Sunday, September 18, 2005

ONI Sunday

I remember when Chris Evans was good. This is worth pointing out, because a lot of people have more or less forgotten that he was ever any good, and have been generally quite pleased not to have heard from him over the last few years. But now he's attempting a comeback as a presenter, which will probably as embarrassing as most of his recent projects. So it's as well to remember: there was a time when he was good.

Chris Evans' comeback plans consist of a weekly radio show on Radio 2, which started today, and something for ITV with the working title of ONI Sunday. Given that Evans dwindled from our screens while producing endless rehashes of TFI Friday, the title isn't exactly encouraging. The fact that somebody thought it was worth mentioning in a press release boggles the mind. You might as well say, "Hey, we've given Chris Evans a new show. And it's going to be the same old shit."

When Chris Evans started out as a presenter, back in 1990, his schtick was that he was one of us - an outsider looking in at the world of celebrities. Hard as it may be to believe in retrospect, a regular feature on his Radio 1 show involved him quizzing celebrities about such things as the price of a pint of milk, in order to demonstrate how out of touch celebrities were. To judge from the way he acted for most of the last decade, if Evans even remembers doing this feature, he probably no longer recalls why it was funny.

The show that made his name, The Big Breakfast, was ideal for him. Evans is a personality presenter - somebody who can't strictly speaking be the focus of a show, but who needs a format that gives him the chance to go off on tangents and be himself. The Big Breakfast, a sprawling breakfast show of ramshackle and seemingly arbitrary items, was ideal for him (just as it was ideal for Johnny Vaughan a few years later), because it provided just enough framework to let him show what he could do. Most of Evans' later magazine programmes and game shows - like Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday - try to recreate that open-ended, random, whatever-we-feel-like-doing format, with varying degrees of success. The dreadful Vernon Kaye vehicle Girls & Boys, also one of Evans' creations, sticks to the same formula.

The games and stunts which worked for him in the first half of the nineties worked because he was seen as a loveably, cheeky outsider having fun on the margins. The ramshackle nature of the shows played into that. Chris Evans made a career as somebody the audience identified with as "one of us". The shows fall apart without that.

But Chris Evans is ultimately a presenter, and he needs something to present. This is where the Radio 1 breakfast show went so horribly wrong. It seemed like a logical move, for good reasons. Evans got an open-ended format which played to his strengths, and Radio 1 - then in the throes of overhauling the station and aiming for a younger and more fashionable audience - got a top celebrity to endorse their new direction.

Unfortunately, the longer it went on, Chris Evans' radio show ceased to be about Chris Evans presenting anything, and became simply a daily exhibition of Chris Evans as an object of veneration. What would once have been "here's a whacky event I've decided to set up" soon transformed into "look what I can get away with because I'm so famous." Moving the entire show to Inverness for a week on a whim was a turning point, as Evans descended on a minor local studio, proudly proclaimed how great it was to have that sort of influence to get things done so quickly, and proceeded to insult and generally run down the host of the breakfast show on a rival local station for no apparent reason other than that Evans considered him laughably provincial.

And at this point, the audience starts to twig: You're not one of us any more.

Soon after, Evans began a ridiculous feud with BBC management over his absurd insistence that he should be allowed to take Fridays off. He had become so used to getting his own way on everything that he seemed genuinely shocked at being turned down. When Evans simply stopped showing up for work, audiences swiftly realised that not only was Evans not one of us any more, but he had become a complete asshole, with an ego and a sense of entitlement wholly divorced from the real world.

And the moment the audience decide they don't like him any more... well, that's the end of that. It's been a slow decline ever since. His breakfast show on Virgin Radio never found anything new to do with the format, and the bizarre decision to simulcast part of the show on Sky One so that viewers could watch him drinking tea during the records seemed like insane narcissism rather than playful self-indulgence. Marrying Billie Piper - a 19-year-old girl 16 years younger than him - didn't exactly improve his image. He had long since passed from "I wish I could get away with that" to "Who does this prick think he is?"

All of which is a shame, because he had - and presumably still has - real talent. He's just a particularly bad example of fame going to somebody's head. He went through a phase of being incredibly successful, and then surrounded himself with yes men for the next few years. I remember being backstage at T in the Park in 1997 (I was working for their radio station that year), by which time Chris Evans had just passed his peak. He turned up in the backstage bar area, where all had been quiet for a couple of days with bands milling about between their sets, and was promptly mobbed as the biggest celebrity there. In the backstage area. God help him. That sort of thing has to go to your head after a while, and unfortunately, it did.

Hopefully a few years spent (relatively) out of the public eye might have grounded him again, but it's going to be difficult for Chris Evans to ever recapture the connection he used to have with the audience. And any sort of rehash of TFI Friday is bound to seem dated - the "random items" formula having been thoroughly mainstreamed by Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. At this point in his career, what can he actually do? ONI Sunday is being billed as "blending discussion of the weeks events with special guests and live music", and it's hard to conceive that he can possibly be intending a serious current affairs element. (Not with interview quotes like "ONI Sunday is a live end of week show confirming the nuttiness of planet Earth and the people who live in it" - which makes it sound painfully end-of-pier on top of everything else.)

Then again, Evans' formats have never been all that great - which is one of the reasons why he's been responsible for producing so many flops during his time off screen. With TFI Friday, The Big Breakfast and Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, it was never the strength of the format that made the shows successful, but the opportunities which they gave to a charismatic frontman. For Evans to create similar shows and then hand them over to Vernon Kaye misses the point by a mile - while over on ITV, the equally random Saturday Night Takeaway draws huge ratings simply by giving Ant and Dec a platform for their act.

Maybe he'll prove me wrong. Maybe he'll manage to reinvent his persona in a way that makes people like him again. It would be nice to think so, because he must have some good shows left in him yet. But there's so much damage to undo that it may be a hopeless task. And TFI Friday 2005 is surely not the show to do it.