It is the most remarkable comeback in broadcasting. The presenter of the country’s biggest radio show, Chris Evans, is now host of its most talked-about TV programme as the new face of Top Gear.
His coronation as Jeremy Clarkson’s successor this week has returned Evans to his glory days of the mid 90s, when millions of people were waking up to his Radio 1 breakfast show and watching his archetypal Channel 4 hit, TFI Friday.
Then, the dual pressures of the weekly TV show and daily breakfast programme eventually took its toll, Evans quit Radio 1 after a row with management when they refused to allow him to take Fridays off.
This time, the Radio 2 DJ has rejected suggestions that the extra workload might prompt a repeat. “In the 90s I did have a very similar sort of career path to what’s gone on recently with Top Gear,” he said earlier this week. “I did mess it up massively and I have learned from that. I learned that you don’t have to mess it up.”
Pointing to his newly announced three-year Top Gear contract, likely to take his total earnings at the BBC over that period to £5m, Evans said: “The reason problems happen is you can’t see an end in sight. It’s relentless. I’ve got three years; I know where I’m going.”
He has also expressed enthusiasm for making a whole new series of TFI Friday, after a one-off comeback, part of which looked like a Top Gear audition tape, was watched by 4 million viewers.
But even for a man who dislikes taking holidays (he has 10 weeks off a year from Radio 2) it might be a stretch. Something has to give and it already has – Evans’s five-year stint presenting the Friday teatime edition of The One Show on BBC1 will come to an end next year.
His former business partner John Revell, who served as managing director of his Ginger Media Group, described the Top Gear job as the “crown jewels, a gift from heaven” for Evans, whose collection of classic cars includes several multimillion buys.
“The problem with TFI Friday was that it was 40 weeks a year, if not more, and that was a very big issue for him. Television is very demanding and getting up early to do a breakfast show and then a full day of production, it starts to become quite hard work,” said Revell, who was also executive producer of Evans’s Radio 1 breakfast show.
“He’s not the easiest to manage, and will have a very clear view of what he wants,” he added.
“The important thing is that he is not unreasonable, you just have to be able to state your case and stand it up. If you do that then he is open minded. The trouble is because he is a very strong character and dominant figure a lot of people won’t stand up to him.”
One of the most talented presenters and producers of his generation, entrusting two of the BBC’s most valuable shows to the same man – he has nearly 10 million listeners on Radio 2, and Top Gear makes an estimated £50m a year – may still be regarded as a gamble.
Evans will be the executive producer as well as presenter of the new-look Top Gear, and has already indicated that there will be more audience participation: from open auditions for a co-host, to the prospect of viewers being able to drive around the famous Top Gear track.
“To reinvent Top Gear you have to do it very carefully, you can’t just put Chris in there as a copycat of Jeremy. That would be horrible,” said one senior industry source.
Although Evans, 49, is only six years younger than Clarkson, he feels like generation X to Clarkson’s baby boomer. “They represent very different things – Jeremy and the old Top Gear guys were angry all the time, always against something, and that’s what made them such a political live wire,” said the source.
“Chris is much more exuberant, a madcap free spirit, and there will be people at the BBC with whiteboards working out how to tap into that. You’ve got to stand back and let him have fun.”
The BBC will hope that Evans brings with him the magic that turned TFI Friday, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and the Big Breakfast into TV gold. His stint producing programmes, after Radio 1 but before joining Radio 2, was less successful, including Channel 4 gameshow flop Boys and Girls, fronted by Vernon Kay, and his short-lived ITV talkshow OFI Sunday.
BBC2 controller Kim Shillinglaw, who met Evans for the first time last Monday, said from the start of their conversation, his desire to do the show was “palpable”.
“There are so many things about Chris that are uniquely Chris – his spontaneity, his unpredictability, the fact you never know what Chris is going to do next. I am really looking forward to working with that,” she said.