Richard Bacon on cancel culture, cocaine and his coma: ‘I’m good at getting back up again’

A medical crisis and an infamous sacking would have floored many people. But the presenter is busier than ever - both on and off screen

In July 2018, about 24 hours after Richard Bacon quit his safe, but unchallenging, job as the host of a daytime US TV show, he went into a coma. When he woke up nine days later, he found himself not just the survivor of a lung infection that nearly killed him, but jobless. And so, 10 days after that, he was pitching his idea for a gameshow to the BBC. He remembers being in a bedroom at his mother-in-law’s house, trying on shirts to find one big enough to hide the huge plaster covering his tracheotomy wound, just so he could go into a room with commissioning editors and pretend to be a gameshow host. “I couldn’t find one, and then I just thought: ‘It’s been in the papers; they’re going to know I’ve just been in a bloody coma.’” A tiny pause, then: “The commissioners were very surprised to see me.”

Bacon is speaking over Zoom from his house in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife Rebecca McFarland and their two children, having moved there in 2014, after leaving his presenting job on BBC Radio 5 live. He is good company, if somewhat buzzing and chaotic. At one point, he goes off to make a cup of tea. At another, his iPad runs out of charge, and he reappears a while later, smiling and, inexplicably, in a new change of clothes. In Bacon’s entertaining way, everything becomes a funny story, highlighting his haplessness but eventual triumph, even moving to LA without a job (rather, he did have a job but it fell through due to visa issues that he blames on his disorganisation). He barely worked for a year, and was considering coming back to the UK, when a job came up for National Geographic: a hike with Barack Obama, then still US president.

Despite his hospital-gauntness and flapping tracheotomy dressing, the BBC turned down Bacon’s gameshow idea, The Hustler, but he ended up selling it to ABC in the US instead. Coming up with new entertainment shows is basically his job now, says Bacon, best known in the UK for being a TV and radio presenter, and – more than 20 years on – still notorious for getting fired from Blue Peter for taking cocaine. His BBC One reality show This Is My House, in which celebrities have to guess which of four people claiming to live somewhere is the genuine owner, was a surprise hit this year.

Now he has devised another gameshow, hosted by Jimmy Carr, called I Literally Just Told You, based around the comic fallibility of short-term memory. He had the idea for it while attending a lecture given by Prof Brian Cox. “I remember thinking: ‘Nobody in this theatre could remember most of what he said in just the last five minutes. If we hit pause now and quiz the whole theatre on the last five minutes of Brian saying the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, and the universe is 14.3bn years old, most people would get most of the answers wrong.’ About a week later, I thought: ‘Hang on, that’s a gameshow.’ Why don’t we just do a show where we give people the answers and they’ll still get them wrong?”

Bacon loves ideas: he has them all the time, making notes on his phone, then worrying away at them, sometimes for months, until they take the shape of something he can imagine on TV. The process of “coming up with an angle, getting excited about it, gives me a high. I’ve had quite a few unnatural highs in my life, but it’s a real natural high.” He laughs, and adds: “The sort of high that I’m not going to get fired for!”

A diagnosis of ADHD in 2018 helped propel him in this new direction. “One thing the doctor told me is that with ADHD, you get this thing called hyperfocus. People think of it as being a scattered focus, and it is partly that, but when you find something you like – in my case, you hit on an idea you like – everything almost zones out … The way I can obsessively think about an idea is actually quite normal for my dysfunctional brain type.” Bacon realised, he says, that while his intense daydreaming may annoy his wife – “I can walk around the house like a zombie” – it could prove quite useful. “I knew that I wanted to do more of this kind of daydreaming for a living.”

Bacon had been having therapy, and it was his therapist who suggested he may have ADHD and encouraged him to seek a diagnosis. He was in his early 40s – he is now 45 – and his doctor implied that he was surprised Bacon had made it that far. Because his manifestation of it could make him prone to reckless behaviour? “It’s partly that,” he says. “There’s definitely a relationship between drinking and drug use, and ADHD.” In the past, Bacon has admitted to addictive behaviours, especially around alcohol, and has sought help from AA. “But I think he was talking more getting by in day-to-day life: you might fall over and bang your head on the kerb; you lose things a lot. I think he meant more that.” Bacon remembers how the doctor put his hand on his wife’s shoulder – crediting her with being the steadying influence – “and said: ‘She’s kept you alive.’ And then three months later, I was in a coma where they expected me to die.” He laughs: “Although it wasn’t related to that.”

On a flight back to the UK, the day after quitting his job, Bacon started to feel unwell. When he finally presented himself at A&E at Lewisham hospital, he was so ill he was put in an induced coma. Months later, Bacon went back to the hospital when he was making a documentary for ITV about the impact of Brexit – “I wanted to illustrate that if an immigration quota had come in, Lewisham ICU would have lost a lot of the people who saved my life” – and met the consultant in charge of his care. “He said: ‘We expected you to die. You were lying on the hospital trolley and we were all surrounding you, you’re crashing, and all your signs are terrible. And [your blood oxygen level] went to 58; you turned blue. I thought you were going to go into cardiac arrest and die.’” His condition was so obvious to the other doctors involved in Bacon’s care that they didn’t even have to talk to one another; one of them readied the resuscitation equipment. “He said: ‘Somewhere around that moment, you didn’t go into cardiac arrest when I thought you were going to, and one of the many drugs we put into you started to work.’” They still don’t know what Bacon was suffering from, but he was in a coma for nearly two weeks.

