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May 25, 2023

Adrian Chiles interview: ‘I’m not playing a part here, this is what I really think’

Chiles speaks about his career, his rise and fall on TV and his Guardian column.

By William Turvill

“Adrian Chiles Britain’s greatest columnist”Frances Ryan, The Guardian

“The greatest columnist of our time”Clarissa-Jan Lim, formerly Buzzfeed

“The real mark of his greatness is how much better he is than other people who try to do banal”Tom Whyman, freelance writer and philosopher

Adrian Chiles isn’t sure what to make of it all. “I never know if they’re taking the piss or not,” he sighed sheepishly when I asked how it felt to be Twitter’s best-loved British columnist. “Sometimes I think: Do they just think I’m completely shit?”

It’s easy to understand why Chiles, 56, might fear that not all of the praise heaped upon him is entirely sincere. One of his recent Guardian columns was headlined: “Flock me! The day I became a hero to some disdainful sheep.” Another read: “I thought it was weird to have a favourite spoon. Then I realised I wasn’t alone…” A third: “I have a urinal in my flat and it has changed my life – so why are people appalled?”

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But in fairness to Chiles, he’s also used his column to tackle issues of bereavement, loneliness, alcoholism and ADHD, a condition with which he was diagnosed around five years ago. His columns are frequently well-read and most Thursdays they seem to result in the words “Adrian Chiles” trending on Twitter. He generally comes across as a relatable, straightforward and honest writer.

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Plus, it’s the headlines that tend to attract sometimes-sarcastic acclaim and Chiles doesn’t write them (his suggestions are “politely ignored”). “I always hate the headlines,” he said. “I invariably think they’re stupid. But I’ve given up because I’m obviously wrong.”

Chiles shot into the British public consciousness in the mid-noughties as the no-nonsense Brummie presenter of The One Show, Match of the Day 2 and The Apprentice: You’re Fired. Today, to Chiles’ apparent disappointment, many people know him best as a man who is “not on telly anymore”. But he is also a twice-weekly presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live and an unlikely star columnist for The Guardian.

Chiles agreed to meet me for a lunchtime interview after his Thursday shift on 5 Live. Because he had recently published a book on his efforts to cut down on drinking, I decided a pub would be insensitive (right call). Instead, I reckoned Chiles might enjoy a curry (wrong call, as it turned out), so I’d booked an Indian near Broadcasting House.

I arrived five minutes early and ordered a bottle of tap water to share. Chiles – unshaven, disheveled and slimmer than I’d expected – blustered in five minutes late, full of apologies. He shed his leather jacket, plonked a tatty red Thermos on the table, leant back in his chair and looked me up and down before deploying – I’m sure not for the first time – a killer chat-up line: “You look like – are you naturally slim, or do you work at that?”

It turned out that weight and healthy eating were on Chiles’ mind because he’d recently diagnosed himself as an overeater. Aided by a Paul McKenna book, he was on a mission to stop eating like a “barnyard animal”. In practice, this meant eating less and eating slowly.

Surveying the menu with a squint, Chiles declared that he would only require a starter. “Sorry to be boring,” he told the waitress, “I’ve got a big meal tonight.” The result was that, while I enjoyed chicken tikka and a flatbread, Chiles nursed a Mangalore bun served on a saucer for the best part of an hour. “Have I done well here!?” he later asked gleefully as he finally prepared to sink his last morsel. “This is glacially slow!”

Adrian Chiles would ‘love to have a column [on] sofas’

Each week Chiles files two columns with The Guardian, one of 350 words, the other of 650. His deadline is 1pm on Wednesday. “I normally wake up feeling genuinely sick on Wednesday morning, thinking: ‘What am I gonna do!?”

Chiles said he’s never missed his deadline but has suffered “plenty of bollockings from the desk” for being slow to pitch his column ideas. “It’s fucking hard,” he said. “It’s not going down a mine and it’s not being an investigative reporter. It’s not being a war reporter – it’s not even being a Whitehall editor or something. But it’s a thing.

“I’d love to have a column where they just told you what to write. Just anything – if it was sofas. I’d find a sofa story every week. Or leaves or something. Just, you know: ‘Here’s your leaves story for the week – I found a good one.’ It’s almost like paralysis of choice.”

The elephant at the table is that Chiles is married to his bosses’ boss, Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner. Chiles said this had no bearing on the “bollockings” and, besides, he would never seek to “throw my weight around” at a newspaper. “I might, on radio or telly, say: ‘I know what I’m doing, I want to do it.’ I don’t think I’ve earned the right in print.”

