:00 GMT

When the full history of the career of Noel Edmonds comes to be written, they will probably be known as the wilderness years. It was during this period, sometime after he was last a ubiquitous presence on our television screens, that Edmonds, his wife and children, strode into the departure lounge at Corfu airport, as close a place to Hell on earth as anywhere can be at the height of the summer season.

As Edmonds and his entourage sought vainly among the heaving throng for somewhere to sit while waiting for the return flight to Gatwick from their two-week package holiday on the Greek island, the odd head or two was thrown in their direction, as happens when celebrities and the like are spotted out and about doing normal things.

Most of the reactions were ones of puzzlement, only a few of instant recognition and there were certainly no requests for autographs and handshakes. And among the younger ones and teenagers, there was no idea at all why their parents were muttering: "Isn't it that bloke whatsisname off the telly?" In response to one 12-year-old's inquiry as to who this rather glossy-looking chap was, a father confided: "That's Noel Edmonds. He used to be famous, once."

And so he was. For almost 30 years, from his arrival as a DJ on Radio One in 1969, Edmonds was everywhere - in our radios and on our television screens, surviving parody, tragedy, business failures and terrible sweaters, becoming first a stalwart of Saturday morning children's television and then, for a decade, the lynchpin of the BBC's Saturday evening programming, when the slot mattered. He fronted Top of the Pops, Top Gear and Come Dancing; took part in Live Aid and helped launch the National Lottery. This is the man who must take the blame for giving the world Captain Beaky and Hissing Sid, Crinkley Bottom, the Gotcha and Mr Blobby.

And he became very wealthy on the back of all this light entertainment populism, these silly stunts and daft characters. Once, he would never have dreamed of submitting himself to the trauma of a package holiday, This is a man who boasted about BA upgrades, had a collection of fast cars and even his private helicopter.

Then, in 1999, it all came crashing down when the BBC axed his Noel's House Party - invariably referred to as "madcap" - amid falling ratings and a feeling it had outstayed its welcome as the Saturday evening demographic shifted. Edmonds retired to his Devon mansion to nurse his wounds, count his pay-off from the BBC and revive his business interests. If it was, he told an interviewer in January, his "purgatory", his moment in the Corfu departure lounge was certainly his hell.

Now he's back. Edmonds is suddenly popular as an interview subject again because of the success of Deal Or No Deal, an old-fashioned afternoon game show he has been fronting on Channel Four since last October and which has been earning ratings of up to five million viewers, a huge number for such a daytime slot. Yesterday, it was reported that Edmonds was negotiating a £3m pay deal for a further 18-month contract with Endemol, which would make him one of the highest paid presenters on television, alongside figures such as Paul O'Grady and Graham Norton. Although there's no suggestion Edmonds needs the money - he had to be persuaded to do it - and his spokesman denied the figures as "gross exaggeration", he'd probably be mad not to stay with the show.

But whether or not Edmonds can reclaim his full place in the national consciousness remains to be seen. While hugely popular, he never quite attained the status of national treasure in the same way that his idol, Kenny Everett, did, possibly because he has always seemed a little to smooth and polished. While Everett famously publicly supported the Conservatives, it always seemed like a bit of a fanciful joke. No one would be surprised, one feels, if Edmonds, now said to be worth £20m and a Countryside Alliance backer, came out for Cameron.

Neither does he go out of his way to court popularity among those he works with: "He's not one of those people who have to be pushed into working hard, he's very self-motivated and doesn't suffer fools gladly," said someone who worked closely with him. "A lot of people think that he's a bit sharp and arrogant. But he's a classic small man and liked to get his defence in first." Others are more charitable: "He's very professional, with a very strong work ethic. He's quite old school," said a London media figure who knows him well.

Edmonds was a bright boy from a middle-class Essex family heading for Surrey University to study psychology, philosophy and sociology when he got an invitation in November 1968 to work as a newsreader on Radio Luxembourg. His experience had been limited to local hospital radio - the proving ground for many a DJ and announcer - and they had heard one of his audition tapes for the then defunct pirate ships, Radio Caroline and Radio London.

After only a few months in the Grand Duchy, he returned to London and secured a job doing jingles and trailers for BBC Radio One. A stand-in stint for Everett led to his own Saturday afternoon show and then, when Everett was fired after one of his on-air outrages, he took over on Saturday mornings.

By 1971, he was regularly hosting Top of the Pops and in 1973 came the big break, taking over from Tony Blackburn as the host of the prestigious Radio One Breakfast Show. Trevor Dann, a former head of Radio One, who would go on to produce Edmonds' Sunday morning show, believes he is underrated as a radio pioneer: "He is part of a line of creative DJs that includes people like Everett, Steve Wright and Chris Evans. We should not underestimate the fact that in his day, he was brilliant on radio - inventive and different.

"This was before 'zoo radio' when you surrounded yourself with a bunch of cronies, as Evans did. Noel would pre-record many of his links and create all these songs, sketches and voices himself. And in the days before email and text communication, he was brilliant at reading out listeners' letters, he would really make them come alive."

