WHAT the heck? No bullying. No incest. No beatings. No tragic inability to conquer the national curriculum because you were sent up chimneys instead of to school?
Why, it even says, in unequivocal black and white: “I was a tremendously happy kid; confident, active and wildly popular... I was the kid who leapt from his bed each day with a wild ‘Hurrah!’.” What audacity!
You call this a celebrity memoir, Danny Baker? Where’s the heroin injected into your eyeballs by an abusive father? With a merry, barking laugh, Baker launches into conversation at a speed that would leave Shergar gasping. He veers off, detouring via a series of semi-described roundabouts, and somehow finds his way home to answer the question. It all makes sense in person, less sense on the playback. This, therefore, is my best cleaned-up rendition of our two conversations – one conducted near the BBC’s offices, and a shorter phone call a few weeks later, after his afternoon BBC Radio London programme was cancelled.
“You’ve got to believe me when I say I have no hidden depths,” Baker insists. “It seems like people demand this level of angst: we’ll let you have your success, because it’s not all been gravy. What do you do when it’s all been gravy? I think there is a yearning in most authors to be taken seriously, and a short cut to [that] is to wheel out the neurosis and pain. It’s much, much harder to be funny.”
And who on earth doesn’t have their issues, we concur. In Baker’s situation, you could make a case for having throat cancer, but it’s something we don’t discuss – the subject bores him, and anyway, he insists, no profound truths came his way through the experience of life-threatening illness.
“We all get on with it. The myth, of course, is that nobody talks about it. But everybody talks about it, all of the time. My wife, Wendy, said one of the most brilliantly crystallised thoughts I ever heard when trying to buy a book to take on holiday. She said, ‘If somebody wrote a book called A Nice Story about Good People I’d buy it. If one more book has the word dark on the back, or says, but their happiness hid a secret ... I just want a nice book about good people, even if it’s as light as a feather.’”
If she wasn’t already fluent in his history after 30-plus years of marriage, I’d tell Wendy to read her husband’s book, Going to Sea in a Sieve, the first three instalments of his life story. Following him from birth – 9am, Saturday 22 June, 1957 – until the early 1980s, it covers his school years (top of his class, captain of the football team, super popular with girls), his first job at the trendiest record shop in London, on to the NME (first as receptionist, then as a writer), and a clutch of gigs presenting “yoof” television.
There are plenty of big names – Mark Bolan gave him the shirt off his back; Elton John was a pal; he took Debbie Harry shoe shopping – lots of laughs, and lovely writing, such as this description of Mick Jagger: “He was surprisingly small and slight, although his head appeared to be built from a much grander blueprint.”
Baker was a bright boy, but he spurned the offer of a place at his local grammar school in Bermondsey, in favour of following his friends to “the unassuming but quietly notorious rough-house up at the top of Deptford High Street”. He left at 15, and never looked back, but never stopped learning, either. As his friend and former co-presenter Amy Lamé told me, “Danny is a complete and total autodidact. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of just about anything you could ever want to know. He spends his whole life reading, listening to music, watching documentaries. His brain is like a giant filing cabinet. He remembers everything and can draw on this immediately.”
Baker credits some of his innate happiness to birth order. His birth – third of three – meant the council moved his parents out of a cramped one-bedroom flat into a three-bedroom council flat with a bathroom and a garden. They were elated. “I couldn’t help but feel partially responsible for that,” he says. “Another thing I hate is this idea that to be a working-class kid you had to be tough to survive. Survive what? Our estate was a lovely place, full of kids. The sky was blue. The Beatles were on their way. What do you mean, survive?”
As to where his cleverness comes from, he tells me, “All I have ever wanted was for people to go: ‘I couldn’t do that.’ I don’t want to see things that I could do. I want to be double crossed. I know what I do takes a degree of talent and needs that kind of fertile mind, but that’s what I’ve always been like. I’ve lucked out into using my personality. It’s very, very malleable and usable in media, but it don’t necessarily help in the real world, apart from being good company. But that’s all right. I shrink from it – being clever, because I know a lot of people who are intelligent. It’s extraordinary how I tumbled into this with absolutely no effort at all.”
He has a story for everything, he readily admits, but insists without a hint of false modesty that they won’t stand the test of time. “I’m clever enough to make quick connections. I’m not denigrating it, it’s exactly what’s needed for what I do. I love what I do and that’s why I celebrate it all the time. What a great way to earn a living. But of course, in showbiz you are supposed to be forever apologising. I can’t. I figure everyone else is going ‘Jeez, I’d like to do that.’ I’m not going to turn around and say, ‘It is not what you think it is.’ You know what – it’s all that you think it is. It’s great. There’s no downside for me.”
We’ll interrupt this conversation to fast forward to last November. On the first of that month, after 11 years, Baker recorded his final episode of his show The Treehouse, having heard that BBC London was shutting it down. The news – which wasn’t delivered in person, a fact that rankles – came one week before Baker’s induction into the Radio Hall of Fame. On the night, Peter Kay delivered a 12-minute encomium, speaking of his friend’s genius and calling him a “joyous force of nature and an incredible broadcaster who celebrates British eccentricities. All the radio stations are nicking [ideas] from him”.
Baker’s final show was a hilarious rant, though that was nothing, he says, compared to the diatribe he delivered before going on air. “That was the real show. I was a firework display. Nothing better in the world than standing there while everybody in the open-plan office hears exactly what you think.”
Now he’s spent. “I could write a waspish column for the newspapers, I could send stinging emails, but the whole point was instant catharsis. Prolonging the conversation makes it look like there’s a wider agenda. There ain’t. I’ve got no greater point beyond saying to someone, You weasels! Just because I won’t go out to Haringay and talk about traffic systems – in no scheme of events does that make sense.
