A Virgin rebirth: the restlessness of Chris Evans

His decision to quit Europe’s biggest radio programme has surprised BBC insiders and listeners alike.

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Early in the morning on Monday 3 September, the first bars of The Beatles’ “Twist And Shout” blasted out to BBC Radio 2 breakfast show listeners. “That’s the thing about life,” said presenter Chris Evans over the music. “You have to keep shaking it up.”

At eight minutes to eight, Evans announced his departure from Europe’s biggest radio programme, which broadcasts between 6.30am-9.30am with 9.12 million listeners a week.

“Some of us are mountain climbers,” said the 52-year-old, who has presented the weekday show for eight out of his 13 years at Radio 2. “And if you get to the top of your favourite mountain and you just stay there, then you become a mountain observer, and I need to keep climbing.”

Evans, who made his name for familiar, mildly anarchic light entertainment on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast in the early Nineties, has surprised BBC insiders and listeners alike with his plan to return to the now digital-only Virgin Radio breakfast show, which he hosted from 1997-2001 when the station was owned by Richard Branson.

Although Evans calls Virgin Radio his “spiritual home”, it lacks the identity and listenership of Radio 2, with only 413,000 tuning in each week compared with 15 million. It is also now owned by Wireless Group, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corp – which Evans refused to sue when he discovered his phone had been hacked because it would be “tantamount to dealing with the devil”.

The move, which Evans contemplated for around a year, stunned the industry. “No one saw it coming,” Radio 4 (and occasional Radio 2) presenter Paddy O’Connell told the BBC’s Today programme on the morning the news broke.

Evans is the second major presenter to have deserted the BBC for commercial stations (Radio 4’s popular Eddie Mair left PM for the drivetime slot on LBC). The Corporation fears it is losing talent after being forced last year to disclose its stars’ salaries. Indeed, Evans was revealed as the BBC’s highest earner in 2017, paid between £2.2m and £2.25m a year. “Just pay us less, that’s what I would do – it’s not rocket science,” he remarked at the time.

Evans, who fell to second place behind Gary Lineker this year – after ending his short stint presenting the unpopular Top Gear reboot – is unlikely to be motivated solely by financial gain.

He was already billed as the UK’s highest-paid entertainer in 2000 after the £225m sale of his television company Ginger Media Group, which produced his signature chat and music show TFI Friday (he was the presenter from 1996-2000).

Insiders believe Evans’s next self-described “adventure” owes more to his impulsive nature. In 1997, he left BBC Radio 1’s breakfast show after two years, having professed on air that he was too ill to present, and complained about working on Fridays. On the handover show that followed his resignation, Evans pointedly played Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”.

After a series of his misdemeanours on the show – such as taking staff on a 17-hour pub crawl that ended just two hours before he was due on air – Radio 1 plastered a mock advertisement for his job on a sign in London’s Piccadilly Circus: “Wanted. Radio 1 breakfast DJ. Must work five-day week. Ginger hair an advantage. Apply 97-99 FM Radio 1.”

At Virgin Radio, to which Evans defected, his no-shows and diva-like behaviour continued, and he was eventually dismissed in 2001. Having claimed he was too unwell to present his show, he was seen out drinking with Billie Piper, the 18-year-old pop star and his then wife (they amicably divorced in 2007 after six years of marriage).

After a series of unsuccessful television endeavours by UMTV, the production company he founded in 2002, Evans opened a stall in Camden Market, selling furniture from his LA and London homes and displaying props from his past presenting gigs, such as two giant toothbrushes from Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, his cult 1994-95 Channel 4 game show.

“I just want to get rid of it all, it’s just a headache,” he said of the stall. “It feels good to be selling this stuff, it’s a weight off my mind.” An entrepreneurial spirit was evident in his early days when he was striving for work in his hometown of Warrington, Cheshire, where he was a forklift truck driver and performed at parties as a “Tarzanogram”.

Evans returned to TV in 2010, presenting The One Show every Friday, before he quit to take on Top Gear after the departure of Jeremy Clarkson – an ill-fated venture that damaged his reputation and ended after just six episodes. His style was thought to be too hyperactive for a Sunday evening audience, and he failed to gel with his American co-presenter, actor Matt LeBlanc, of Friends fame. The original Stig called the first episode “really bad”.

Yet with Evans still hugely popular among radio listeners, his latest move is rather low-risk by his standards: less climbing high peaks than wandering in the foothills.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left