He says he thinks about death “more or less every day. It sort of hovers around my life. It took death from being a kind of slightly abstract concept to not an abstract concept.” This might have happened anyway, he concedes, as he settled into middle age, but this way was a shocking realisation. “At some level, when we’re in our teens, 20s and 30s, we think we’re going to live for ever. We know that’s not true, but it’s something inherent in our feeling that it’s just going to go on for ever, isn’t it? I almost don’t know how we all get through life knowing that we’re going to die and, if you’re an atheist, that there is nothing.”

Richard Bacon
Bacon returns to his first love, radio, at XFM in 2003. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

How has it changed him? “It’s probably affecting my life all the time. If you’re going to take death from being theoretical to something more real, almost touchable, it must be affecting me, my work, and my relationship to my kids, my relationship to my wife and my family. It must be.” Has it given him a new sense of urgency? “Yeah, definitely. I think it makes me work harder, makes me more impatient, more ambitious. I think it makes me think: I’m going to carry on down this road, coming up with ideas, and take some big risks. Fuck it, let’s see if I can push it, let’s see where I can get to. I’ve always liked changing things in my life, but it’s given me an even greater sense of that.” It was why he was pitching ideas to the BBC while still in early recovery, even though that sounds deranged. “I was in this startlingly new place of: all right, I nearly died and I haven’t got a job, but I do think this is what I want to do.”

In therapy he was warned that the trauma might hit him in a few months. “But it never did,” he says. Perhaps because he talked about it so much at the time, and now it has become a bit of an anecdote. “You are almost ‘third-personing’ it. It becomes a story, slightly over there, and I think that helped me deal with it, with my chatty nature.” He did a similar thing with his 2013 memoir A Series of Unrelated Events, making the small catastrophes that befell him into funny stories; it’s also why he’s an entertaining and engaging radio presenter. Even a global pandemic seems to take on a comical quality. “They told me I’d have an increased risk of dying if I got really ill again for the first five years afterwards. They said: ‘Just don’t get another major respiratory illness.’ And then about a year and a half later, you’re like: all right, Covid’s here, is it?”

As a child, growing up in Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, where his father was a criminal defence lawyer, Bacon was a radio geek, who knew where all the transmitters were in the county. He started doing shifts at BBC Radio Nottingham when he was 17, mostly doing technical stuff, but sometimes taking the radio car out to interview councillors. After working as a reporter for the cable channel L!VE TV, he got the job on Blue Peter in 1997 and it seemed a good fit with his natural energy and enthusiasm. The following year, a Sunday tabloid exposed him for cocaine use – tipped off by a friend – and Bacon was sacked. Lorraine Heggessey, then the head of Children’s BBC, even went on TV to explain to children how Bacon had let everyone down. Looking back, it was probably fortuitous: it gave Bacon an edge, whereas many Blue Peter presenters disappear. He went on to cooler, older shows such as The Big Breakfast and Top of the Pops. But at the time, it must have been stressful. “I was aware that I was processing it OK,” he says. “When I’ve been through other traumas since then, I think I coped better because I went through that.”

A producer told Bacon, then 22, that he would never work in television again. “But I remember thinking: ‘That’s not true.’ I just thought I’d find a way through. The ADHD side of me does lead to certain disorganisation and chaos in my life, and I have many flaws and things I’m bad at, but I’m quite good at getting back up again.” He remembers watching the programme after he’d been fired “and feeling sad that I wasn’t part of the team. I still love Blue Peter. I’m deeply affectionate towards that show.”

It must be strange to still be defined by something that happened more than 20 years ago. He laughs: “No matter what I go on to do in my career – I could bring peace to the Middle East – still, when I die, the top line of the obituary will be ‘fired from Blue Peter’. I could cure Covid and still the first line would be: ‘He was that guy who was fired from Blue Peter and the head of BBC One went on telly and said that thing about him.’ It’s irrelevant to what I do now.”

That feeling of being publicly shamed stayed with Bacon, and he has watched the rise of so-called cancel culture with interest – he has a documentary on Channel 4 this week about it. “I’m fascinated by this rush to judgment and what it means,” he says. Being sacked for taking drugs probably wouldn’t be such a huge deal now, and obviously social media wasn’t there to pile on him, but the experience has given him “a lot of empathy when I’m watching people who are sort of tumbling out of the sky, and the rush to judgment is happening”.

Jimmy Carr
Bacon discusses cancel culture with Jimmy Carr, also host of one of his gameshows. Photograph: Tom Jenner/Hardcash Productions

He is more likely to get cancelled for something like fat-shaming (accidentally, he insists) the band the Magic Numbers in 2005, who walked off Top of the Pops after he described them as “a big fat melting pot of talent”. Cancel culture, he says, “is such a big, complex subject. I think if somebody gets cancelled because they wrote a homophobic tweet when they were 15, and you don’t give them a chance to go: ‘I was 15; both my parents were homophobic and I didn’t know anything else’, the idea that you shouldn’t ever have a job because of that, when you may have grown up and completely changed your attitude, is preposterous. There are people losing careers over minor transgressions, and that is obviously where it goes too far. You can see people are getting very stressed about using the right or wrong pronoun.” But then, he says, “elements of it represent progress” for anyone who isn’t a straight white man. “There are people who say it doesn’t exist, who say you don’t have cancel culture; you have consequence culture.”

At some point, he says, he would like to host one of the gameshows that he invents but, he says, simultaneously proud and aware of his place: “They keep getting into these really big primetime slots, which means I can’t really do it.” He used to think filming the shows would be the fun bit, but has found he’s happiest alone in his head, coming up with the ideas. “Sometimes, if I’m really excited by something, I’ll wake up at 4am and think: ‘What about that?’” Then he’ll reach for his phone and start making notes.

Cancelled is on Channel 4 at 10pm on 2 December. I Literally Just Told You starts on Channel 4 at 10pm on 16 December. Stream the full series on All 4.


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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