From Writing about Punk Rock to flogging washing powder,
Danny Baker's done it. Andy Darling meets the broadcaster
few of us would swap for two of any other.
In 1990, shortly after the World Cup in Italy, Danny
Baker spent six weeks with Paul Gascoigne, making a
documentary video with the then Spurs and England wonder.
The pair had spent the evening drinking until the early
hours. They returned to Baker's house where Gascoigne's
sleep was disrupted initially by Baker's dog, as it
tried to savage him, and then his son.
"I'll never forget my boy Sonny, who'd have three at
the time, he didn't know who Paul Gascoigne was, and
he came down later, at about eight in the morning with
his football, he wakes him up and asks if he wants to
play football with him. So I'm lookin' out the window,
and in the garden there's my three year old son saying,
"I'll be England, you can be the dirty Germans", and
I thought that's almost too good to be true, and Gazza's
pattin' the ball to him, too polite to say, "Look, I
just wanna get me head down". " I remember up in Newcastle
he was at a Club 'til about four, and we had an early-morning
photographic shoot at the swimming baths, and I somehow
made my way there, scraped a razor over my chin, and
when I got there he was under the baths, where there's
these big boilers, that are so hot it hurts your eyes,
an' he's there, skipping, in the blue England shorts
he got booked in, with the number 19 on 'em, no effect
at all. Talk about constitution. Then he had a swim
and a sauna with the old boys, and then we they slid
the bolts back at 12 we was ready again. I couldn't
take that pace at all."
of life is grist to the mill for Danny Baker, star of
Daz and Mars ads, host of Saturday night talk show After
All, and Weekend One FM DJ, the man BBC controller John
Birt praises for "Invigorating torrents of thought",
and the Radio Times called "the Cockney Cowboy". Baker
has the ability to switch thoughts into speech faster
than anyone doing the rounds, the give the riffs a key
change, to click from the lesser-known characters in
Top Cat, to diatribe about how annoying it is that movie
soundtrack albums rarely contain exactly what you hear
in the cinema.
It marks Baker as certainly the best radio entertainer
we've got and, with a push and a shove, maybe our top
TV man too. It's dead fast, it's zesty and it's the
acceptable face of showing off. For his award-winning,
and now much mourned Radio 5 show Morning Edition, he
left home every weekday at five-to-six, got to the studio
at 25-past and was on air at 6.30, no script, nothing.
While newsreaders, sports reporters and guests popped
in sat down to do their bits, Baker would stand up and
wander about while talking, flicking through piles of
CDs and jingle cartridges, doing a dozen things at once
and holding the shooting match together.
"It might sound cute to say it, but when I started doing
radio, I never thought there was any other way of doing
a radio show, what's now being greeted as reinvention
or whatever. See, I never listened to radio, still don't,
and then out of pure innocence I thought the way you
do a radio show is that you go in with a box of your
own records and start talking. I didn't wanna play their
records, I knew that, and I actually didn't know there
was such a thing as a scripted radio show.
What I've done at Radio 5 and now at Radio One, sorry
One FM ha ha, is pretty much the same as back then.
I've only got one show in me and that's it, but people
now turn round and say, "Wow, you really turn up and
do it?" Well, what preparation could there possibly
be? Chris Evans was my Producer, before he did his own
thing, an' he did what he could, but after six weeks
he said to me, "There's nothing I can do here, is there?",
he said, "I keep suggesting things and you politely
take them on board and then don't do 'em". I've seen
scripts lying round, and I ain't being...I genuinely
don't know, they actually have, "Good Evening, on the
show tonight....but first we're going to....", and on
these shows there's about thirty people running around,
like, "Jackie, have we got the gardener in?" "Yes gardener's
in." "What about the astrologer?" "Car picking him up."
And everyone's doing pointlessly busy work. If you come
in with a whole new grammar, then you threaten at least
ten bits of middle management. They go, "You mean the
Presenter does his own things? But who prepares the
show, who gets the scripts ready for the next day, who
chooses the records?" He does, he does, he does, and
all of a sudden these people feel threatened, see, if
this catches on...."
In a fashion similar to the early development of Viz,
Morning Edition started with little fanfare, no pre-emptive
blustering hype, and swiftly became a kind of secret
oasis for huge numbers of twenty and thirtysomethings.
