Chris Evans on messing up, maturing – and saving his mum’s life

"I am lucky in that a lot of people have forgiven me for a lot of things"

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Chris Evans is standing at a basin in a BBC dressing room in west London a few hours after presenting his Breakfast Show on Radio 2 and some hours before going on air to present The One Show on BBC1, and talking about his new gig, hosting The National Lottery Live this weekend. In a scene befitting a man who is arguably the most talented broadcaster of his generation, there’s a make-up artist waiting to beautify him as soon as he’s finished shaving, an assistant on hand in case he should need tea or coffee, and a journalist hanging on his every word.

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But there’s also an elephant lurking in the steamy, mirrored room: the fact that the last time he found himself in this position, presenting a national breakfast radio show and fronting TV programmes on Friday and Saturday nights, more than a decade ago on Channel 4’s TFI Friday and Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, it all ended rather badly. Namely with 18-hour benders, fines being dished out by the Radio Authority, shows cancelled, firings, courts cases and, eventually, a withdrawal from public life.

“The thing is, when you’re young, you’re allowed to mess up,” says the 47-year-old, dragging a plastic razor over his pink chin. “You are allowed to start lots of things and not necessarily finish them. You can leave a wake of success, mediocrity and destruction. And you can sort of, professionally, get away with it. It’s a rite of passage. But as you get older, you have to make things stick, I suppose. You’re given jobs where you’re a safe pair of hands.” He examines his chin in the mirror and repeats the phrase with a disbelieving chuckle. “I suppose I am a safe pair of hands. A veteran! A veteran consummate broadcaster who is a safe pair of hands!”

Evans moves from the sink to the make-up chair in the middle of the room, where he is promptly enveloped in a black protective cloak. He only shaves once a week, for his TV appearance, but does so several hours before going on air because his skin becomes so inflamed immediately afterwards. And as the make-up artist goes about the business of making Britain’s most famous red head less red in the face, Evans talks about the plans for the new Lottery show.

The producers want to give the 12-minute programme “more heart”, “give publicity to people involved in good causes”, and capture the moment of winning, if not the Lottery, then at least of associated raffles. Anything, he says, to lift what is “barely a show” from its current “two-dimensional nothingness”. His presence will no doubt give the new Lotto a welcome boost, just as the cost of a ticket rises to £2.

There might have been a time when this harsh review would have been an indication of Evans’s over-confidence, but nowadays it highlights other things about a man who was once Timmy Mallett’s assistant. He is hugely experienced in broadcasting – as he puts it: “In cycling terms, I had barely learnt to ride my bike then, and I was suddenly riding the wall of death. Now I know how to ride my bike and I am nowhere near the wall of death any more.”

He is less volatile: “I realised what live performers must realise sooner than me, that one of best ways to excite people is not necessarily to be excited yourself.” He is more sober: “If you live like a rock ’n’ roll star seven days a week, you’re going to kill yourself.” And with a massive daily radio audience of 9.75m and personal wealth probably below the £45m that the Sunday Times Rich List estimated in 2008, but nevertheless significant, he can afford to be utterly frank.

Indeed, Evans is perhaps even franker when it comes to himself, not batting an eyelid when I mention Channel 4 reality show Famous and Fearless, his failed TV comeback in 2011, and his jokey admission on Radio 2 sometime before that that he might no longer know how to be successful on TV. “I don’t remember saying that but there is always an element of truth in such throwaway remarks.” The make-up artist begins working on the bags under his eyes, the consequence of years of early-morning rises. 

“As it happens, I think I did my bit in F&F quite well. But there’s real sense in waiting for the wind to blow back in your direction.” What does he mean? “Well…” his head disappears for a moment in a cloud of powder “…when you’re hot on TV, like I was from 1992 to 2000, you think people are buying your ideas, your formats, but they are not. They’re buying the heat. They want to hire you. You start thinking you’re a genius, but you aren’t. With radio I just waited and it all worked out. And what I’m doing with TV is just waiting. When the wind comes back, I will go.”

If cash and success play a part in allowing Evans to be so philosophical, so does family life, the dominant theme in his conversation. Talking about how he rarely gets nervous, he adds that he did feel nerves when he recently gave his 26-year- old daughter Jade away on her wedding day: “We were estranged for a long time, so it was really important.”

He rarely hangs around socialising after The One Show: “I don’t want to go home and be on a different level to my wife [golfer Natasha Shishmanian; he’s been married twice before, most famously to Billie Piper].” Of his two youngest children, Noah, four, and one-year-old Eli, he says: “I want to be there while they are little boys. Anything that takes me away from that over the next five years is probably not going to happen. But if I can nip out the house for four hours without anyone noticing, then that’s not so terrible.”

The make-up artist finishes up, Evans asks for a cup of tea from his assistant, and as he removes the black cloak to reveal a cardigan and jeans beneath, he adds that he has “got the best part-time job in the world. I finish at half nine in the morning. Technically I could do nothing for the rest of the day.” But his commitments don’t quite amount to “nothing”. He writes a column for The Mail on Sunday, has just finished writing a book, is building a new house, has numerous charity duties, new TV work, claims he has “no leisure time”, and when I ask if he was joking when he recently remarked on air that he was thinking about buying Channel 5, he replies: “No. It won’t happen, but it wasn’t a joke.” Putting on those famous spectacles, which take about ten years off him in an instant, he adds: “My daughter [who lives on his Berkshire estate] is quite shocked at the hours we work. We are just always on it.”

This may sound like a contradiction but it can be explained in part by the fact that Evans is very good at delegating. As he says: “I spend more time at Radio 2 now than I did at Virgin Radio when I owned it.” Also, work and leisure and family life all rather cross over for Evans, the most noticeable aspect being that his son Noah can often be heard on his Radio 2 show. Though it is obviously something his parents have allowed casually. “I was asked today if Noah would be part of a Christmas campaign for BBC1 and I declined. His mum says it is very important he gets a clean start as a normal kid, and his new classmates don’t know what he looks like. But equally I think it is also important he lives the life of who he is. He is my son, this is what I do for living. And it is important that he sees me work.”

I pick up on the phrase “for a living”, given that Evans has told me that he doesn’t need to work, and we end up back on the topic of The National Lottery Live, and the question of whether he would have any advice to offer winners. After all, as he says, he “went from having some money to having an awful lot of money overnight” as a result of his famous business deals.

But can money make you happy? “It definitely buy you out of difficult situations. My mum had breast cancer and there was a drug called herceptin that isn’t avaliable unless you have chemo first. Older people don’t react well to chemo but they do to herceptin. And I could buy it and it saved her life. She is here because of that drug. It was ten years ago.”

But didn’t he once end up trying to sell all his possessions at a market stall in Camden? “That wasn’t about money. That was about the shedding of one’s skin at that time.” He adjusts those famous spectacles in the mirror. “Passion is really important. You have got to have a purpose. And the journey is everything. Though I guess it’s easy for me to say, given everything came OK in end.

“I am definitely better on radio in having once been so fallible. And I am lucky in that a lot of people have forgiven me for a lot of things. But, you know, I really did cock up a lot of stuff.”

The National Lottery Live is on tonight at 9:10pm on BBC1


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