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Richard Bacon on cancel culture, cocaine and his coma: ‘I’m good at getting back up again’

He remembers being in a bedroom at his mother-in-law’s house, trying on shirts to find one big enough to hide the huge plaster covering his tracheotomy wound, just so he could go into a room with commissioning editors and pretend to be a gameshow host.

Bacon is speaking over Zoom from his house in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife Rebecca McFarland and their two children, having moved there in 2014, after leaving his presenting job on BBC Radio 5 live.

Coming up with new entertainment shows is basically his job now, says Bacon, best known in the UK for being a TV and radio presenter, and – more than 20 years on – still notorious for getting fired from Blue Peter for taking cocaine.

Now he has devised another gameshow, hosted by Jimmy Carr, called I Literally Just Told You, based around the comic fallibility of short-term memory.

Bacon loves ideas: he has them all the time, making notes on his phone, then worrying away at them, sometimes for months, until they take the shape of something he can imagine on TV.

People think of it as being a scattered focus, and it is partly that, but when you find something you like – in my case, you hit on an idea you like – everything almost zones out … The way I can obsessively think about an idea is actually quite normal for my dysfunctional brain type.” Bacon realised, he says, that while his intense daydreaming may annoy his wife – “I can walk around the house like a zombie” – it could prove quite useful.

“There’s definitely a relationship between drinking and drug use, and ADHD.” In the past, Bacon has admitted to addictive behaviours, especially around alcohol, and has sought help from AA.

Months later, Bacon went back to the hospital when he was making a documentary for ITV about the impact of Brexit – “I wanted to illustrate that if an immigration quota had come in, Lewisham ICU would have lost a lot of the people who saved my life” – and met the consultant in charge of his care.

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It took death from being a kind of slightly abstract concept to not an abstract concept.” This might have happened anyway, he concedes, as he settled into middle age, but this way was a shocking realisation.

I’ve always liked changing things in my life, but it’s given me an even greater sense of that.” It was why he was pitching ideas to the BBC while still in early recovery, even though that sounds deranged.

It becomes a story, slightly over there, and I think that helped me deal with it, with my chatty nature.” He did a similar thing with his 2013 memoir A Series of Unrelated Events, making the small catastrophes that befell him into funny stories; it’s also why he’s an entertaining and engaging radio presenter.

As a child, growing up in Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, where his father was a criminal defence lawyer, Bacon was a radio geek, who knew where all the transmitters were in the county.

The ADHD side of me does lead to certain disorganisation and chaos in my life, and I have many flaws and things I’m bad at, but I’m quite good at getting back up again.” He remembers watching the programme after he’d been fired “and feeling sad that I wasn’t part of the team.

It must be strange to still be defined by something that happened more than 20 years ago.

Being sacked for taking drugs probably wouldn’t be such a huge deal now, and obviously social media wasn’t there to pile on him, but the experience has given him “a lot of empathy when I’m watching people who are sort of tumbling out of the sky, and the rush to judgment is happening”.

I think if somebody gets cancelled because they wrote a homophobic tweet when they were 15, and you don’t give them a chance to go: ‘I was 15; both my parents were homophobic and I didn’t know anything else’, the idea that you shouldn’t ever have a job because of that, when you may have grown up and completely changed your attitude, is preposterous.

At some point, he says, he would like to host one of the gameshows that he invents but, he says, simultaneously proud and aware of his place: “They keep getting into these really big primetime slots, which means I can’t really do it.” He used to think filming the shows would be the fun bit, but has found he’s happiest alone in his head, coming up with the ideas.

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