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Gear-changer: We profile maverick presenter Chris Evans

Published 20/06/2015

Chris Evans
Chris Evans

He's the ultimate media maverick - tearing up the rule book and flaunting his rebellions in public. But can Chris Evans fill Jeremy Clarkson's boots on Top Gear, asks Jane Graham.

It all makes sense now. The much-hyped 20th anniversary, one-off return of TFI Friday Chris Evans hosted last week was going rather swimmingly, its breakneck rush through live music, breezy interviews, puerile features and blokey 'bants' entirely in keeping with the old show many of us remembered with fondness (or cringe, depending on your preference).

Suddenly, 20 minutes before the end, it inexplicably yanked the handbrake and slowed to an interminable snail's pace interview with Lewis Hamilton, a shining example of a talented sportsman with the conversational skills of a bored member of the undead.

He revealed that most of the doors in his house were brown. This unsparkling chinwag was punctuated by a feature with Chris and Jeremy Clarkson chatting in a car, and footage of a racing car celebrity called Jason driving fast in a red Ferrari.

Back in the TFI studio, motorcycling presenter Suzi Perry was gazing on with a greedy gusto. Petrolhead Ewan McGregor was distributing beatific smiles. Someone in the rafters pulled a string and Lewis Hamilton's face was rearranged into a fish-eyed smile. It was a terrible thing to put a TV audience of middle aged mods and ex-party girls through.

But all became clear when, just four days later, the BBC announced that Chris Evans had signed a three-year deal to replace Jeremy Clarkson as the lead presenter on Top Gear. Against our will, we had all been subjected to a pilot for Evans' new look (same as the old look) version of his new TV baby.

Evans certainly has some nerve. The television audience weren't the only victims of his self-fixated Machiavellianism - it's unlikely even Channel 4 knew what was going on (Evans has since admitted that, after a phone call with the BBC two days before TFI's broadcast, he only told his wife and his best friend what was going on.) But no one can be too surprised - having some nerve is what Evans is best known for.

Whether it was walking out of his Radio 1 Breakfast Show because the boss wouldn't let him have a lie-in on Fridays, or parading his teenage pop star girlfriend round the pubs and clubs of London, Evans made his brass-necked ego a feature of his public personality from the start of his career. He has a habit of doing whatever he wants, whenever he feels like doing it.

For his critics, this is what makes him unbearable - a self-congratulating, monomaniacal bigmouth. For his fans - and they are many, his Radio 2 Breakfast Show has an audience of 9.6 million, a million-and-a-half more than the Terry Wogan Show he replaced - his gleeful audacity is what gives him an edge on his rivals.

For them, he is the ultimate media maverick, revelling in his reputation as a man who takes pleasure in upending the rule book and flaunting his rebellions in public. Though surely even they will admit that whizzing around London in a yellow Ferrari is one thing, imposing a monotone Lewis Hamilton and his front-door chat upon an unsuspecting public is quite another.

Now 49, Evans has been well and truly "in showbiz" since he was 26, when he came from nowhere (well, presenting at the now defunct London radio station GLR) to host Channel 4's "revolutionary" The Big Breakfast. While the other channels embraced the established notion of the weekday breakfast show being a polite, well-groomed combination of light-hearted celebrity features and digestible current affairs, Channel 4 saw it as a place to carry on the Tiswas flame.

The Big Breakfast was shouty, manic, often (obviously) improvised, usually silly, and it regularly went wrong. For the brazen young Chris Evans - an "ex-Tarzanogram from Warrington", as he called himself - it was a marriage made in heaven. The show's propensity to mishaps and mistakes seemed to enthral him rather than unnerve him, and he was a star, and top-notch tabloid fodder within months.

With preternatural confidence, Evans quickly established his own production company, Ginger Productions. He left The Big Breakfast after two years to host Ginger's anarchist game show Don't Forget Your Toothbursh. It was an international hit. A year later, he made a deal with Radio 1 execs that, yes, he would come and save their ailing breakfast slot, but only if Ginger Productions, and not the corporation, got to make the show.

Evans' handshake was considerably more steady than the BBC manager's, but he kept his promise. Audience figures rocketed for his raucous 'zoo'-style live show and, while the Radio 1 building resounded to grumbles that the Ginger team were a loud-mouthed, overbearing clique, who cared when they were out-performing their peers so magnificently?

More than that - Evans and his mates became crucial contributors to the British pop culture of the 1990s. Cheeky, laddish, risky, risque in the time of Britpop and Blairism, they were headline-makers and heralds. A year later, Channel 4's TFI Friday was launched, and the fact that it was more of the same only made the brand stronger.

Like all good tales, Evans' storyline takes a big dip halfway through. By the late 1990s, he was as famous for his boozy nights with Gazza as his media work. He demanded a four-day week from Radio 1 and was probably surprised when they refused him.

He abandoned the station, taking his team with him and brazened it out by buying Virgin Radio from Richard Branson for £85m. But TFI was losing its lustre and other productions - Carry On Campus anyone? - limped out of the national consciousness within weeks.

Evans sold Ginger and Virgin to the tune of £225m. In 2000, TFI closed its doors. Rich and hedonistic, he continued to bewitch the tabloids, mainly due to his self-destructive drinking and being photographed with lap-dancers.

He was sacked from Virgin after failing to show up for work for a week, which he instead spent partying with new amour, 18-year-old pop star Billie Piper. The subsequent court case with Virgin lost him millions.

Against an outcry about the couple's 16-year age-gap and the apparent lack of health and safety in their fast-car, binge-drinking relationship, Evans married Piper after six months. But while the wedding - a pink Rolls Royce in Vegas - was as garish as expected and the relationship, at least at first, as alcohol-fuelled, the marriage itself seemed unexpectedly tender and grounded in a strong friendship.

Though the couple separated after three years (longer than Evans' previous, acrimonious marriage to Loose Woman Carol McGiffin), they remain close friends and Piper, who turned her back on the music industry, has often claimed that the devoted Evans "saved my life".

It was an older and tiny bit wiser Evans who returned from his self-imposed absence from the spotlight in 2010 to take over Terry Wogan's mantle at Radio 2. Married for a third time, to professional golfer Natasha Shishmanian, and now a father, his first few shows met with angry resistance from the Old Tel faithful.

Five years on, he is a huge hit and now the motormouth car fanatic has landed a job which, bearing in mind Top Gear's alleged 350 million global audience, could well make him an international superstar.

A little tip though, Chris: don't book Lewis Hamilton. Even if he offers you an exclusive on where he gets his carpets.

A life so far...

Born: April Fools' Day, 1966, Warrington

Family: Mother Minnie Beardsall owned a corner shop. Father Martin Evans was a bookmaker. He has two older siblings, David and Diane.

Married: Loose Woman presenter Carol McGiffin, 1991-1994. Pop star and actress Billie Piper 2001-2005. Pro golfer and model Natasha Shishmanian 2007, with whom he has a six-year-old son, Noah

Career: Began as a producer at BBC GLR London station. Hosted Channel 4's The Big Breakfast from 1992-1994. Presenter/producer of Radio 1 Breakfast Show from 1995-1997. TFI Friday 1996-2000. Bought Virgin Radio in 1997, sold it in 2000, and was sacked as breakfast show host in 2001. He became the presenter of the Radio 2 Breakfast Show in 2010

Belfast Telegraph

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