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The Terrifying and Nostalgia-Sodden Return of 'TFI Friday'

This is the first point at which it feels like The Nineties themselves are getting back together.

Chris Evans – a cultural figure who has gradually raised himself from the dead – is fully resurrect now. Evans famously committed media suicide by asking for Fridays off from his Radio 1 breakfast show so he could prep for TFI Friday. Then, he gave himself the second barrel by quitting TFI Friday when Channel 4 asked for a bit of a redesign after four seasons. Five years into his sulk, he famously failed to re-launch himself with the disastrous OFI Sunday on ITV. Then, no longer so famously, sulked off even deeper into the sort of comforting giant baby hinterlands his £40 million TV mogul fortune allowed.


Gradually, sanity swam back into view.

A man who, in his prime, by his own admission "had simply gone tonto. I had well and truly checked out of Hotel Terra Firma and was spinning out of control somewhere close to the edge of the known universe," slowly began to realise what reality looked like, and that he might wish to join it. He got a Radio 2 show. He divorced Billie Piper. He knuckled down, grafted hard, and made it to the Breakfast Show. And now, if we're all still cool with it, he'd like to make his long-coming cultural rehab complete, by bringing back his golden child, TFI Friday, for one last dog-n-pony show.

This, then, is Chris Evans' coming out party. He has already billed it as an apology to the crew of the original show whom he shat out when he quit. An attempt, he acknowledges, to say: "Look guys, I know I was a complete and utter cock, the undisputed asshole of all time." It is also a 90 minute "19th Anniversary Special" – it was actually pitched to him as the twentieth, until someone with a calculator turned up in the production office. So far, we know it will involve Roger Daltrey, Liam Gallagher and Jeremy Clarkson's first post-sacking interview.

Tonight, we will peer into our UHDTV curve-screens from the comfortable Swedish furniture of the future and attempt to recollect exactly what it was we all got so excited about.

TFI "defined a generation", so it is said. But was this mainly because this was a generation that desperately wanted to be defined by a TV programme? A generation that was, for that moment, desperate to all be cheering the same dozen pop groups and levelling-down our roots into one big demotic baggy trousers shag-pile? The late 90s, after all, was the apex of mass culture. Global CD sales peaked in 1999, and the Pravda of Britpop was all about coming together: a live event meant to feel like a party in your living room.


A #hot #take over on NOISEY: TFI Friday is Back and I Just Can't Take it Anymore

Hence why, according to its star, 350,000 people applied for tickets, to stand in a bar that could hold, at a push, 30. It was therefore the most exclusive nightclub in the world. Or, if you like, Evans could have filled two Knebworths with people chanting "Wiiiiiill" as he got the singer from Reef to yawdle through "It's Your Letters".

Evans described the sensation of riding the Britpop tiger as being one of the key things that made him queasy about the show: that far from being totemic of the spirit of the times, the show was being buoyed along by it, and how to him that euphoria was gradually replaced by a creeping dread that, as the tide went out, the show would in turn be dashed on the post-Britpop rocks.

He later recanted and proclaimed he could have gone on, but he clearly understood what a unique cultural moment he was in on. Good TV comes in every age, but some TV can only happen when the stars align. Contrast the genuine narkiness of TFI with the compliance-friendly "zoo" formats that came after, and remember what an unprecedented amount of freedom Evans had by then managed to bore out of his own star power.

He may have merrily bants-ed it up with Noel Gallagher on earlier episodes, but while the press were still flagrantly bumming Be Here Now, he opened the show with a sketch in which he and Wiiliiiill put the defibrillator to a copy, to "bring it back to life".


This genuinely wouldn't happen today. Someone from production would come in with a note from the next department – C4 Music are recording an acoustic session that Oasis are going to seed through their Twitter account on Tuesday. Could we just not? Just for the next couple of weeks, at least? Negativity isn't part of the chat show lexicon. Graham Norton might get ooh-pardon cheeky with them, but trust me: no one is going to be taking the pliers to Florence's forthcoming shitscree, however tedious. Only TFI got big enough and bold enough to smash down the walls that star PRs spend years building around their clients.

At its best, it was always trying to pull the ladder out from underneath its audience. At its best, this was TV that was tussling with you, drunkenly pulling on your elbow at the fag end of a good party, trying to get you to jump over a cactus in a kilt. Whether it be getting Geri Halliwell to arm-wrestle Kylie Minogue, before these two icons of girl power dissolved their tussle into a big sloppy kiss, or just smashing a pyramid of TFI Friday souvenir mugs with a washing machine tied to a rope hung outside Riverside Studios. You didn't know what was coming next, simply because what was coming next was genuinely whatever Danny Baker and Will MacDonald had dreamed up in a boozy fug every Tuesday afternoon in a Belsize Park pub. And as such, it could be anything.