Chiles was apologetically fretful when I asked him about his marriage – “I’ll just get a very sound bollocking from Kath” – but didn’t seek to dodge my questions. Chiles and Viner began courting after he’d already been signed up as a columnist by The Guardian’s head of features, Kira Cochrane. In fact, Viner was apparently wooed by a 2019 column in which Chiles wrote about being too inflexible to climb out of his friend’s Aston Martin (“I had to sort of roll out onto the pavement on all fours”). “She just found it funny, so I went in – she said: ‘Come in and see me’ – and saw her again a couple of months later and sort of that was that.”

At this point in our conversation, I was fortuitously chewing on a stubborn chunk of chicken and so we were left in silence. Chiles couldn’t hack it. “So, yeah,” he said awkwardly after a few seconds, “I’m totally garrulous, so don’t tempt me to get started.” More silence. “But, yeah… I think she does an amazing job. I think anybody who edits – anybody who leads a big organisation – I mean that. I really couldn’t run a whelk stall.”

Sunday Sport’s Only Fans story? ‘I don’t know what the fuck that was all about’

Chiles’ weekly deadline means that he is constantly on the lookout for anything that might fill his column inches. “If I was run over now, before I hit the ground – if I wasn’t dead – I’d be thinking: ‘Fuck, it’s a column if nothing else.’”

In March he wrote an article that was headlined: “My biggest surprise of the week? I have a naked lookalike – and he is making a fortune on Only Fans.” This was a follow-up to a Sunday Sport report that claimed a former social worker from Leeds (who bears some resemblance to Chiles) makes £1,000 a week by performing sex acts while reading football results and Chiles’ Guardian column to his fans.

“I don’t know what the fuck that was all about,” said Chiles. The Sunday Sport often runs spoof stories. Surely, I put it to Chiles, that was one of them? “But if it was… well, if it was, surely that would have come to me by now?” he said, sounding mildly crestfallen. “I thought I would have at least heard from the bloke at the Sport. I didn’t mind if he made it up. But, I mean, it was so mad I thought: Nobody could have made that up, it’s just too ridiculous. And, as ever, I just think: Fucking hell, it’s a column. Thank you, thank you, thank you – it’s a column!”

Chiles is aware of the plaudits he regularly receives on Twitter but does not have a public profile on the platform. “As far as I can see it would be like opening up the gates of hell,” he said. “I’m on it, but with a nom-de-twat, or whatever.” He is also cautious about reading through the comments under his columns.

I asked Chiles if he enjoyed reading his columns back. “Not if I can help it.” Last year, when his book on drinking was published, he was forced to read back his work for the audiobook version. “You really are paid to physically atone for your sins,” he said.

“Do all writers get that?” he mused. “Did Charles Dickens sit down ten years after Great Expectations had been a big success, read through it and think: ‘Yep, nailed that. That’s perfect.’ I don’t know.”

The week after I met Chiles, Will Self wrote a lengthy, personal and rather anatomical attack on him in the New European. Self took particular issue with his column about having a urinal. When I asked Chiles what he made of it, he texted: “Try as I might, it’s so plain bonkers I can’t bring myself to be much offended by it, although given how abusive it is I should probably make more of an effort. I don’t think he can be very well. Might hang it over my urinal.”

‘I’d get right on my tits’

Chiles was raised by his English father and Croatian mother near Birmingham. He broke into journalism in the early 1990s through an NCTJ course he took in Cardiff. A West Bromwich Albion fanatic, Chiles did work experience with the Birmingham Post sports desk while studying. Still today he names his proudest achievement as landing a back-page lead in the newspaper after he secured an interview with a Croatian ping pong player.

On completion of his NCTJ, Chiles was due to join the Post as a trainee. However, his contract fell through when he failed his shorthand exam. “I was bloody hopeless.” He passed at the second attempt, but only by copying his neighbour’s transcription. “I’m not proud of that.”

Because the Birmingham Post job had gone to someone else, Chiles lined himself up with some work experience at the BBC. This turned out to be the making of him. “If I was good at one thing it was work experience,” he said. “I could do masterclasses in it. I was there for three weeks: I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, but you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone. Even if I’m just bringing you tea or doing your shopping or fetching this or that. And that worked for me.”

Chiles soon after established himself as an on-screen presenter of Working Lunch, a BBC Two business show. More than a decade later, he became a BBC A-lister – a face of The One Show, Match of the Day 2 and  The Apprentice: You’re Fired. In 2010, ITV offered him a multi-million-pound deal to present Daybreak, an ill-fated predecessor to Good Morning Britain, and much of its football coverage.

Chiles struggled to make sense of it. “Everything I’ve done I’ve always thought: Fuck me, I wouldn’t watch me. Some wise-cracking twat with a funny accent umm-ing and ah-ing and thinking he’s funny when he isn’t. Being a clever dick. He’d get right on my tits.”