In between Beatles, Squeeze and Steely Dan records,
callers rang in with answers to ever-changing competitions,
from "Which film has the most F-words in it?, to "How
do you make laughing gas?, and anecdotes on anything
from wasp stings and accidents with furniture, to lies
told by parents to children, all topics suggested by
Baker. One caller's parents told him that whenever he
heard the chimes of an ice cream van it actually meant
it had run out of ice cream. Someone then mentioned
that the LA County Coroner's Office had opened a gift
shop. "I can see it," Baker cuts in. "It's My dear spouse
passed away and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
In a denim shirt with Tex Avery motif, Levi's and urban
hiking boots, hair crackling with static, Baker tells
me that, "95 per cent of the callers don't get thrown
at all when they get through. They like to hear all
the clattering around, me putting cartridges in and
everything, they like to think someone's working. With
the stories, they're not trying to amuse me, they just
wanna tell 'em. Sometimes they don't get there, and
if it looks like it's going to dip, I help 'em out".
Home was and is Deptford in South East London with wife
Wendy and kids Sonny, six and Bonnie, nine. Wendy has
seven sisters and three brothers, Baker's dad was one
of 14 kids, his grandma had a pub named after her, Ma
"Yeah, she was a performer, then me dad, and now my
boy's got it." He goes to watch Millwall with a group
of mates he group up with. He left school at 15, but
not before an odd incident in the second year.
"This Nigerian kid called John Abanuge joined our class,
and the kids hated him. The black kids didn't like him
'cos he was African, the white kids didn't like him,
everyone decided to sort him out. So one day in the
yard he was attacked. There were kids hittin' him with
bits of wood, other kids were jumpin' on his back, beltin'
'im in the face, the lot, but he wouldn't go down. He
would not go down. He stood there, blood pouring down
his face, just, like, impassive. They took 'im off to
hospital, and we never saw I'm again. And then we found
out he was actually 23 years-old! Somehow he's ended
up in our class of 13 year-olds. I don't know how he
got there, but in the local paper they just had the
headline, "23 Year-Old Man Had Been Attending School".
Now when Sonny does something precocious or whatever,
I always say, "Ah, John Abanuge!".
Mr Dingley, a teacher at the school - now closed down
- was killed during sports day at Crystal Palace, when
a boy called Kelly Andrews threw a shot-put at his head.
"Dingley lingered a few months before he died, Funny
thing is, no-one can confirm whether Kelly Andrews was
actually done for it." Then there was the games teacher,
a Vietnam veteran, who would perform martial arts moves
on unruly pupils. "Some kids used to say "I'll get my
dad onto you", and he's say "Go on then".
Always "the smartest kid in the school", he left in
1972 aged 15 to work in Musicland, a record shop in
South Molton Street in London's West End. The likes
of Marc Bolan, John Lennon and Elton John regularly
called in, keen to purchase advance album imports.
In 1976, with fellow Deptfordian Mark Perry, Baker founded
the proto punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue, and this lead
to an offer from the New Musical Express, home to the
likes of Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Charles Shaar
Murray and Nick Kent. Initially the receptionist, he
was soon doing his bit.
"I used to do the headlines, captions, T-Zers and Thrills
(both humorous sections), nitwit stuff, pull photos
out of the file, jolly things up, that's what interested
us, writing jokes. I loved reviewing the singles, you
know? If there was a record that was okay, but it was
funnier to say it was awful then awful it was. Again,
I always refer to other people's quotes, but when Peter
Sellars used to say The Goons was his happiest time
professionally, the NME was just a ball. Can you imagine?
Eighteen to 21 flying all over the world, reviewing
records, oh, marvellous time, writing copy on the way
to the printers, just solidly laughing and being drunk.
"Wonderful. What I brought in, perhaps, was out-and-out
jokes that didn't depend on counter-culture knowledge.
My writing never depended on whether anyone'd heard
of the group. It was outrageous liberties with somebody
else's craft, but that was the point." In between the
gags he got round to interviewing a few folk.
"I liked The Jam, I got on well with Paul Weller. It
must've been '79 or '80 /I was with them in Hamburg,
staying at a top hotel, they always stayed in good places
'cos Paul's dad was the manager. This night Paul's been
drinking and he said he thought that's it, the Jam's
finished, 'e thinks punk rock, as it vaguely was struggling
along, was finished. And, er, I wasn't particularly
together myself. I had a thing like a Sony tap-player
with a directional mic, and I put it on the table in
the bar of the hotel, which was just off the Reeperbahn.
