All locals who have their roots in Bermondsey will know Danny Baker, writes Michael Holland…
Some of us will have went to school with him, some of us will have grown up on the Silwood Estate with him, others will have known him from his DJing days in local pubs or via his diverse career that has taken in journalism, TV presenting, and a wide-ranging radio presence that has included playing records at one end of the spectrum and sport at the other, with an array of broadcasting paraphernalia in between that made him unmissable.
Not everyone ‘got’ Baker but still had to listen because he was nothing like anyone else.
For me his most memorable moment was on BBC London when, just as he went on air the day after he won an award for radio, he was told his show was being cut. What followed was the best three hours of radio I can remember as he relentlessly tore into his BBC bosses.
One aspect of Danny’s life that not everyone is aware of is his prolific writing. After a few weeks on the reception desk at the New Musical Express offices he was writing articles for the paper. Soon after he found himself in New York interviewing John Lennon! It is episodes like that which have formed his life: right place, right time, with nothing planned out for the future. He definitely didn’t factor in the cancer that took him away from the spotlight for a while, but we, united as one, gave an all-embracing sigh of relief when he got the all clear after treatment. Post-cancer he wrote three volumes of autobiography, the first of which became Cradle to the Grave, a six-part sitcom that gained him fans who were not aware of his earlier work.
Two years ago, however, Danny revealed to all his Twitter followers that he would retire at 60. I for one didn’t believe it; he seemed to be having so much fun that it couldn’t even be counted as ‘work’. Since that ‘retirement’ he has toured the UK with his successful one man show, Cradle to the Stage, that took his books out into the theatre, and has also teamed up with Gary Lineker to create a twin striker partnership for their podcast, Behind Closed Doors.
Now there is a new tour – Good Time Charlie’s Back – and was surprised to hear that he had no plans for ever doing something like this: ‘I was trying to retire so we could go out to Portugal and live on the beach,’ he begins before telling me how he wanted to finish off by ‘getting a few quid from doing “I’m A Celebrity…” I only wanted to do one Cradle to the Stage show but that became 5, then 10, 20, 40, 60 shows, from Cumbria down to the Isle of Wight… The audiences loved it, I loved it, but my wife was drumming her fingers and asking when we were buggering off to Portugal.’ However, the theatre bug had bitten so this second tour, with another 60 dates booked, will fill in the gaps left gaping from the first tour. ‘And there will probably be a third,’ he hints.
When touring, Danny spaces the dates and venues so that he can get back home to his beloved family regularly. ‘There’s just me in a van with a driver named Giles,’ he says. ‘He picks me up, takes me to the gig, then we stay in a good hotel, have a bottle of wine, sleep, have breakfast and get on the road to the next one.’
Each show is played pretty much off the cuff, although Danny has some specific tried and tested stories that he always uses. He recounted one favourite of being shot with an air gun – twice – in Bermondsey by West Ham fans. I’ve read it in his book but hearing it ‘live’ is even more hilarious. He uses photos to get the anecdotes rolling and although he has over 40 images to hand, he has never used more than 8 in a show. He knows what works and has become adept at timing his performances so they don’t run over after he saw two-thirds of his Bromley audience leave – mid story – towards the end: ‘The car park closes in a minute, shouted one to a bemused Mr Baker.
His shows are relatable to anyone anywhere. ‘They are working class stories which are very familiar to anyone who lived and went to school in places like us,’ he tells me while explaining why the performances are appreciated – and sold out – all over the UK.
The touring shows allow him to be himself without the restrictions of broadcasting regulations, and I sense that he feels that this is a real highlight in his eclectic career. He has no producer in his earpiece telling him to cut, finish, or stop a certain line of thought. Here the leash is off. It is like his whole life was meant to lead to this.
‘Gary Lineker rung me up and left a load of messages on my phone that I came home from holiday to; the final unanswered message saying, “I suppose that’s a no, then!” I didn’t know what he was talking about.’ Checking through he found that he was being asked to do a podcast with the Match of the Day man. ‘I’d never wanted to do a podcast before as there’s no money in them, apparently, but it went straight to Number One in the podcast charts!’ The deadly duo have now taken their show on the road with a couple of gigs booked, ‘and that’s gonna turn into a tour, I suspect,’ adds Danny. ‘So Wendy’s still saying, “When are we going to live on a beach?”’
Millwall’s most famous fan had to tell his wife, ‘I don’t know,’ and readily admits, the podcast was ‘like everything else in my life over the last 40 odd years, something I never knew was coming round the corner.’
I asked about a next book. ‘Yes, Going Round the Houses will be all the stories I never told in the other ones… I might be sitting round a table talking and think, “Ooh, I’ve not done that story”, and make a note to put it in.’
Another surprise success was the children’s book Danny wrote, Lucie Goose, which has done well in all the English-speaking countries, like the autobiographies, but remarkably well in ‘Germany, Finland and Italy… If China buy it,’ he jokes, ‘I’m gonna buy a solid gold house on a hill!’
For now, though, the tour and podcast is stopping the Bakers going off to live by the sea – The move that Danny calls his ‘Third and Final Act’. He reveals he finds it difficult when ‘people keep saying to me, “Come and have a go at this.” So what do you do? Every time I think I’m going to pull up the stumps and say “That’ll do” something else comes up’.
Jack the PR man gave a one minute warning so I asked for some last words. ‘There will be another children’s book; Cradle to the Grave will return and Good Time Charlie’s Back will continue to visit towns around Britain.’
Danny Baker, we salute you, Sir.
Tickets are avaliable at www.dannybakerlive.com
Photo: Steve Ullathorne