An Interview with Danny Baker
Danny Baker had it all worked out. He and his wife Wendy were going to retire and move to sunnier climes in Portugal. But then something happened…
I’ll let Danny tell the story – after all, he does it so well. “When I was promoting my last book, I did a couple of festivals and they sold out really quickly. I did them, and I enjoyed them, and people turned up.”
So, continues the award-winning broadcaster, writer and performer, “I said, ‘Do you know what? Let’s do a couple of them in London, just telling the stories out the books.’ The books are fine and great, and the TV series were fine and great. But I still tell the stories first hand, and that’s how they work best. Anyway, the shows sold out immediately. So the two dates become 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50. I did two nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire last week. Bang! Again, same thing – sold out.”
What is most extraordinary about his first show – entitled ‘Cradle To The Stage’ – is that Danny only covered a fraction of his upbringing in south London. The 61-year-old recalls: “I hadn’t even left school by the end of the three-hour shows. I had 48 photos to show people. We got through six.”
Danny still had an absolute wealth of stories to recount, but initially he wasn’t convinced he should do another tour. At which point, he recollects: “The promoters asked, ‘Do you want to go again?’ I replied, ‘I’m not so sure.’ Then the first cheque came in from the tour, and I said, ‘Let’s go again’.”
So you’ll be delighted to hear that Danny has decided to take the show back on the road. He is coming to a venue near you very soon with “Good Time Charlie’s Back!” It comprises more uproarious anecdotes from his treasure trove of life stories.
The critics have already been raving about Danny’s live performance. The Mail on Sunday describes the show as, “A delightful nostalgia fest. An ‘evening with’ like no other… A raft of cracking anecdotes.” Meanwhile, the Evening Standard declares that, “Boy, can he sell a story… a compelling, evocative account of his south London roots”.
For its part, the Guardian comments that, “Baker makes a compelling case for the liveliness of his personal golden age. His glee, and his love for their protagonists, bring them leaping to life. As a host, he’s entirely unpretentious and fires off stories as they come to him… It’s hard not to marvel at the flow”. It is hard indeed.
I feel like I have had a marvellous preview of ‘Good Time Charlie’s Back!’ during our 45-minute interview in the run-up to the tour. Talking at breakneck speed, Danny is a veritable force of nature, a molten lava flow of wondrous stories. He could entertain you merely by reading out of the telephone directory. It is a real pleasure spending time in his company.
Performing live certainly plays to Danny’s strengths. Responsible for the hugely popular BBC2 sitcom, Cradle to Grave, based on the first volume of his bestselling autobiography, he is a supremely gifted off-the-cuff performer who has no need for direction or a script. Priceless stories flood out of him like an undammed river.
“I’m having a terrific time”
Danny, who can be heard on Saturday mornings on his multi award winning BBC Radio 5 Live show, clearly relishes the live experience. He revels in the contagious atmosphere of a show that is being delivered to an ecstatic audience and will never be repeated.
Remembering his last tour, Danny whistles with something akin to amazement. “God, it was something. They were great nights, those shows. And there is no record of it. It wasn’t filmed, it wasn’t recorded. But that’s fine. That’s half of the shine of it as well, I think. About ten minutes into it, you could really see the audience think, ‘Wow, he won’t be able to keep up this!’” But of course, he did!
He also revels in the sense of anticipation as he builds up to the climax of another highly amusing yarn. The performer reveals that, “I don’t have a fear of public speaking. Onstage, I like knowing that I’m heading into a really good story. Along the way they’re funny, but I like to know that they pay off.
“I’m having a terrific time myself, and I hope that is infectious. I don’t laugh at my own jokes, but I do clap my hands and think, ‘Oh, you’ll like this, here’s something, this is great, let me tell you’.”
What is most incredible about Danny onstage is that he just goes into a different zone. He tells the most superb anecdotes – and then the moment he walks off stage, he cannot for the life of him remember what they were!
He observes: “If you asked me now, ‘What shape are the shows and what stories did you tell last time?’, I wouldn’t know. People say, ‘What’s your favourite subject you’ve done on the radio?’ But I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of reverie I go into when I’m on the radio. I can’t remember. No idea. Which is how it should be. You’d be like a mad person if you talked like that all the time!”
As you can tell, Danny has a quite remarkable gift. Equally astonishing is the fact that he writes nothing down before he goes on stage. The performer discloses: “There’s no structure to the show, but there is an absolute power house of stories. And why deny telling people those? Yes, I’ve got 61 new stories to get through in the new show. But I will get through about, on any given night,… 15.
“This is all good stuff”
“They’re not written down. I’m like the Navajo; it’s all an oral history, passed down through the generations. It’s not a written language. But that’s the fun of it. If it were written down, the audience could tell, and it would take some of the vim out of it. I don’t ever work to a script in radio or anything else. People think there must be a script. There isn’t, and whatever facility I may have, that is it. Minor though it is, that’s what I can do.”
Danny adds: “Even people in the audience who had heard it before nudge their neighbours and say, ‘This is a great story’. I’m not a comedian. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I know this joke.’ It’s all in the story. The devil is in the detail, and it forms an overall patchwork on the night – another thing I’ve got in common with the Indian Nation. I had no idea that me and Sitting Bull were actually related.”
Another great skill Danny possesses is the ability to turn disasters into comedy gold. He laughs now that even the “nadir” of his TV presenting career, a short-lived consumer programme called The Bottom Line, has provided him with some terrific material.
Danny recounts: “The theme tune used to go, ‘It’s the bottom, it’s the bottom line’. And we used to run onto the set going, ‘It’s the bottom of the barrel.’ The Bottom Line only lasted one series. It was an absolute stinker.
“But that’s the thing, though. After 40 odd years doing this, you know this is all good stuff. You think, ‘I’ll husband this.’ You go through disasters like The Bottom Line and they become great stories.”
What is irresistible about Danny is the sheer passion he has for storytelling. This is highlighted in ‘Good Time Charlie’s Back!’ which he has joked will serve as his farewell tour.
He says: “I have an ebullience that some people find annoying, but I’ve said it many times, I’m very shallow. That has become a bad thing, but it’s not in my book.
“Culmination of a pretty peculiar life”
“Too many people today affect a darker side. I can’t bear the word ‘dark’. I’m a euphoric, and that’s all there is to it. I’m stuck with it. I had loads and loads of uncles and aunts. My wife is one of 10. Our house was always full of pushchairs and bikes and you had to be competitive to be heard. Our family was noisy. But even before I left school, I was fortunate enough to realise that when something funny happened, it would make a great story.”
Danny’s tales is that they touch on themes which everyone can relate to. According to the performer: “One of the myths about me is that I’m ‘very London’. But on the last tour, I went to Yorkshire four times, Manchester three times. I went right up into the North East – and we sold out everywhere. I think my stories are unique and universal.”
However, Danny does not wish for ‘Good Time Charlie’s Back!’ to be seen as didactic. “There’s no great social message in it,” he says. “I’m not raising awareness about anything. I wouldn’t know how to, and I don’t think people want that.”
Danny closes by summing up his brilliant, forty-year career. “The books and the stage shows are the culmination of a pretty peculiar life. Fortunately, I’ve never hitched my career to any one style. But I’ve always had – if you will forgive the Noel Coward reference – a talent to amuse.”
Danny Baker’s new show ‘Good Time Charlie’s Back!’ visits York Grand Opera House April 29 and Bradford St George’s Hall May 28.
For full tour details visit dannybakerlive.com
Top & bottom image: Steve Ullathorne