We put this mic between us, and he hauled all this stuff
out and I thought, " This is good, nice one Paul". And
when I got back, quite truthfully, I put it on and the
directional mic'd been pointing at the muzak speakers,
and all I'd got was like (sings) "Tonen, Tanden", or
whatever the song was, and you couldn't hear him at
all. I made it up, as you did, and damn fine quotes
they was too. Those quotes still crop up in books and
stuff, an' I remember makin' them up in me flat!"
Bang in the middle of these rock 'n' roll years, Baker
got married. "I was 21, 22 and it lasted, what, about
ten months. It wasn't that big a deal, there really
isn't that much to say about it, and that sounds conspiratorial,
but it isn't. That's how fazed-out from life on the
road I was, an' I'm sure she thinks exactly the same
way. I'm very old fashioned like that, I'm not from
that kind of tradition or background. I've never been
of that frame of mind where it's no big deal to get
married, but it really wasn't. It was this kind of funky
thing on a Friday afternoon, an' we fell apart after,
like, weeks maybe months. The saddest thing we can say
about it is when it actually dissolved there was nothing
to show, nothing that went on, it actually ended with
this whimper an' we haven't seen each other since. About
five years later, when I came to marry Wendy, who I'd
gone out with before and after, I said, " Oh, I'm married,
I'd better get divorced". As Wodehouse says, like so
many young men, I made my selection without walking
the full length of the counter."
followed the NME, noticeably a six-year stint on LWT's
The 6 O'Clock Show, where his researcher was Paul Ross,
brother of Jonathan. He worked to a script then, and
the writers often inserted "Cor!s and "Gorblimey's in
the text, but he never said them. During this time his
elder brother Michael, then 29, died suddenly. "I often
think, wow, thing's are going sweet, you're doing well,
you're loaded, you're doing what you do to your best,
but I figure now, in that almost obscene way, we all
work things out: ah, but you paid for it, 'cos I'll
be thinking somewhere in the background fate's slipping
the lead in the boxing gloves, it's all going too well,
but I figure 'cos of my brother Michael, I figure that
emotionally you're fairly fire-proof after something
like that. I think if you'd arrived where I am now without
that kind of hell as it was - and still is, it's not
as if my Father whistles songs every day, unless you
have that, then you may go completely crazy and think
you're a genius, a golden boy. Other than that, though,
it's been an idyllic life."
Though he was immensely respected by those working
on the show, to the extent that Ross knocked up a sign
saying "Whatever Dan Says Goes". He was coasting, a
professional presenter, a utility man, and his potential
could only be guessed at.
"I never wrote for meself until the last 18 months.
The first thing was for TV Hell, they approached me
to do a thing on chat shows an' I said "Yeah" and they
said, "Why don't you write it too?". I'd been doing
telly for 13rs but I'd never ever written for meself
or done anything /I cared about. I just thought "Oh,
TV", it was like, and to this day the career is totally
divorced from home, an' "I didn't make a big deal of
Prior to TV Hell he played Idle Jack in Dick Whittington
"Basically I loved doing the panto, I'd definitely do
it again. I love big broad entertainment's, it's in
my soul all of that," he says. "Asit turned out, I was
meerly a stooge in a bigger scam, 'cos the bloke who
hired us, there was me, someone from Blue Peter, Michael
Robbins from On The Buses, an' the woman from Last Of
The Summer Wine. The bloke who hired us, it turned out,
didn't intend paying us anything an' that's exactly
what happened. We did a three-week run, good houses,
and then he put his hat on, picked up his suitcase and
walked out the back door, never been seen since. It
was Pat Daley, used to be half of Daley & Wayne who
where a double act, an' he taught me all the traditional
routines, like hitting him on the head with a newspaper,
with rimshots from the drum, an' there was the three
soda siphons routine. One day he says, "What's Hats?"
an' all the old hands laugh and go, "Young feller doesn't
know what Hats is!" So yes, in one sense I was paid.
It was just so brilliant knowing that the big laugh
was coming. I've never experienced that in any rock
'n' roll culture, certainly not telly, that kind of
schmoozy showbiz thing when you've got a full house
an' the three soda siphons laugh is just moments away,
that is magic, pure magic. At the same time, though,
when my kids say, "Sing Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer" I have
to do it through gritted teeth, 'cos I was ripped off,
seriously ripped off."
