LIKE buying firearms, fame is a highly volatile situation with potentially tragic results. Hand that kind of celebrity power over to a "petulant prima donna" with "overbearing arrogance and conceit", and you might as well add a tube of nitroglycerine and give it a good shake.
The main casualty this week is Chris Evans, who is estimated to have lost 35m from his 45m fortune after the High Court ruled that his erstwhile employers Scottish Media Group were justified in sacking him from Virgin Radio after he took sick leave to go on a six-day bender. Evans emerged from another home-away-from-hostelry to tell the press that he was "disappointed but philosophical". The philosophy came courtesy of David Livingstone, whom he quoted: "All will come out right at last - have we such faith in the goodness of Providence."
At 37, philosophy may be relatively new to Evans. Humiliation, on the other hand, is a theme that is woven tightly into the strands of his life. At school he was bullied for being a ginger geek. One boy beat him up and, while friends laughed, urinated on him as he lay on the ground. One of his early jobs was as a strip-o-gram. At Piccadilly Radio he not only worked for the hideously wacky Timmy ‘Wide Awake’ Mallett, he was also frequently and publicly bawled out by the large-spectacled children’s presenter.
As soon as Evans was big enough and powerful enough, he shored up his defences. According to Trevor Dann, his one-time boss at Greater London Radio: "He was and is a bit like a medieval monarch. He has to set up a court. When he was at GLR he had a circle of acolytes and admirers, who formed his court."
He is both a bully and a charmer. The bullying extended to his friends - on Channel Four’s TFI Friday, Radio 1 and Virgin he carted around a posse of sycophantic cronies who dared not answer back, even when he publicly humiliated one employee for fiddling 10 on his expenses, reduced low-paid researchers to tears for failing to live up to his demanding workload, and made long-time zoo member Holly Samos admit she had once slept with him.
Evans is the man who put the offensive into charm offensive. But it is the same tough-mindedness that propelled him from a rough Warrington council estate to the position of media mogul. Evans’ success is down to willpower rather than innate talent. A radio face and a TV ego meant he never seemed entirely at home in either medium. He isn’t as sharply ironic as Jonathan Ross, or as good-humouredly zany as Ant or Dec. But he’s a whiz at selling what he did have - an ability to appeal to 15-year-old boys of all ages.
Hence the popularity of a quiz on Piccadilly Radio where, if the contestant got the question wrong, Evans broke a raw egg over his own head. An engineer recalls: "He could have pretended he was smashing eggs over himself, but he actually brought in boxes and did it. Chris did things properly."
The competition was eventually halted by another engineer, who literally pulled the plug, recognising the destructive possibilities of raw yolks to sensitive equipment.
But he really hit his stride in 1992 as the launch presenter of Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast alongside Gaby Roslin, becoming a cult figure for a young audience with his manic style and his quickfire, irreverent interview technique. The show pulled in one million viewers - far more than expected - although more people actually watched Eamonn Holmes and Anthea Turner on GMTV.
Later he made his first foray in TV production with Ginger Productions’ frenetic, dimwitted Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, now largely forgotten itself, but responsible for making Evans his first million when its format was sold all over the world.
Then, in 1995, Evans was poached for BBC Radio 1’s Breakfast Show by Matthew Bannister, his former GLR boss, although Bannister had to bend BBC rules and allow Ginger Productions to make the show. "Before signing with Radio One, I was close to signing a British TV deal which would have set me up for life. It was worth millions," said Evans. "When Matthew Bannister offered me the job with Radio One, I told him that he had to understand that I did not need it. It was actually a huge risk for me."
The story of Evans at Radio 1 is a template for his approach to all his subsequent projects - an abundance of enthusiasm at the beginning which eventually falls prey to boredom and shiftlessness. After 18 months, he had boosted the audience by 600,000 and soon had 7.5 million listeners and almost as many enemies, especially after his decision to take the show to Inverness in 1997.
He praised the quality of the air and the "tartan totty" but mocked the local farmers for a love of livestock that bordered on the illegal, and he upset the fragile egos of local broadcasters, including Moray Firth Radio DJ Tich McCooey and Radio Scotland presenter Tom Morton. Evans didn’t even acknowledge the existence of Radio Scotland but got publicly wired into McCooey, describing him as "crap" and mocking him for earning less than half of what Evans paid one of his researchers. What he did not say was that at this point Moray Firth Radio actually had more listeners in the area than Radio 1.
