Andrew Lowry on Chris Evans’ unlikely return to glory
Something strange happened recently. A Jurassic film was in cinemas with a Terminator on the way, and a ginger bloke was introducing Liam Gallagher from a bar. The TFI Friday bar. Britain seemed to fall through a temporal vortex into the Nineties, presided over by one Chris Evans. He of encouraging Shaun Ryder to swear on teatime TV, sacking off his radio show for benders with Billie Piper and becoming Britain’s highest-paid entertainer while barely in his thirties.
Evans never really went away, of course. He just became your dad’s second favourite presenter (after Clarkson) as a Radio 2 mainstay, and wooed your nan on The One Show. But now, with his move to Top Gear and Channel 4 wanting more TFI, he’s TV’s equivalent of those videos where returning soldiers surprise their families. It’s clear why: Evans was still in his element, cramming more ideas into TFI’s 90-odd minutes than The X Factor has had in a decade, visibly enjoying the ramshackle structure and skilfully recreating the original’s night-out-on-your sofa feel. We returned to that time between the Berlin Wall and 9/11, when the world seemed to be getting better. Critics and public alike went bananas, hoofing it to viewing figures that were truly impressive in this multi-screen age.
Defining an era
Most impressive, however, is the fact we’re clutching Evans to our national breast once again. His meteoric rise was matched only by a spectacular fall. As a mix of luck and business savvy led Evans to become a media mogul, a mix of hubris and a Nineties appetite for having it large led to a downfall.
“He works at it,” says Evans’ long-time Radio 2 producer Helen Thomas. “There’s nobody with a work ethic like him.” It was this appetite for effort that took Evans from his first jobs – from a private detective to stripper – to various jobs at Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio, even being Timmy Mallett’s assistant. Presenting on GLR came next, then Sky, then a few months at Radio 1, before 1992’s turning point: The Big Breakfast (YouTube it and marvel at how 23 years ago feels centuries distant). Transplanting radio’s popular manic ‘zoo’ format to TV – charismatic host with guffawing cronies, and blurring of scenes and behind-the-scenes – Evans was a sensation. When The Word was establishing the sneer as the default mode of a generation, his enthusiasm was infectious – and his formats’ successes were no fluke. “His idea generation is phenomenal,” says Thomas. “He’ll have 10 in the lift – five are great, two we can do something with, and three should never see the light of day. There’s a lot of effort that goes into making it seem so effortless.”
Spotting that the real scratch in broadcasting was in selling ideas abroad, Evans set up Ginger Productions in 1994. His coronation came in 1995 with Radio 1’s breakfast show. Listeners came in droves, and squares just didn’t get it, man.
Believing your own hype
This was Evans’ imperial period. TFI launched in 1996, and became the most memorable TV artefact of its time. The merry, cokey atmosphere of the show was pretty much the vibe of the Nineties condensed in TV form.
“He is off-air as he is on-air,” says Thomas. “He’s always said that you can’t pretend to be who you’re not.” It would be odd, then, if the man presenting a televised piss-up didn’t imbibe a little. “A few years back, we’d watch videos of TFI and he’d reminisce,” says Alex Jones, Evans’ co-host on The One Show. “He couldn’t remember making those shows. I think a lot of that is because he was in the moment, so high on adrenaline, he got lost in it.”
It takes a strong constitution not to let success go your head, and after a few years Evans started to strain his boot seams. His Radio 1 tenure ended acrimoniously, so he moved to Virgin Radio (which he also bought, in conjunction with Ginger’s investors). After selling Ginger for £225m in 2000, Evans continued at Virgin. His work ethic faded and the drinking culminated in an almighty session in June 2001, after he’d called in sick. Virgin’s owners showed him the door and, in a subsequent court case, Evans’ dismissal was decreed legit by a judge, whose ruling used words such as “prima donna” to describe his behaviour.
From humble new beginnings
The wilderness years followed, and Evans struggled to find a hit. By 2005 he was making steps back to the BBC – starting with cover shifts. “The controller of Radio 2 called me to say she’d found somebody to do the bank holiday show,” says Thomas. “I went down to reception and saw him sitting there. He looked so nervous. We went for a coffee to talk through ideas. After about 10 minutes he blurted out: ‘I’ll be honest, I think I’m going to have a heart attack.’”
These led to a regular slot on Radio 2 Drivetime in 2006, then a return to the breakfast slot in 2010. The One Show saw him back on TV, climaxing with the recent double whammy of the Top Gear job and the TFI resurrection. So what’s changed to bring a man known to catch 40 winks in Stringfellows to the hearts of the nation’s mums?
“He openly says he was an idiot back then,” says Thomas. “He was in the eye of the storm, and he believed the hype. He’s in a totally different place in his life [now] – he’s settled with a family, and realises where he went wrong. He won’t let it happen again.”
Please don’t, mate.
From Good to Bad Evans
The less well-remembered TV shows on Chris's CV
A misguided attempt to retool the TFI Friday model for the day when people are suffering from the night before rather than warming up for it. It lacked the 'everyone's invited to the party' fun of TFI and instead felt like sitting near Evans in the pub while he and his mates enjoyed private jokes.
Boys & Girls
This Vernon Kaye-fronted game show had a baffling game mechanic and some unpleasant undertones ('Babe or Minger?' was a low point). It lasted six episodes.
Johnny Vegas: 18 Stone of Idiot
Vegas described it as a show designed to be "so ridiculous that there was no way they'd ever recommission it". Mission accomplished, then. Vegas makes a great guest, but as a host his randomness was faintly terrifying.
The Terry & Gaby Show
How could things go wrong with a gentle chat show featuring Terry Wogan and former Big Breakfast host Gaby Roslin? Struggled due to the fact it was on Channel 5 against This Morning - like entering an F1 race in a bathtub.