Breakfast radio battle hots up as Evans returns to taunt BBC

The return of Chris Evans to the radio piles the pressure on Radio 1’s new breakfast duo. However, Nick Higham predicts he won’t stick around for long. Nick Higham is BBC Television’s media correspondent

There was a time when pop radio produced stars in profusion. Back in the glory days of Radio 1, in the Seventies and early Eighties, Tony Blackburn, Noel Edmonds, and Mike Smith were among the most famous celebrities in the country, the Radio 1 Breakfast Show their passport to lasting fame.

Their fame predated any later television careers. Simply being in the front rank of Radio 1 disc jockeys was enough to justify their stellar status: the occasional appearance on Top of the Pops served merely to validate it.

Now there are only two undisputed stars of breakfast pop radio, and one of those (Chris Tarrant on Capital FM) came to the medium via television. The other, Chris Evans, started his new ten-week stint on the Virgin 1215 breakfast show on Monday with a mawkish tribute to the “radio greats” he most admired (including Tarrant and Smith), before declaring, with hard-to-credit modesty: “I am not, even now, one of the true radio greats.”

Outside the studio, he maintained, were 25 photographers and a television satellite truck, confirming that the Battle for Breakfast would be fought out, like everything Evans does, on the front pages and the television news.

A few hundred yards up Regent Street, Zoe Ball – who once worked on The Big Breakfast with Evans but has since made her name in children’s television – maintained there’d been 17 camera crews outside Radio 1 when she arrived for her debut on the breakfast show with Kevin Greening.

Thrown into the breach in Radio 1’s ratings opened up by Evans’ departure, and by the failure of night-time radio specialists Mark Radcliffe and his sidekick Lard to rebuild the breakfast audience, Ball and Greening have a hard act to follow, let alone compete with.

As a spoiling tactic, Richard Branson’s decision to sign Evans and launch his show on the same day as Ball and Greening’s was a masterstroke. The publicity will win Virgin a few extra listeners (although as Evans himself admitted after the show, it’ll take more than ten weeks to make a significant dent in the Radio 1 audience). It may even do something for the station’s demographics, by attracting more women listeners than the award-winning but rather macho show of Virgin’s previous breakfast jocks, Russ and Jono.

Listening to them at home, Evans and his team of sycophants came across like a bunch of old pros making it up as they went along (which they probably were). There were some jokes which went close to the edge, and possibly over it. One caller planning a breast-enlargement operation was invited on to take her bandages off live.

The show has a sponsor, Beamish Red. An offer by The Sun to sponsor the show was rejected: “Don’t worry,” said Evans, “you’ll get enough mentions anyway.”

And there was an inspired exchange with a woman called Michaela who responded to a request for anyone posh who had eaten blancmange to ring in. Michaela’s Sloane tones alone demonstrated her poshness but she was subjected to 20 questions designed to establish firmly that she came out of the top drawer – eliciting the revelations that she came from Surrey, rode horses, drove a Golf and went to the same prep school as Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Over on Radio 1 Kev and Zoe were having a hard time matching the Evans team’s air of relaxation combined with energy. They were lumbered with a lousy travel reporter – a cod World War Two pilot called “Major Holdup” – and at least one specially-written silly song about the two of them. The song ended with a line about Kevin not looking as sexy in a dress. Cue Zoe: “Oh, I don’t know, I’ve seen you in a dress and you look lovely.” Is this what they mean by sexual chemistry? (Later she flashed her “feathery bra” at both Greening and Simon Mayo.)

There were an uncomfortable number of fluffs. Evans takes mistakes in his stride. Zoe, much the more spontaneous-sounding of the Radio 1 pair, professed to be entertained by the mis-cues, but you sensed they shouldn’t have been happening.

Greening blamed the lack of sharpness on a lack of sleep, after getting back late on Sunday from Rome after the England-Italy match (surely a mistake of Radio 1 to send him just before his big debut).

Then, too, it was Greening who betrayed some uncertainty about the intended audience when he remarked that Zoe’s “Kate Bush” mike-and-headphones set made him want to say “Big Mac and fries to go”. “You should say Madonna mike,” Ball chided him. “The youth won’t know who Kate Bush is.” Then added: “Doesn’t it make you want to say ‘pointy bra’?”

The Radio 1 show will get better. It will be professional, entertaining, slick. Zoe Ball has plenty of “personality”, and knows how to project it on the wireless.

The Virgin show will teeter, like everything Evans does, on the borderline between genius and catastrophe, but for as long as it lasts Radio 1 won’t be able to match it.

The best the Beeb can hope for is that, even if Evans is offered and accepts a contract beyond the next ten weeks, he won’t stay long. He never does. The competition from Virgin will be intense…but only for a time.

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