Danny Bakers Internet Treehouse

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."

Danny Baker in Soap Powder Turmoil?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 Baker's.
"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!".

More DB Soap Powder-related turmoil?Danny Baker in  Talc Shocker!

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."

"Man Alive, This stuff gets in your eyes!"TV 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 it."

Prior to TV Hell he played Idle Jack in Dick Whittington at Barking.
"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, Letterman".
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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