Evans’ behaviour was boorish but compulsive listening, making other shows sound like hospital radio in an old folks home. It couldn’t last. Evans’ attentions were already split between Radio 1 and TFI Friday, a show which also had some surreal moments, including Samuel L Jackson popping up every 10 minutes to say he did not have time for an interview and Peter O’Toole reading Spice Girl lyrics. Evans also wore a Rangers strip on one show and received death threats for weeks.
Evans began to complain that he was burning out, and in December 1995 was fined a day’s pay - 7,000 - by Bannister for failing to turn up for his show after a drinking binge. Piqued at not winning a Sony for best breakfast show, he told the Radio Academy to stick their best broadcaster award "up your jacksie".
His moaned of fatigue so Radio 1 doubled his holidays to twice those of other Radio 1 DJs and let Evans start his show at 7am instead of 6:30. But when he went on another bender and demanded a four-day week, even Radio 1 had had enough, and sacked him. In revenge, he found the considerable financial backing he needed to buy Virgin Radio from Richard Branson and the Ginger Media Group was born.
When he sold it three years later to SMG he found himself worth a 75m fortune. "It gives you a kind of weight and solidity that you wouldn’t otherwise have. That has become very important to me. I think that’s part of getting older," he said, adding with a hint of those Warrington schooldays: "It means that people can’t mess with me."
The problem is that while the media likes maverick talents, it prefers them to be containable forces. SMG discovered, as Channel Four and the BBC had, that Evans would not be contained. So they took him to court. After he left Virgin, Evans took an extended break with his now-wife Billie Piper, lounging around Los Angeles and golfing in the Algarve. But his return to TV has not been an assured one. Ginger’s Boys and Girls was so relentlessly excessive it made AA meetings look appealing. Channel Four decided the series was, in the show’s own idiom, a "minger" and dropped it last week. Twenty-four hours later, Channel Five followed suit, revealing it was to drop Evans’s early evening chat show, Live with... Christian O’Connell. Meanwhile, The Terry and Gaby Show is not quite dead but is not in a healthy shape either, being outgunned by BBC2’s The Politics Show.
So now Evans is no longer big or clever. Even his supposed eye for media hype has failed him - most of the red tops jeered his defeat this week. The rest relegated the news to page seven, which will possibly hurt Evans more.
The case also exposed his vulnerabilities; in court he admitted that he was "terrified" of presenting, frequently broadcast while hungover and would throw up from nerves before each recording of TFI Friday. He isn’t much cop as a businessman either. His initial 75m fortune has almost halved, and he revealed that he never read the contracts he signed (he left that to his agent, Michael Foster) and never opened his mail.
Oscar Wilde said ambitious people usually achieve their ambition and that is their punishment. For Evans, the bullied geek who lost his much-loved father to cancer when he was 12, insecurity came early in life, and his ambition was to find control.
Consequently, his relationships have been pretty disastrous. In Warrington, he also found time for a relationship which produced a daughter but he left for a job in London when she was 10 months old. In 1991 he married co-presenter Carol McGiffen, but left her after two years. McGiffen described it as "the marriage from hell" and refused to make his divorce an easy one.
Then there was a headline-grabbing whirlwind ‘affair’ with Geri Halliwell, which some suspect was a scheme cooked up by Evans and his PR. Certainly no-one seemed to let Halliwell in on this. According to former colleague Jamie Broadbent: "Chris used to say he was going to marry practically every woman he met. The problem with Geri was she believed it. He would always be saying things like, ‘I love you. I think you’re the greatest thing in the world. Move in with me.’ Geri did and Chris panicked. Someone had believed him for once and he couldn’t handle it."
However, Evans seems to have found contentment at last with the former child pop star Billie Piper, almost 18 years his junior. Before their secret wedding, the only common ground Billie and Chris shared was their fame.
Yet the couple are still happy, and still together. Evans says the 20-year-old is his rock. Unfortunately, everything else is crumbling underfoot.VIRGIN REBIRTH: BUSINESS PAGE 9