Baker was eloquent on the zen of idiocy it took to make something as throwaway as TFI:


"The key to much of the mania was to create a perfectly stupid idea and then leave it alone. On TV, the serious is easy to do. Frivolous is hard. And TFI Friday was relentlessly, wonderfully unashamedly frivolous.'"

The show achieved that serious intent of frivolity in part by Evans' having been canny enough to only agree to make the show through his own production company – Big Speccy Ginger Prick Productions – so didn't have to answer to anyone except himself. The star was the executive producer was the mogul: the chain-of-command was brutally short.

It was that sort of integration that led to what Evans described in his memoirs as "possibly the most expensive joke in the history of light entertainment". John Cleese had been booked to appear. Kicking the concept of what to do with him around, they happened upon the idea of flying the entire team to New York on Concorde that evening to hand-deliver him their script and filming it. Cost: £57,000. Discovering Cleese had left again: amusing, but utterly useless in terms of making the sketch happen.

Evans' power allowed him to win as big as he dreamed. Normally, stars are ascribed that sort of agency. Evans actually had it. Hence why he managed to broadcast Napalm Death belting three songs' worth of extreme noise terror to an early evening audience who could choose between that and Boyzone chair-farting through TOTP on the other side.


Some of that chutzpah seems breathtaking now. In the 21st century, we're all trained by advanced media shaming techniques into being too scared to laugh along at Fat Lookalikes, or even Ugly Blokes – in which a range of ugly blokes go on and present their ugliness to Chris Evans. (Chris: "How long have you been ugly?" Ugly Bloke: "All me life.")

When Loaded finally went to the wall last year, people crowed, they didn't mourn. In a world of laddishness = rape, the sort of droll nose-thumbing that '90s lad made his raison d'être is a dim memory.

Watching old TFIF explains why it went un-mourned as often as it makes you nostalgic for the old tropes.

The set-piece gaggy bits ranged between the kind of stupidity it takes real genius to conjure, and the merely jocular. Which one is "Is It A Wig?" – in which a man with or without a toupee is put in front of a blower until his wig either blows off or is revealed as real hair? It is genius. Which one is the game where they asked viewers to identify whether a particular photo of tightly-cropped cleavage was male arse or female breast? It was merely jocular. Baby Left Baby Right – in which a human baby was put on a cushion and people gambled over whether it would fall left or right? Well, scholars will be debating that one for decades.

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Sadly, no footage exists on the web of the most heart-rendingly offensive moral line they ever overshot. It came towards the end of their lifespan, in 1999, and involved two kids having a staring contest. Winner gets a car for mum and dad. Loser? Well, loser starts crying, doesn't he: he's six years old and he's fucked his parents' future on live TV.


Realising how horrible this seemed, Evans foisted some consolation prizes on the loser the following week. Yet, astoundingly, in the same breath, ramped-up the stakes to two small girls out-staring each other to win a speedboat. With the same predictably tearful result. The cards were marked from here on in. Evans can be seen mouthing to his off-air producer that "We can't do that again", which only makes everyone wonder why on earth they thought they could do it that time.

By that point, things were getting very ragged. "I had evolved an emotional barometer so shot to pieces it could no longer tell the difference between a script and a soup packet," Evans recalls. "Let alone a planning meeting and what I suspected was a plot to kill off my career."

When C4 suggested a revamp to head off flagging ratings, he quit spectacularly, hitting the big button marked "Blow up era-defining career like you've always secretly wanted to, haven't you, Chris: go on do it, do it now", and left the final season to be guest-hosted by a range of stars – from The Spice Girls, by then also in the closing down sale of their careers, to Elton John, who took charge of the final episode, on 22 December 2000.

The era breathed its last, expiring in a pool of stale self-congratulation. Mohammed Atta and Julian Casablancas soon finished off what Evans had begun.

Meanwhile, the star moped. "This is how I came to be systematically chewed up and spat out by my own creation," he wrote recently in the Mail. "Left almost for dead to wander around the hinterland of TV and radio, wondering what the hell had happened to my once bright and brilliant young life and rock-solid career."


Tonight, he wants redemption – not always easy to achieve from a Roger Daltrey duet and a Clarkson chinwag. But let's just hope for "plausibly funny".

After all, we've seen lots of '90s band reunions come and go in the last decade, but this is the first point at which it feels like The Nineties themselves are getting back together. This is a troubling moment in the life of any thirty-something: the moment where occasional drifts of excusable nostalgia suddenly calcify into something unavoidably 20 years older, noticeably stiffer at the joints. Can The Nineties still cut it? Or will they just be glaring at each other across the monitors, banging through the hits efficiently while leaving us feeling irredeemably hollow inside? Either way, no encores, please.


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