In the early Eighties, Edmund's Sunday-morning show, broadcast from the fictional Perkins Grange and featuring the characters of Captain Beaky and Hissing Sid, would become the highest rated radio programme, after Today and The Chart Show.

But the lure of television proved irresistible. From 1976 to 1982, Edmonds hosted the Saturday morning Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, alongside Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin. As well as music, competitions and interviews, it included a hugely popular slot where children would ring up to exchange toys.

He moved onto Saturday evenings and The Late Late Breakfast Show, which featured members of the public taking part in stunts. But the show was axed in November 1986 after one participant, Michael Lush, was killed during a rehearsal for a bungee jumping stunt. Amid the subsequent furore, Edmonds almost retired from television, but was persuaded to continue by the then head of BBC, Bill Cotton. He returned in 1988 with the Noel Edmonds Saturday Roadshow, which eventually became Noel's House Party, presented each week from the fictional town of Crinkley Bottom. It was a staple of the BBC's Saturday schedules for eight years, reaching viewing figures of 17 million at its peak and making a star of the character of Mr Blobby (a bloke in a pink spotty fat suit).

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Edmonds was everywhere - fronting Come Dancing, Top Gear, the popular quiz show Telly Addicts, part of Live Aid and the National Lottery, and a host of awards ceremonies. He was the all-purpose presenter: reliable, wholesome, bankable.

Outside the cosy world of Crinkley Bottom, things were not so good. The bouffant-haired, "charidee" supporting, sweater-wearing breed of Radio One DJs were ruthlessly parodied by Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield in Smashy and Nicey. Edmonds also fell victim to hoaxer Chris Morris in an episode of the spoof documentary Brass Eye, when he railed against the fictitious drug, Cake. And he failed to see the joke afterwards.

His outside interests also brought controversy. Edmonds, who owned the rights to all his formats, licensed the Mr Blobby name to a number of theme parks. At one, in Morecambe, Lancashire, there was a dispute with the local council over the management of the park, inevitable dubbed "Blobbygate".

Then came disaster. In 1997, Garry Malley, a nine-year old boy with special educational needs, was killed in a helicopter crash during a flight sponsored by Edmonds' charity, The Airborne Trust. Less than two years later, NHP was axed.

In the six years that followed, little was heard of Edmonds. He concentrated on his business interests, which include making radio and television programmes. He is the patron of several charities, including the not-for-profit Renewable Energy Foundation, and is chairman of the British Horse Society.

Unlike Terry Wogan and Chris Evans, who found a niche on Radio 2 when their television careers imploded, Edmonds did not impress when he stood in for Johnny Walker in 2003. "I think people were disappointed with him. He was seriously rusty and didn't get asked back," said the former colleague.

But his poor performance may have had something to do with the fact that his marriage to Helen, his wife of 18 years and mother of their four daughters, was then breaking up. According to one recent interview, Edmonds now lives part of the time in a Bristol hotel, close to where Deal Or No Deal is recorded for two weeks on the trot.

So what next? Does the one-time King of Saturday Night Television plan to become the Prince of Weekday Afternoons? One close friend said: "He genuinely feels lucky to have found another life in television. And no, there's no grand strategy. He's enjoying the moment.'

Ten Noel moments

By Deborah Linton

October 1976

Already a successful Radio One DJ, Edmonds joins Keith Chegwin and a purple fabric dinosaur on Multicoloured Swap Shop, the BBC's answer to the anarchic Tiswas.

November 1986

The Late, Late Breakfast Show is taken off the air when 25-year-old hod carrier Michael Lush dies after a bungee clip springs loose during a rehearsal for the show's "Give it a Whirl" stunt feature.

November 1991

Noel's House Party is launched, featuring gunge, practical jokes and features such as "The Big Pork Pie" in which a victim is hooked up to a lie detector and asked: "Did you once do something a bit rude and silly?" In February 1993, it is awarded a Bafta for best light entertainment show.

December 1993

House Party fixture Mr Blobby makes it to the Christmas Number One slot.

October 1994

"Blobbygate" sparks a legal battle between Edmonds and Lancaster City Council over Morecambe's World of Crinkley Bottom theme park, which closed after 13 weeks in business. Edmonds declared the fiasco "the greatest local government scandal of modern times".

February 1997

Spoof documentary Brass Eye was aired, in which Edmonds was persuaded by arch surrealist Chris Morris to campaign against a fictitious drug Cake.

July 1997

Garry Malley, nine, is killed in a helicopter crash during a flight sponsored by Edmonds' children's charity, the Airborne Trust. An inquiry is told an administrative error caused the Kwik-Fit owned helicopter to be overloaded.

March 1999

Edmonds is gunged during the last broadcast of House Party.

January 2005

Newspapers reveal Edmonds and his wife have split, and that she is having an affair with her Pilates instructor.

October 2005

Edmonds returns to television with Deal Or No Deal, a Channel 4 quiz show made by Endemol. It is an instant success.

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