Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I bought Chris Evans a car

According to Chris Evans, I once bought him a car. It was a 1956 MGA Roadster in old English white with red leather interior. He thanks me for it in his autobiography, which he’s been touting all week and which I picked up for half price in WH Smith.

Chris writes that he bought the car with £10,000 that I gave him for doing nothing except agreeing to have his name on a piece of paper. He adds, “Out of all my experience with the media and money thus far, this was the craziest I’d encountered to date.”

It was in 1992. My company Mentorn was competing for the breakfast franchise on Channel Four. We’d been supplying part of the Channel Four Daily for a number of years, which was pretty lucrative for us even though almost nobody watched it. When the network announced they wanted a completely new show they invited us to pitch. Our team came up with a long list of ideas: I felt none of them clicked with the brief for something revolutionary to wake the nation.

Then I heard about Chris Evans from a friend called Nik Powell, who’d started Virgin Records with Richard Branson and was the personification of cool by being married to Sandie Shaw (she of the bare feet and Puppet On A String). Chris had hosted a pop video programme on Nik’s ill-fated satellite Power Station and was currently presenting a weekend show on BBC local radio.

I listened: Evans was awesome. His freshness, irreverence and unpredictability seemed perfect for a Channel Four audience. We met in my office in Wardour Street. I couldn’t believe this ginger geek with the terrible glasses, who looked and sounded about 15 years old, could transform into the charismatic bundle of energy I heard on the radio. Yet I somehow sensed he could become huge on television so, against the better judgment of some of my colleagues, I ditched all our conventional programme ideas and hung the entire bid on a wild, anarchic breakfast “zoo” radio show called Good Morning Chris Evans.

Then I found out that another consortium led by Bob Geldof was also trying to woo him, so I offered Chris £10,000 to sign with us exclusively. I didn’t know that he went out and bought a car – or (until I read Chris’s book) that Geldof’s bid still included his name.

You can imagine that I was more than a little miffed when I discovered that not only had our bid been rejected but that instead Channel Four had chosen The Big Breakfast, hosted by Chris Evans.

I checked our contract. I didn’t want to get in the way of a man and his career and there was no doubt the Geldof consortium’s idea of setting the show inside a real house was inspired, but our exclusivity deal was watertight. So I simply asked for my money back. When Chris’s agent refused I called in the lawyers. I duly got the cheque, not from Chris but from Geldof’s company. Chris evidently kept the car.

My view of Chris has always been slightly tainted by this experience, though we’ve been perfectly friendly to each other ever since. In the 90s he was the most influential and inspired onscreen talent in the UK. When, in 1998, my new series Robot Wars was scheduled against his megahit TFI Friday, my heart sank: nothing could take on that battleship. But when, within the first six episodes we’d matched them and by the end of the second season we’d knocked them off the air, I felt just a little avenged.

I’m sure Chris hardly noticed, because, as frequently happened in his rollercoaster career, he’d already moved on to bigger things.

I sincerely wish him luck with the Wogan slot. Doubtless the fee will buy him a fleet of cars.

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