Three men in suits are sitting by the window in a pizza restaurant near Earls Court. ‘Hey,’ they say excitedly, as they look out on to the street,’ there’s Evan Davis.’ Not: ‘Hey, there’s that bloke off Dragons’ Den,’ or ‘Hey, there’s the BBC’s economics editor.’
The recognition is telling. A strange cult of personality has grown up around the man. Private Eye advertises Evan Davis T-shirts, there is a popular Evan Davis blog called Evanomics, and he is number 49 on the ‘pink list’ – a list of the top 101 most influential gay men and women published annually by a Sunday newspaper.
More significantly, Evan Davis knows our new Prime Minister well, which is a claim few can make.
The men in the pizza place are right, by the way. It is indeed Davis pacing up and down outside, talking into a mobile, looking tall and lean in a pinstripe suit – distinctive, too, with his razor-cut hair.
He is wearing a heavy silver chain around his neck, under his open-collared shirt. The only other visible jewellery is on his fingers: chunky silver rings. I have arranged to meet him around the corner at his top-floor flat, but not for another 10 minutes – because he has also arranged to let in a man who has come to give him a quote for tiling his bathroom.
I pass the tile man on the stairs. I also pass a muscular torso; it is life-sized and silver, modelled on a Greek sculpture.
‘Ev’, as his mother calls him, shares this flat with his partner of five years, Guillaume, a landscape architect, but their sitting-room is not so much Greek as Spartan.
Two plain sofas. Plain ochre walls. A large black fireplace, a television in the corner and a couple of books: Oscar Wilde and Edmund White. The only unexpected feature is a plastic globe of the sort that might be found in a school.
I tell him about the men in the pizza place. ‘Well, the thing that has made a big difference is Dragons’ Den (the hit BBC2 show in which would-be entrepreneurs pitch ideas at would-be investors), which is a departure into entertainment television.
‘That significantly raised my profile. Most people who stop me say, “You’re that bloke from Dragons’ Den”, which is a bit depressing when you have worked for 10 years in news. It’s the only thing I’ve touched that sells itself. Even with news you have to sell it a bit. You have to explain why the viewer should care.’
His right arm snakes up and wraps elastically around the back of his head, so that his hand is clamped onto the left side of his neck, not so much an act of contortion as of shyness. ‘It’s funny. The producers of Dragons’ Den asked my advice on who should present it, and I said you should find someone without too much personality, because you don’t want to distract from the dragons, and two weeks later they came back and said, “Do you want to be the presenter?” I suppose I should be insulted.’
Actually, Davis does have plenty of personality: a crinkly charm and puppyish effervescence that belies his 45 years. An endearing wonkiness, too: his eyes list slightly and he has an off-centre smile.
Treacherously, the Radio Times, a BBC publication, once compared him to Sid the Sloth in the animated film Ice Age. ‘He has the same weird, long rubbery neck, the same jutting mini ears, the same range of facial expressions.’
It is, nevertheless, a fine-looking and friendly face, which may explain why it seems to have become the face of the BBC lately.
In addition to the 10 O’Clock News and Dragons’ Den, Davis also appears on Have I Got News For You and works for Radio 4, hosting the Saturday evening business discussion show The Bottom Line, as well as presenting documentary series on anything from comprehensive schools to the housing market.
But his ubiquity is not just about his face or his personality: he is an economics guru with a first in PPE from Oxford and a masters degree from Harvard – and before becoming a broadcaster he worked as an economist for the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He is brainy, in a word.
And he combines this braininess with an enviable gift for explaining complicated economic issues in a lucid, breezy and intelligible way, without sounding patronising. People who don’t really understand economics listen to his reports on the news and think they do – and they often stop him in the street to pick his brains.
‘People keep asking me if there is going to be a housing crash,’ he says. ‘What is going to happen to interest rates? Should I fix? But they never say: tell us more about the migration statistics. I sometimes, out of devilment, get tempted to whisper something like, “All I’m saying is, buy bottled water”, and give a significant wink.
