Entertainment & Arts

Chris Evans profile: The chequered career of a motor mouth

Chris Evans Image copyright PA
Image caption Chris Evans is well known for his love of cars - especially Ferraris

Chris Evans has landed the job of replacing Jeremy Clarkson on the BBC's Top Gear - the latest achievement in a career that's seen a spectacular fall from grace and an equally remarkable resurrection.

The 49-year-old is due to begin filming the new series of the motoring show in the next few weeks. It could easily catapult him from being a national celebrity to a global star.

Jeremy Clarkson is a hard act to follow - especially when the pair are close friends - but even former Top Gear presenter Chris Goffey said Evans was "the obvious choice".

"Who else in TV is really clued up about the cars and who's got a persona to match Jeremy's?" he told the BBC.

Evans is a notorious petrolhead, with a passion for Ferraris and a large collection of vintage motors.

Among the cars he's owned are the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and James Hunt's winning Formula 1 Hesketh 308.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Evans is believed to have paid £500,000 for the car made famous in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

He has also paid record sums for his vehicles - in 2010 he splashed out £12m for a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO, considered the "Holy Grail" for many collectors.

His passion led him to set up CarFest three years ago - a family-friendly festival featuring cars, food and music to help raise money for the BBC's Children in Need campaign.

It's not bad for a newspaper delivery boy and "Tarzan-o-gram" from Warrington.

Rise to fame

Evans built his reputation as a witty prankster on the BBC's now-defunct London radio station GLR, where he started as a producer and ended up as a star DJ.

But it was in 1992, when he became host of Channel 4's early morning programme The Big Breakfast, that he became a household name.

The anarchic, primary-coloured magazine show was a huge hit in the early days, even beating ITV's new breakfast station, GMTV, when it launched in 1993.

Evans' hyperactive personality defined the show, and he was catapulted from London cult personality to national celebrity.

He launched his own production outfit, Ginger Productions, and moved into prime-time with Channel 4 game show Don't Forget Your Toothbrush which was sold around the world, bringing in funds to help him build up his media empire.

Image caption The presenter joined BBC Radio 1 in 1995, where he frequently caused controversy

Evans left The Big Breakfast in 1994, and the following year was recruited by BBC Radio 1 to revamp the station's breakfast show. However, he took the job on the proviso the show would be in the hands of Ginger Productions - and not the BBC.

The deal ruffled feathers at Broadcasting House but his confidence and naughtiness worked wonders for the station, which saw its ratings rocket along with its profile.

In 1996, he returned again to Channel 4 screens with TFI Friday - a classic Evans cocktail of music, celebrity chat, bizarre stunts and in-jokes.

But as TFI took off, his love affair with the BBC grew tempestuous.

His effortless, off-the-cuff banter slowly transformed into ego-centric rants, and the tone of the show became ever more dark. On one occasion, he said he hated Anthea Turner's new TV show so much he wanted to "kick her in the mouth".

After lots of highly publicised public drinking, he resigned live on air in 1997 - largely because Radio 1 refused to meet his demands to work a four-day week.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The exuberant host went on to join Sir Richard Branson's Virgin station

Later that year he returned to breakfast radio on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin station, competing against Radio 1's new breakfast line-up of Zoe Ball and Kevin Greening.

Evans liked the job so much he bought Virgin Radio from Sir Richard at the end of 1997 for £85m - snatching the station from under the nose of London-based Capital Radio, whose bid had been held up by a government inquiry.

With City backers behind him, his new Ginger Media Group made him a broadcasting multi-millionaire mogul. However the Evans magic started to fade soon afterwards and Ginger's TV arm showed signs of losing its flair.

TFI Friday started to go off the boil, and two BBC projects - the National Lottery Red Alert and student quiz Carry on Campus - flopped.

In early 2000 Evans sold the Ginger Media Group to SMG, the owner of ITV stations Scottish and Grampian, for £225m. But while Evans took a large chunk of that cash, his on-air performances faltered.

'I was an idiot'

A much-hyped "romance" with former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell failed to lift TFI's ratings, and he stepped down as host before the show ended in 2000.

At Virgin, meanwhile, Evans failed to turn up for a week of breakfast shows.

The DJ claimed he had been ill, but when photographs and footage emerged of him out drinking with his new teenage girlfriend Billie Piper, Virgin said it had no option but to dismiss him.

"I was stupid, no doubt about that," he told the BBC in 2009 while promoting his autobiography.

"I wasn't a very well behaved boy at those times. I was trying to figure out how come I had this brilliant career and messed it up?

"It was because I was an idiot - there's no point sugar coating it."

Image copyright PA
Image caption The star hit headlines over his marriage to Billie Piper in 2001, who was 18 years old at the time. There was a 16-year age gap between the pair

After marrying Piper in Las Vegas in May 2001, Evans kept an uncharacteristically low profile at his marital home in Hascombe, Surrey. The marriage did not last, though, and the couple eventually divorced in 2007.

In 2003, Evans made a faltering return to primetime Saturday night TV as producer of the poorly received Boys and Girls.

The Channel 4 game show, billed as the ultimate battle of the sexes, was mauled by the critics and failed to match the success of his earlier TV hits.

But Evans began to slowly rebuild his public image as the host of the Brit Awards and by securing a Saturday afternoon programme on BBC Radio 2.

When he took over Johnnie Walker's drivetime show on the station in 2006, it prompted a flurry of complaints. One listener wrote Evans was "just a gob, a loud one at that, he can't entertain and he can't just deliver to the listener".

The turbulent tabloid years had seemingly erased people's memory of his abilities as a broadcaster - but once the show found its feet, Evans re-established himself as a warm, engaging presenter and was named music radio personality of the year at the Sony Radio Academy Awards.

At the time, he thanked the BBC for giving him "a second chance".

Image caption Evans took over from Sir Terry Wogan on the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show in 2010, which also brought newsreader Moira Stuart back to the airwaves

He kept a relatively low profile and mainly stayed out of the public eye, only making headlines in 2008 for his third marriage to professional golfer and model Natasha Shishmanian, and the birth of their son Noah in 2010.

Later that year it was announced Evans would be replacing national treasure Sir Terry Wogan on his Radio 2 breakfast show.

He has taken the programme from strength to strength. It is currently the UK's most popular morning show, with 9.5 million listeners tuning in every week, thanks to Evans' hard work and imagination.

One of his key innovations has been the 500 Words competition, a children's writing competition that, this year, secured the patronage of the Duchess of Cornwall.

Riding on the success of the Radio 2 show, he moved back to prime time television in 2010 by co-presenting The One Show on Friday evenings.

Earlier this month he also revived TFI Friday on Channel 4 for one night only - giving the show the final send off it never had, and attracting 4.2 million viewers in the process.

Evans' three-year deal with Top Gear will see him fronting one of the BBC's most successful commercial properties, watched by 350 million viewers worldwide and worth an estimated £50m a year.

Describing it as his "favourite programme of all time", Evans promised to "do everything I possibly can to respect what has gone on before".

When the new series begins, all eyes will be on the former motormouth to see if he can keep Clarkson's fans and drive the format forward to new audiences.

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