Voice of Britain
As Chris Evans looks forward to life after the BBC, Joe Worthington looks back at the life and career of one of Cheshire’s most famous personalities.
Chris Evans is undoubtedly the most famous and popular voice on our radios and TVs and as he announced his move from BBC radio’s flagship Radio 2 breakfast show to Virgin Radio, we thought now is the perfect time to look back at the life and career of a Warrington-born lad who has made a success of his life from humble beginnings. How did a boy born on a council estate, who has never shied away from admitting that he was bullied for his appearance as a child, become one of the UK’s most recognisable media personalities?
Christopher James Evans was born on April Fool’s Day in 1966 on a council estate in Warrington. His father, Martin Joseph Evans, worked as a bookmaker and health authority clerk, and his mother, Minnie Beardsall, managed a corner shop. Evans’ start in life was quite difficult. He went to St Margaret’s Church of England Infants and Junior school in Orford, during which time he saw his father and two paternal uncles die from colorectal cancer. His mother also survived breast cancer, which is possibly the main reason for Evans’ commitment to charity fundraising throughout later life.
He described this difficult time as the shotgun that started his race in life, pushing Evans to work hard and made a success of his life and make his late father proud.
Evans passed his Eleven-Plus exams and started his secondary education at Boteler Grammar School in Warrington, working part-time from the age of 13 at the local T.J. & B. McLoughlin’s newsagents in Woolston to earn money for his family. He eventually left grammar school and spent the last three years of secondary education in the local Padgate High School comprehensive, running an unofficial tuckshop to earn more pocket money.
He left secondary school at the age of 16 and worked in more than 20 dead-end jobs in and around Warrington over the next four years of his life, including as a private detective and a Tarzan-ogram – where people hired him to dress as Tarzan and appear at parties playing the famous jungle adventurer.
Early Career Successes
When Evans took his first steps into the world of radio, he found himself in good company at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester. He started as an unpaid schoolboy assistant in 1983, and a year later worked as an assistant to the legendary Timmy Mallett, playing a character on his radio show called Nobby Nolevel (No O’ Level), as an amateur DJ in local pubs at night, and continuing his 5 am starts at the newsagents where he had worked since the age of 13, arranging newspaper deliveries.
Towards the end of 1984, Evans got his big break. He was offered a full-time position at Piccadilly Radio, first driving the station’s car to listeners’ houses to surprise them when they phoned into the station, and as a producer to presenter James H.Reeve. He also presented a weekday slot offering competitions and listeners the opportunity to sell their belongings live on air – he admits that this was the graveyard shift and few people listened to what would become one of British radio’s most famous voices.
Evans soon moved to The Superstation, a radio station owned by Richard Branson of Virgin fame, and he has just announced that he will be moving to Virgin Radio to work for Sir Richard once again. During his time at The Superstation Evans wrote scripts for Jonathan Ross, who would join Evans once again at Radio 2 several years later.
It was not long before BBC Radio controllers spotted Evans’ iconic radio voice and he was offered a job with BBC London’s GLR radio station. He produced content for Emma Freud’s mid-morning slot, and then Danny Baker’s Weekend Breakfast. In 1990, Evans was offered the chance to present the Saturday afternoon show and put his own stamp on London radio. He also presented The Greenhouse, a Monday to Thursday evening show on GLR.
In 1991, Evans took his first steps as a TV presenter, hosting the Power Up music breakfast show on British Satellite Broadcasting’s The Power Station channel before presenting Round At Chris’s, every Saturday morning between 10 am and 1 pm.
The Big Time
By 1992, Evans had made a name for himself as a popular radio presenter, with his iconic northern accent allowing him to stand out from the crowd, and as a funny and astute TV presenter. In March 1992, Evans was offered a Sunday slot on BBC Radio 1, filling the boots of Phillip Schofield who had moved onto other BBC projects. His radio show, Too Much Gravy, only lasted a year, but former controller Johnny Beerling later told of how he wished he had offered Evans a full-time contract there and then instead of allowing him to move to Virgin Radio where he presented a popular Saturday morning show.
Towards the end of 1992, a television career beckoned for Evans, and he left radio to focus on his co-hosting of Channel Four’s The Big Breakfast alongside Gaby Roslin. Evans left the show in 1994 to establish his own TV production company, Ginger Productions, achieving instant success with his first commissioned show Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, a game show and music programme, which was sold to several foreign broadcasters.
In April 1995, Evans returned to BBC radio, presenting the flagship Radio 1 Breakfast Show, which he produced using Ginger Productions rather than in-house by the BBC. Radio 1 controller, Matthew Bannister, gave Evans free reign to produce the show as he wanted, with listener numbers peaking at 7.5 million as a result of the innuendo-laden and risqué style that he would become famous for. Evans also continued to present Channel 4’s TFI Fridays TV programme – a combination of celebrity interviews, musical interludes and hilarious games involving famous guests.
Evans left BBC radio in January 1997 after a split with the controllers and took a brief break from the public spotlight. On 13th October 1997, Evans hosted his first show as Virgin Radio’s newly-hired breakfast show presenter, successfully doubling listener figures from the first broadcast to 2.6 million.
Presenter to Media Mogul
As the voice of Virgin Radio, Evans was unhappy with Sir Richard Branson’s proposed sale of the radio station to Capital Radio, so he gathered a group of investors and bought Virgin Radio on behalf of Ginger Media Group from Sir Richard for £85 million. He would come to sell his media group in 2000 for £225 million to Scottish Media Group (STV Group) proving that not only was he a respected media personality but also a successful businessman.
In 2002, Evans established UMTV, another radio and television production company that focused on cutting-edge live entertainment, producing hit shows including Vernon Kay’s Boys and Girls, 18 Stone of Idiot hosted by Johnny Evans, and the BAFTA-award winning School of Hard Knocks for Channel 4 Learning.
When ratings began to slide for his shows, Evans hired Terry Wogan and Gaby Roslin to front the morning The Terry and Gaby Show, stating publicly that if it were a failure, he would set up a market stall. True to his word, Channel 5 axed the show, and Evans did set-up stall in a London market selling his own possessions in Stables Market, Camden.
Return to Radio
Evans slowly returned to presenting, hosting the breakfast slot of UK Radio Aid’s day of programmes in aid of the devastating Asian Tsunami in 2005, the BRIT Awards in 2005 and 2006, and occasional Bank Holiday shows for BBC Radio 2. He returned as a permanent Radio 2 presenter, hosting the Saturday afternoon slot between 2-5pm, before moving to the Drivetime Show in 2006, replacing long-time presenter Johnnie Walker. Evans drew an audience of over 4.9 million per day, and this is likely why he replaced Sir Terry Wogan on the breakfast show in January 2010.
The breakfast show is perhaps what Evans is best known for, but he announced, live on air, that he would be leaving the BBC for Virgin Radio once again on 3rd September of this year.
Throughout his long and varied media career, Chris Evans has won both listeners and the viewer’s hearts and countless awards, including the Sony Music Personality Award, top spot on the BBC’s The One Show alongside Alex Jones, and of course the position as the main presenter on Top Gear after Clarkson, May and Hammond left.
Evans has become a household name across the UK, but despite his well-polished sizeable classic car collection and an annual salary of between £2 million and £2.5 million, he has never forgotten his humble roots in Cheshire, and the people of the North West have never neglected him either. His voice has become the symbol of British radio broadcasting since the late Sir Terry Wogan’s retirement, and his northern accent proudly shines through.