Adrian Chiles likes a chat. Short answers, limited solely to the direct question asked, are not his forte. He goes from nought to expansive in half a sentence.
Like many Britons, what he really likes is a chat over a pint or two. He explores that fact in Drinkers like Me, a BBC2 documentary on the nation’s alcohol habits as seen through the prism of his own intake. He reveals that not only was he drinking the equivalent of six pints of Guinness a day, every day, but also that he was diagnosed with anxiety in 2012, shortly after he and Christine Bleakley (now Lampard) were, in his own words, “booted off” Daybreak, ITV’s breakfast show.
Chiles has no doubt that his own social drinking typifies that of millions oblivious to any problem. Acknowledging the “quiet, vice-like grip” alcohol had on his life, he has drastically reduced his intake as a result of making the documentary, having been told that to continue would put him at risk of cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, liver failure and ultimately death.
“The word ‘alcoholic’ is outdated, but I am undoubtedly dependent on alcohol to some extent – and if I am, thousands of others are,” says Chiles. “The only days I literally drank nothing were when I was broadcasting in the evening. I needed an actual reason to abstain totally.”
His intake on the day of a friend’s 40th birthday earlier this year – four pints of Guinness, four bottles of beer, a glass of champagne and five glasses of wine – comprised 32.4 units, in one day. The NHS recommends no more than 14 units per week.
And what constituted a quiet night out? “What I would think of as a non-drinking night with a mate would be two pints of Guinness each and perhaps a bottle of wine between us.”
He admits that in the past he has broadcast with a hangover. “Oh yes, I’ve turned up at work affected by alcohol like everyone and got away with it,” says Chiles. “The morning after the night before, where I’m fine on air for three hours and then absolutely wasted afterwards. But not pissed on air, unless you can still be drunk at seven in the morning from the night before, which I wasn’t… Well, if I blew into a breathalyser I probably was, but I didn’t feel like I was.”
Such obligingly colourful anecdotes are just one of the reasons why Chiles, 51, is a leading contender for the world’s most helpful interviewee. Benevolent accommodation is his default setting. He went to some trouble to make the location for this interview more convenient for me rather than him, suggesting which supermarket car park to use near our west London meeting place, and afterwards popping in to said supermarket for a spot of shopping simply so that my car park ticket could be validated.
His lack of ego is also noticeable. He’s not out to lecture the nation from the pulpit, solidly identifying himself as typical of the British drinking culture.
“What I’m talking about isn’t falling down drunk, fighting, blacking out, reaching for a drink on waking every morning. I’ve done loads of embarrassing things, but none linked with drink. Nor was alcohol a factor in the end of my marriage. [He was divorced from radio presenter Jane Garvey in 2009; they have two daughters aged 18 and 15.] It’s not that I drink more because I’m not married now, or because I live on my own. It’s not about going home to an empty house. I like my own company, but I also like being in pubs and having a drink. It’s not about deep, dark anything, just what lots of people think of as normal. That’s the problem I’m addressing.
“We surround ourselves with people who are like us. At university, if anyone I liked had said they didn’t drink, I wouldn’t have been friends with them. I’m a lifelong West Bromwich Albion fan and go to as many matches as I can with mates. Having a few drinks – meaning probably five pints – beforehand is part of it. I suppose I can imagine drinking moderately at football, but that expression ‘drink responsibly’ is so boring. In a way the whole point of drinking is to be irresponsible. It’s a stigma for a male in male company to drink moderately. I have loads of friends, and I can only think of one close friend who doesn’t drink – that’s Frank Skinner.”
Skinner, who features in the documentary, stopped drinking in September 1996 and now refers to himself as having been a “reckless alcoholic”, precisely the kind of drinker Chiles declares he is not.
“No one at a get-together is ever going to be offended by Frank not drinking, because they know the reason why,” says Chiles. “But without that, or a temporary reason like Dry January or Lent, the pressure we put on each other to drink is phenomenal. I’ve discovered there are many alcohol-free beers that I like. But even so, alcohol is the only drug you have to apologise for not taking.”
