Sunday 4 December 2016

'Too frothy and disposable to fill the Clarkson-shaped void' - The trouble with Chris Evans

The presenter has a chequered history, but allegations of sexual assault and an abrupt departure from 'Top Gear' has set tongues wagging again. Ed Power looks back at a colourful broadcasting career

Published 06/07/2016 | 02:30

Chris Evans lasted one series hosting 'Top Gear' on BBC after replacing Jeremy Clarkson.
Chris Evans lasted one series hosting 'Top Gear' on BBC after replacing Jeremy Clarkson.
Chris Evans and current wife Natasha Shishmanian
Chris Evans with old friends Danny Baker and Paul Gascoigne in 1999.
Chris Evans and ex-wfe Billy Piper in 2001.

The least surprising "surprise" tweet in light entertainment history arrived a little after 3pm yesterday afternoon as controversial new 'Top Gear' host Chris Evans announced he was quitting.

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"Stepping down from 'Top Gear'," Evans declared. "Gave it my best shot but sometimes that's not enough. The team are beyond brilliant, I wish them all the best."

The tweet came hours after the story broke that the presenter was being investigated for allegations of historic sex abuse, but Evans had essentially been a dead presenter walking for several weeks.

Ratings for the new 'Top Gear' - which saw the 50-year-old breakfast radio host taking over from the sacked Jeremy Clarkson - have been in a tail-spin, bottoming out at 1.9 million for Sunday night's final episode.

Chris Evans and current wife Natasha Shishmanian
Chris Evans and current wife Natasha Shishmanian

Meanwhile speculation has swirled that co-host Matt LeBlanc was threatening to walk unless Evans was replaced (rumours denied by the BBC). Adding to Evans' predicament was news that British police were to question him over the allegations of sexual assault which date back to the 90s, a time when he was TV's most recognisable star. Truly, here was a career pile-up from which there was no clean getaway.

Evans was always going to be a contentious replacement for Clarkson, who parted ways with the BBC after allegedly thumping his Irish-born producer while filming the popular car show last year. The new boy was regarded by many as too frothy and disposable to fill the Clarkson-shaped void suddenly at the heart of the BBC's $60 million franchise - a light entertainer sure to be found out when the petrolhead chips were down.

In the event, his tenure as the new face of the 'Top Gear' brand was more disastrous than even his most vocal detractors had predicted. Evans was nervous and abrasive from the beginning, with critics disdainful of his "shouty" manner and viewers switching off in their tens of thousands.

His grating screen presence was accompanied by rumours of backstage turmoil. 'Top Gear' devotees sensed something might be amiss with the revamped series when executive producer Lisa Clark departed less than five months after being hired by Evans.

Meanwhile, mutterings of bad blood between Evans and former 'Friends' star LeBlanc have been rife over the past month. Though the two appeared to enjoy a degree of on-camera bonhomie, off-screen LeBlanc was said to be dissatisfied with Evans' confrontational approach towards underlings.

Of course, there's an argument that the BBC was playing with dynamite in giving Evans the gig in the first place. If Jeremy Clarkson and sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May were no strangers to controversy, Evans was more than capable of generating a media firestorm also (the ousted trio are working on a new 'Top Gear'-like show for Amazon Prime).

Chris Evans with old friends Danny Baker and Paul Gascoigne in 1999.
Chris Evans with old friends Danny Baker and Paul Gascoigne in 1999.

He fell out with the BBC in the late 90s over his "laddish" behaviour as a Radio 1 host, and was once fined £7,000 for leading his production team on a pub crawl that would up continue two hours before he was due to begin his broadcast. Further controversy followed as he took an unplanned holiday from his presenting job and was criticised for an on-air skit about Anne Frank. Given a verbal warning by the BBC, his response was to dub the Radio 1 boss Matthew Bannister the 'Fat Controller' on air.

By 1997 his career seemed over. However, his enthusiasm for radio was reignited when he stumbled upon Gerry Ryan's Radio 2 show while holidaying in Killarney in 1997. Electrified by the Irishman's passion and polish, he vowed to return to the medium he loved and had soon secured a new job at Virgin Radio.

Yet impulsiveness and ego continued to get in the way, with Virgin fined £75,000 over Evans' repeated endorsement of Ken Livingston as London Mayor in breach of broadcasting guidelines. He was still drinking heavily too, often with his wife Billie Piper, at 19 a decade and a half his junior.

But Evans would eventually achieve personal and career redemption. Having cut back his boozing and remarried, this one-time bad-boy became the voice of Middle England when he was unveiled as the replacement for the retiring Terry Wogan in 2010.

His rehabilitation appeared complete - making 'Top Gear' the next natural step on his journey to national treasure status (and a contrast with the chaotic spirit of his equally loved and loathed Britpop era show 'TFI Friday').

Yet though Evans matured both as an individual and a presenter, what hasn't changed is his overweening manner. That was fine in his capacity as the new Terry Wogan - what popular radio presenter can get by without a degree of cheesiness? However, as 'Top Gear' host, he was all wrong - his jittery body language in contrast to LeBlanc's cool and understated charisma.

Chris Evans and ex-wfe Billy Piper in 2001.
Chris Evans and ex-wfe Billy Piper in 2001.

All of which might lead one to wonder why he took the job in the first place. Having sold his production company in the late 90s, he is fabulously wealthy and, as one of BBC radio's lynchpin hosts, it isn't as if he has anything to prove.

Maybe the straightforward answer is that he adores cars (he is a collector of high-end sports vehicles) and couldn't resist the job offer of a lifetime. This morning he is probably asking himself whether he should have taken a test-drive first.

Top Gear team
Top Gear team

Irish Independent

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