‘As a rule, though, economists tend not to give advice. My whole pitch is to make people aware of the uncertainties in life. That is the only sensible line an economist can take.
‘You have to decide in relation to your circumstances what the risks are. What interest rates can you handle? What terrifies you? Should you be insuring yourself? Generally, I would say, if your mortgage is small relative to your income, I wouldn’t bother fixing, and vice versa.’
His accessible approach, he says, is partly to do with recognising that a television audience includes hugely different ability levels. This is in contrast to his predecessor Peter Jay, who once ticked off a Times sub-editor who complained that his economics column was unintelligible. ‘I am writing for three people in England,’ he said loftily, ‘and you are not one of them.’ (The three were two Treasury mandarins and the Governor of the Bank of England.)
‘Peter was an inspiration to me,’ Davis says. ‘When I was doing my economics A-level it was at the time when monetarists and Keynesians were battling it out, and he made great sense to me. I see myself as doing what Peter did, only in a more populist way.’
By dumbing down? ‘One newspaper said we had been trained to wave our arms around. Such nonsense. They don’t even tell us what to wear.
‘I think people would be amazed how little training we get before going in front of camera. It’s amazing I’m allowed on. So many egregious nervous tics and looks. I don’t agree with that argument in relation to me. It’s television, for goodness’ sake. You have to compete for attention. It has to be engaging. I never have economically literate people criticise my economics for being dumbed down.’
Does he ever worry that his steer might affect the markets? He gives a gentle, rippling laugh. ‘I’ve never moved markets. There is a natural caution about giving people economic news in such a stark way that it can move markets.
‘The only occasion when I have seriously thought “Oh goodness, this might have an affect on the very thing we are reporting” was after Hurricane Katrina. There were petrol refinery shortages. I did wonder then how I was going to report that without starting a rush for the petrol pumps that would leave the country gridlocked.’
He clearly doesn’t suffer from maths anxiety. ‘I do a bit, actually. I live in perpetual terror of my brain freezing and of being caught out like Stephen Byers on Five Live.’
Six times nine, I say. Silence. ‘It’s absolutely happened! Um … It’s 54.’
It was a cruel question because 54 was the answer Byers, the then school minister, gave to the question: what is eight times seven?
‘Funnily enough, I …I’m not great with numbers, and use fewer than my colleagues. I know what the numbers are doing, but that is different. And, actually, exact numbers don’t matter very much.
‘The correct economist’s answer to your question is “about 50”. If you are looking for the precision of “Is it 53 or 55?”, who cares? The important thing is that it is not 10 and it is not 100. Getting the order of magnitude right is more important.’
See what I mean? I had never thought of numbers – and the economy – like that before. I suggest that this is what makes him such a reassuring figure as a broadcaster.
‘Not everyone likes me. I get a lot of people who disagree with me, not hate mail exactly. They think quite a few of us at the BBC are smug, Blairite, patronising, London-based. The truth is, of all the criticisms, the London one is most valid.’
Speaking of Blair, before he left Downing Street he said the economy had never been better. Was he right? ‘I … I think that would be a simple way of putting it. You can’t discount the possibility that the economy will go bad. It’s uncertainty again. I’m afraid you can’t get away from uncertainty.
‘But, regardless of what may be about to happen, I would say we have had a pretty good run for the past 10 years. Not perhaps as good as the Government says, but pretty good.
‘Not that it’s the Government wot done it, necessarily. World circumstances also favoured us. Societies that consume a lot and have been able to borrow money to buy cheap imports have done well.’
Does he vote Labour? ‘I don’t have any political allegiance now, though I was a member of the SDP at university.’ He grins again. ‘The Eurosceptics often criticise me, saying I am biased towards the euro. I’m not, because I genuinely don’t know how I would vote on it if there were a referendum tomorrow. The conspiracy they see at the BBC is quite beyond the capabilities of BBC management to organise.’
Davis has had a ringside seat for the Gordon Brown chancellorship; is the man a Stalinist? ‘I probably know him better than most, but I don’t know what kind of Prime Minister he will make, that will depend on his instincts, reactions and priorities, not his personality.