Having committed himself to making the programme, Chiles felt he had to include all relevant factors. That meant revealing his diagnosis with anxiety during his time at ITV, who poached him from The One Show in 2010 to front their football coverage. His co-presenter Christine Bleakley followed him from the BBC and they began presenting Daybreak in September that year, but viewers didn’t warm to them in the breakfast format and just a year later they were dropped. Chiles remained as the face of ITV football until January 2015, when he was suddenly sacked mid-contract. It’s an episode that he has never discussed before this interview.
“Daybreak was unbelievably stressful because whatever we did, we couldn’t seem to get anyone to acknowledge it was working,” he says, adding without prompting: “I genuinely like Piers [Morgan], who’s been really good to me over the years. I seem to have bumped into him at key moments of my life and he’s been just unbelievably nice. I really like him, and Susanna [Reid] as well, and the programme [Good Morning Britain] has a better sense of itself now.
“Anyway, once I was freed from Daybreak I thought, ‘This will be an easy life now,’ as I was being paid lots of money to present a football match every two weeks. But I felt terrible, and felt guilty for feeling terrible. I spent a lot of time thinking, ‘What is wrong with me?’ I didn’t have enough to do and was over-thinking everything. I knew if I had a pint or two everything would be fine, so I was self-medicating with alcohol. I was already seeing my GP for high blood pressure and reflux, and on one of those visits I was diagnosed with anxiety.”
As a result, Chiles joined the millionplus Britons taking the antidepressant citalopram on prescription every day. Looking back, he emphasises that ITV didn’t drop him in 2015 because of his diagnosis. “They just didn’t want me to do the football any more,” he says. “They fell out of love with me. You’d have to ask them why, but I knew it was coming. Anxiety had begun to affect my work. There was actually very little to do in presenting the football – ask a pre-prepared question of each pundit, throw to a break – and the less there was to do, the harder I found it.
“It became difficult for me to get the words out in the right order. I’d gone from somebody who could ad lib for hours on end to the opposite. One night at Wembley, I looked at the autocue and I could hardly get the words out.
“So it came to an end. I wish the contract had run its course and it had ended on a handshake, instead of, ‘Right, we want you off-air now’. The way it was done made me look like I’d had my hand in the till. I miss the craic, all the travel. I went to the Prado Museum in Madrid one time with Gareth Southgate… Great times.”
A stalwart on 5 Live again, Chiles finds radio hugely satisfying. He hosts Question Time Extra Time, the radio adjunct to BBC1’s Question Time, and says his three-hour daytime show Chiles on Friday is “so knackering that if anyone thinks it’s any good, I’ve earned it”.
Yet he finds the public still wonder where he’s gone. “Partly I’m still defined by what I used to do bloody donkey’s years ago – Match of the Day 2, The One Show. I sometimes get people stopping me and saying, ‘You used to be good on the telly. You’re not on any more, are you?’ And they’re absolutely being nice, not horrible. I’ve made two other documentaries in the last couple of years which I’m really proud of. I’d love to do more telly again.”
I t’s time to go. We walk to the supermarket to validate my car park ticket, Chiles pausing with practised brevity for a young passer-by requesting a selfie. He whisks round the aisles with a basket, picking up flour and, somewhat ironically, Berocca. Then, as we’re standing at the checkout, he returns to a question I asked ten minutes previously – whether Drinkers like Me is candid to the point of being brave.
“I hate the word ‘brave’. I keep hearing it… Prince Harry being called brave for talking about mental health, when everyone in all classes is talking about mental health all the bloody time. The big question isn’t talking about it, it’s what do we do about it.”
No doubt amateur psychologists will watch Drinkers like Me and announce that the presenter’s familiar Brummie bloke-ness is a mask for his anxiety. But one is not behind the other; they co-exist side by side. And meanwhile Adrian Chiles, the guy in the middle, is exactly like the rest of us – just trying to figure it all out.
Drinkers like Me: Adrian Chiles airs Monday 27th August at 9.00pm on BBC2
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