Poor ratings ensured that Chiles’ Daybreak gig ended in 2011. Apparently, this was something of a relief. “Getting up at half-three in the morning to do a show which everyone said was shit – that got very stressful quite quickly,” he said. Afterwards, he felt like “damaged goods”. Chiles remained a football presenter for ITV until early 2015 when he was abruptly sacked. Around this time, he said, he became “paralysingly miserable”. “I was constantly anxious,” he added. It was only later that he was diagnosed with ADHD and began to understand more about the mental health issues from which he had suffered.

“I was bewildered by my sudden ascent and I was equally bewildered by its sudden end,” Chiles reflected. “I must say, given as I am to fanatic pessimism, even I would’ve been hard-pushed to predict that I literally would have done next to no live telly in the next nine years if you’d asked me in 2014. But that’s fine. I might end up doing it again, I might not.”

Chiles was a household name during a period when phone hacking was rife among the tabloids. Was he targeted? “Yes, I think I was.” By? “The ones you’d expect.” Did he sue? “No, I didn’t. I could have done.” He explained that his decision not to sue was partly prompted by his lengthy legal battle with HMRC (which he won last year). “I just literally couldn’t deal with any more lawyers, didn’t want any more stress,” he said. “And slightly I felt: I am a journalist, a working freelance journalist. I don’t know – I just didn’t want to get embroiled.”

‘When you hear the same thing ten times a day it gets hard’

Sipping on a mint tea after his mangalore bun, Chiles seemed truly enthused to be working as a newspaper columnist three decades after he squandered his chance to work on the Birmingham Post. “If somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, I read your Guardian article, I like your Guardian column,’ I just want to pick them up and carry them to the pub or something,” he explained.

Still, he seemed somewhat scarred by the abrupt end of his TV career. And he clearly enjoyed the fame. “Now you’re getting closer to the Andy Warhol thing all the time,” he said. “You know, every fucker seems to be on television or at least doing a podcast or at least filming themselves.”

When I asked if he was still recognised often, he was quick to say: “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” before adding: “I like talking to people and nice people will come up to you and say interesting and nice things, and I love having those conversations.”

But there are downsides. “This still happens a dozen times a day, someone will come up and say, ‘Oh, you’re not on telly anymore.’ So you’re always, by definition – and this happens to us all in the end – but you are defined by what you used to do. So I was on telly all the time, now I’m not. People go: ‘Ooh, what you doing? You alright?’ Look, it’s fine. But when you hear the same thing ten times a day it gets hard.”

Back when Chiles was hosting Working Lunch, before he was a household name, Steve Wright told him that he enjoyed his show and complimented him on being the same person “in real life” as on screen. But he apparently warned him that, “in the end, you will go completely mad”.

“I’ve found out exactly what he meant,” said Chiles. “You kind of do go mad. You’ve got nothing to hide behind. It’s not your persona. This is all I’ve got here. I’m being myself, or I guess in the end you do an impression of yourself because you’re trying to be as natural as possible in an unnatural environment. But that’s me. That’s all I’ve got. So if you look at me and think I’m a twat then, you know, I’m afraid I’m a twat.

“It’s a bit like with The Guardian stuff,” he added. “If I am reticent about looking at the comments and stuff it’s because, you know, this is what I really think. I’m not playing a part here.”

Quickfire questions with Adrian Chiles

Favourite newspaper (apart from The Guardian)? Jutarnji list (a Croatian newspaper that Chiles uses to keep up with his mother’s language)

Magazine? The London Review of Books. “I realised the mistake I was making with a lot of things, thinking I’ve got to read it cover to cover. But actually just one of those big long reads in there is worth the annual subscription. Not least because it saves you reading the book half the time because the reviews are so comprehensive.”

TV show? Brooklyn 99. “I feel like I’m in it. The characters feel like friends.”

Film? Whiplash

Musician? Bill Evans

Podcast? The Price of Football

Career low? “I was sacked from an unpaid wine column in The Daily Telegraph. I mean, to be sacked for something that you weren’t charging for! It was me and a master of wine, we – it’s too painful for me to talk about. It sounds crap on paper, but we’d take two wines and compare them to each other and use a load of football analogies in it, which I thought was brilliant but plainly didn’t work.”

Career high? His Birmingham Post back-page lead. “I’ll never, ever forget it. It was easily the proudest moment of my career. It was a really frosty Saturday morning, it must have been in early January or December – winter anyway – and I went down to the paper shop at eight o’clock and got a copy of the Birmingham Post – it’s a broadsheet, proper paper – and turned it round and the whole back page was my story: ‘Adrian Chiles at the National Indoor Arena.’ Nothing replicates that on television.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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