‘I haven’t seen him having a tantrum, I … no, I haven’t. I will say what everyone says, which is that he is nicer in private than in the media. I’m not a fan of his interview style. He comes across as more wooden than he is.’
Davis’s parents are from South Africa. They emigrated here a few months before he was born. His father was an electronics engineer and became a reader at the University of Surrey.
He has two older brothers, one who works in the City, the other who runs his own business. He went to a comprehensive. ‘I wasn’t the brightest child and it helped me having parents who were nurturing. I came home with careers leaflets about how to become a police constable and my parents were slightly angst-ridden about whether the school was pushing me enough.’
And now look at him: number 49 in the pink list. Laughter is always just below his surface, and he has the good grace to laugh at this. ‘I did see that list. I was amused by it.’
But here we enter tricky territory. Evan Davis doesn’t mind talking about his private life to me in private, but he is reluctant to do so in print. As he puts it, if he answers one question it invites the next.
Anyway. Here goes. When did he come out? ‘I went to the States and came back and thought I’d better tell my parents. That was the hardest bit. I don’t think they knew. They have been 100 per cent supportive. They like Guillaume and he likes them. Having a landscape architect who knows about plants makes for easy in-law relations.’
He tells me about how he told his brother first, saying ‘I have something to tell you, can you guess what it is?’ And the brother guessed correctly, adding that that is the way he should tell their parents, too.
He decided to do it after Christmas lunch. They didn’t guess, so the brother who already knew pretended to guess for them. At this point, his other brother cracked a good joke, which, alas, Evan would rather I didn’t repeat here.
As a landscape architect, I suggest, Guillaume must hanker for broad acres rather than a roof terrace in Earls Court. ‘Well, we have a place in France together. He’s French. We made the strategic decision about whether to upgrade this flat or buy a place in France where houses are cheaper, and I think it is the best decision we ever made. It is nice for him to be able to have some space to plant things.’
Is a marriage in prospect? He purses his lips. ‘This is all the personal stuff which is verboten, I’m afraid.’
He stretches out on the sofa and looks at the ceiling. ‘We’re happy as we are. But I’ll let you know.’ A grin. ‘I would say that I think those who thought gay marriage would undermine heterosexual marriage have been proved wrong.’
The couple go jogging together along the Thames and Evan ran the London marathon this year in a time of 4 hours 17 minutes. ‘Running is a great way to lift your spirits,’ he says. He gets depressed otherwise? ‘I have sullen moments, not great periods of melancholy. I get anxious. I have short-term stress. A good relationship has helped, seeing eye to eye. We are programmed for companionship.
‘Because Guillaume and I are not in competition at work, it works well.’ His reticence about his private life is understandable. As economics editor of the BBC, he needs to have gravitas and he may well have been asked to tone things down a bit after it emerged that his nickname is Tinsel Tits. His nipples are pierced, you see, and he is said to have a Prince Albert in the trouser department. He will neither confirm nor deny it, sensibly enough, and wryly avoids the question by describing himself as ‘a man of mystery’.
‘I don’t want tattoos and body-piercing to be the dominant thing in interviews,’ he says. ‘I know the world tends to be interested in these things, but I find it better to lie low on them. Gay men tend to live different lives to other people and it would take the tabloids a nanosecond to find out all sorts of horrible things, so it’s better not to make a big deal about it.
‘I’m not embarrassed about it. On a one-to-one basis I am happy to talk to you about it. But I would like to keep it contained.’ Perhaps it adds to his cult status, I suggest. Perhaps viewers of the 10 O’Clock News tune in to try to work out what is under his shirt. ‘Perhaps,’ he says.
I agree to mention all this only in passing at the end, on condition that he pose for our photograph with his shirt off. He is laughing again, rocking back and forth on the sofa. ‘That would spoil everything.’
He wants to remain an enigma? ‘I don’t want to be an enigma, that’s the annoying thing.’ He shakes his head. ‘Actually, I am so superficial, the more you question me, the more you will realise that I am exactly like I am on the telly. There is no more to me than that.’