Scriptwriting for Jonathan Ross followed a quiet period
in which he tried writing a sitcom based around the
PE teacher played by Brian Glover in the movie Kes.
"Jonathan and I circled each other for years. It was
like I was his brother's mate. He was my best man, but
finally when 'e was doing the Wogan show at the BBC
he took the stuff I wasn't using and worked it incredibly.
I still say this, not just hoping he'll read and glow
with it, I still see myself as Jonathan's writer, I
would love to be writing After All for him, and further
down the road I would love..See, just doing it on Saturday
invests too much in it, it makes it The Chat Show On
Saturday Night, whereas it should actually be on Monday
to Friday, like they do in the States, there if people
want it or not. I should do Monday, Wednesday and Friday
or Tuesday and Thursday, and Jonathan should do the
other days. It should kick The Late Show's ass down
the road. It has it's own attitude, it's own reflection,
it has guests on, but it's no big deal, the more you
do it. I'll say it publicly on the record, I'll do After
All more often and for the same money. That shotgun
you heard was my agent Saskia. If it were him and me
alternating on what I call, favourite phrase, a Rip
'n' Read magazine-type show, it'd be brilliant. It feels
like a hot ticket and the most frustrating thing is
sitting in the office knowing that Alan Yentob ain't
gonna put his head round the door and say, "Yes, you're
on, can you do a show in two hours?" Yes we can, of
varying degrees of quality, but always working flat
out. We're not shambolic, we're not amateur hour and
we could be so good, but the machinery in British TV
ain't there, so we have to shoehorn it into 50 minutes
a week. Who has 50 minutes of thought a week?"
The first couple of After Alls, following on from his
excellent ten minute slots TV Heroes, among whose number
were Fanny Craddock, Peter Glaze and the Top of The
Pops audience, seemed a touch flat even to the man's
most ardent fans. Some suggested that he worked best
on radio, on Morning Edition and the football phone-in
Six-O-Six, and that on TV he was best when placed in
a context not of his choosing, such as the daytime show
Win, Lose or Draw. The quality newspapers leapt in and
said the show was a wholesale rip-off of David Letterman's
stateside chat show. Then there were the accusations
that this London accent had taken on mid-Atlantic tinges.
"Well, if I'm sensitive about anything it's the fact
that I've spent most of my time on telly being described
as a cockney, so I think sometimes unconsciously I rein
it in. Clement Feud asked me, "Do you like jellied eels?"
I do. I do live in Deptford. I do go to Millwall. I
do like Chas and Dave - I don't play 'em on the radio,
which is the other inversion. Yeah, with my mates I
talk faster and swear a lot more and sometimes I do
bite back on quotes 'cos it looks like I'm trading on
that card. I'm aware, believe it or not, that I've got
quite a large following among women and I know I shouldn't
look like I'm ladding it up. That's purely and simply
why I gave up Six-0-Six, the football show, 'cos I was
becoming the Voice of The Terraces, that whole me and
football, overegging the pudding, a lad, and I'm not
actually like that. The one thing my producer on After
All might say is, "That's too laddish", an' of course
I listen to her. Don't get me wrong, I adore phoney
flattery heaped on me by my insincere showbiz pals,
but I do listen to her. As for Letter, well, yes, intentionally,
but also yes, Aresenio Hall and yes, Jay Leno. The way
the Americans do these shows, there are casual rock
'n' roll references, they're flip, not very deep, Rip
'n' Read television, that was always the aim.
"Before we started the show, we said that what this
Country needs is the US way of doing a talk show, like
Letterman, but that ain't like saying. "Oh, well just
Anglicise his scripts." They're original, I write 'em.
They never have a go at Kilroy for takin' Oprah's gig.
Nah, I never get any of that at Millwall, all you ever
here is an occasional "Daz!" comment from like, five
rows back, and a load of broad grins. This show's getting'
odder and odder, an' in a year's time, we'll look back
at the first ones and go, "Gaw, did we used to be like
that?!" Five nights a week, that's what we need. I feel
bullish about it. It's such a media thing to say, "Ooh,
Indeed, it's hard to imagine Letterman responding the
way Baker did after the departure of guest Richard E
Grant: " I think for the first time in my life I just
found a man attractive... ." The pause is perfect. "....don't
want to shag him though."
By Andy Darling in FHM Magazine
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