“But let’s put it into perspective: I was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, but I’ve just been dropped by local radio. If one day you’re given a gold star for being employee of the month, and the next day you’re let go, you’re entitled to scratch your head and say ‘Whaaat?’ So yes, I had a great night receiving my award, but in the end, what’s it worth? You’re the greatest car mechanic in the world, but no one lets you get your hands dirty?”
He retains his BBC Five Live show on Saturdays, and says the great irony is that most of the work he’s lined up for the next six months is also with the BBC. “But the BBC is like that, it’s not a single body, as we’re finding out.”
Asked about starting up independently online, he tells me he’s tried that before, but it’s not financially viable. That’s not to say he’s avaricious, just that he’s got bills to pay – or not. In 1988, the VAT man came after him for unpaid arrears. “I borrowed money to pay them and I went to work. It was like Gone with the Wind, I said, ‘I’m never going to be poor again.’ I did the Daz adverts and football videos. I was broke. I’d do it again tomorrow. I’m not in business to fulfil anyone’s expectations. I don’t want to be remembered for the ages. What I want is magnificent holidays and a lovely, big house.”
Cheerfully admitting that he’s perennially overdrawn – “If I won the lottery tomorrow I’d have an overdraft by Christmas,” – he explains, “As I get money I spend it on those closest to me. I like nice things indoors. I love being a good host. And then tomorrow you go, ‘Okay, I’ll have to get hold of some more money now.’ People say, ‘But you might drop dead.’ If I’d died of throat cancer I wouldn’t have said, ‘I wish I hadn’t gone on holiday so many times!’ But yes, it’s reckless, and it’s not for everyone. I never feel entitled to money. I used to spend like that when I had nothing, as well. I’ve always lived beyond my means. It’s just the way of skinning this old cat any way you can.”
It’s probably a characteristic he acquired from his dad. “Spud”, as he was known, was a dock worker and a scam artist who, Baker writes, “adopted the skulduggery approach with every bill or financial obligation that arrived in our house.” Baker tells me, “He would always grab hold of a few quid one way or another, but he never thought that was anyone else’s business. It’s a confused and odd philosophy but that’s the way it’s always been. When I was skint, I decided that I was just going to have to work harder.”
Wendy must be the most patient woman on earth, then? “She’s as bad as I am for opening statements. No, there is no hand on the tiller, which probably makes it an exciting read, where you think, ah ha, there’s a comeuppance coming, but there isn’t. Unless when I got cancer that was God’s way of saying, ‘Look, be more…’ – but that didn’t work either.”
Is he a believer? “No it’s a turn of phrase… but do you know, I’m not superstitious, but even saying ‘I’m not religious’ makes me feel creepy. The absolute honest truth is no, but it seems a really impolite thing to say. It makes it sound like I’m pontificating, or I’ve thought about it. I don’t actually have a view on it. This is where the shallowness comes out. It’s like, I mentioned Louis MacNeice the other day and somebody came back and quoted him. I said, ‘Oh, I only know him as a great reference point if someone mentioned hi falutin poetry.’ I am completely Bertie Wooster like that. I’ll salt that away and regurgitate it and hope nobody presses me on it. Me saying I don’t believe in God is being pressed on something, so I’ll fold up a bit.”
Yet he’s perfectly happy to pontificate about The Beatles being the greatest band that ever existed in the history of music, followed closely by Steely Dan. “Hang on, hang on – now you’re talking about great truths.”
So where does Baker’s love of language come from, if not from school? “I think it’s to do with Edward Lear, and the Goon Show, where the language was quite odd. And my old man reading me the Pied Piper – that was a tuning fork. I used to read it over and over again. The word ‘nuncheon’ is in it, and I looked it up and there is a meal called nuncheon. I loved the idea that there were words for absolutely everything.”
I’d heard that Baker was writing a new Muppet show. How’s that going? His answer stops me in my tracks – it’s so honest. “I did the Muppets but when it was done I told them it didn’t work, and that’s as much my fault as anybody’s. It wasn’t very funny.”
You rarely hear someone admit failure. “That’s all right. Nobody goes into a film thinking it’ll be bad, but they are sometimes. I said I don’t think it’s any good and there was a sharp intake of breath. They’ll probably go on and make it with a team of writers, and it’ll probably go on and be a terrific programme. I don’t put any store by it. I have made loads of good programmes and some that are all right, but it will never, ever define me any more than illness would define me.
“People forget I am 60 in five years. I don’t want to be remembered for my work. I’ve got no plan. I’ve never had a plan. What I’m good at is ideas. But once it’s out there, it’s gone. That’s why radio is ideal.”
Baker doesn’t have a mobile – all his hilarious tweets are done from home. “People say it’s an affectation, but unless I’m in work, I’m indoors. It’s just not of my nature to carry a phone; I’ve never found the need for it.” When he travels, instead of pressing tiny keys, he’s turning pages, and you’ll never find him without a bag filled with books and periodicals. He’s happiest tucking into showbusiness biographies, and sends me a tempting reading list. Fiction’s less enticing, unless it’s PG Wodehouse. “It changed my life finding Wodehouse, and gave me the language and a licence to be ludicrous. Someone who was the smartest man around and chose to write the dumbest books around – that was the key that unlocked the door.”
It’s a rare privilege meeting someone who’s absolutely happy in himself, but Baker is sui generis. As he puts it, “This book’s not for everyone, but then neither am I, and that’s all right, too.”
Going to Sea in a Sieve is out now from Orion Books, £18.99, hardback.