Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Danny Baker Show

Posted by Maximum Fun on 16th December 2012

Vital stats:
Format: Danny Baker, his co-host, his callers, and a bunch of (mostly British) celebrities talk football — but mostly go on tangents therefrom
Episode duration: ~1h30m
Frequency: weekly

“Because all of the subjects are British, there are qualities that leap out for an American viewer,” Roger Ebert once wrote about Michael Apted’s Up documentaries. “One is how articulate the subjects are [ .. ] they speak with precision, and often with grace and humor. One ponders the inarticulate murkiness, self-help cliches, sports metaphors and management truisms that clutter American speech.” As an American all too eager to run down his less fortunate countrymen, I certainly ponder those things. Yet I also ponder something I heard Lewis Black say years ago: the Brits need those accents to mask a stupidity even deeper than ours. Best, I think, to see each side of the pond as expressing its dimwittedness in different ways. Here in the States, we compulsively elevate the least thoughtful and (therefore) least articulate among us to the highest planes of media exposure. We consequently become colonials again, genuflecting to almost every Englishman sitting before a microphone. This goes for their workaday non-celebrities like those in the Ups as well as their craggiest, most donnish and experience-curmudgeonified broadcast hosts — or, as they call themselves, “presenters.”

Danny Baker may qualify as one such genuflection-worthy presenter, though you wouldn’t call him craggy or donnish. (As for the state of his curmudgeonification, it varies with the topics.) “It’s almost inconceivable that Colin would be interested in covering this particular podcast,” a certain Alistair Johnson wrote on the Maximum Fun Forum, “but I’d love to see him take on BBC’s The Danny Baker Show [RSS] [iTunes].” He went so far as to make a list of the reasons for my probable disinterest, including its being “an edit of a radio show,” “a phone-in show,” one whose “subject is (supposed to be) football,” and on top of all that, one that’s “British, and deals with British topics.” Though no Anglophile, I like to think I relish the opportunity to step outside my own culture in any medium possible, and Alistair added that “Danny Baker is considered a genius of radio by many in the U.K.,” and that his show is “not really about sport.” His personal testimony: “I have no interest in football, but listen every week.” Holding fast to my principle that few behaviors make one lamer than only taking interest in one’s interests, I began listening immediately.

We could always, it seems to me, use more shows ostensibly about a thing that nevertheless attract listeners with no interest in that thing. The medium of podcasting in particular tends to produce a few too many programs so fixedly about a thing that they actually turn off even enthusiasts of that thing. Now, I don’t really know the rules of football. (It feels wrong to write “soccer” in this context, and besides, I don’t really know the rules of football football either.) But I do know strong enthusiasm when I hear it, and boy, do I hear it in Baker, his callers, and most of his guests. (I won’t soon forget Baker’s reference to the “almost sexual thrill” of knocking the mud off one’s shoes after a rainy match.) Many of the latter two groups play or played football themselves, not that I’d know if they were just lying about it. The ones who haven’t played football, usually having earned their fame in music or comedy, seem rarely to do sit-downs in this kind of context: Mick Hucknall recently passed through Baker’s studio, as did Rob Brydon, Midge Ure, and even Alice Cooper — and even with them, football comes up.

Baker also has a co-host named Lynsey Hipgrave. Their scattershot conversations make her exact degree of investment in football difficult to discern, but, given her career spent mostly in sports broadcasting, she certainly has one. On the rare occasions they and their guests, present or telephonic, remain on the subject for more than five minutes at a stretch, she tends to provide just the right football-related factoid or ask just the right football-related question. But Baker himself, as engaged a football fan as I’ve ever heard, deliberately undermines the show’s potentially hardcore footballishness by taking phone calls. Though they occasionally want to make a point about football, callers usually ring up to answer one of the questions Baker throws out throughout the broadcast, seemingly offhand and in a build toward bewildering simultaneity. “What unusual animals have you ridden?” he may ask, or “What have you stolen without realizing it?” or “What jobs did you hold in primary school — hall monitor, milk monitor, blackboard monitor?” Sometimes he tacks on a proviso, as he did when asking the audience what they’ve stumbled over: it had to be something better than the life-size One Direction cardboard cutout that once caused his own midnight spill.

The supreme digressiveness of The Danny Baker Show culminates in a trademark feature called the “Sausage Sandwich Game.” Though I have by this point heard it played a dozen times, I can only vaguely describe its rules. A footballer calls in. A couple of listeners get on the line, each competing in the name of their favorite team. Baker asks the footballer a personal question — do they mark a book with a bookmark or just fold down the corner of the page; do they actually take the microwave dinner out midway to stir it like the instructions say — and the contestants guess at the answers before the footballer reveals them. This culminates in the same final question every time: does the footballer eat their sausage sandwich with red sauce, brown sauce — here you begin to understand how British cuisine earned its old reputation — or no sauce at all? In this as in every other aspect of the program, a matrix of British hypermundanity provides Baker the framework to exercise his freakishly formidable skills of comedic oratory. Those articulacy-loving Brits, even the ones calling Baker a “radio genius,” may have grown desensitized to it — a fish can’t tell you about water — but the man frees his appeal from the shackles of subject completely with laser-precise word choice, thorough self-deprecation, and cool, perpetually flattening tonal control. But these, I suppose, are just the demands of the old dry humour.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]