The anaemic state of UK breakfast telly in 2021 might lead some to feel nostalgic for the 90s. Back then, The Big Breakfast offered up cheeky songs, rude puppets and an impromptu game of One Lump Or Two as an alternative start to the day to grownup rivals BBC Breakfast and GMTV.
Defined by an anarchic ethos, the show proved a huge hit for Channel 4 when it debuted in 1992, and launched the careers of presenting titans Chris Evans, Johnny Vaughan, Denise van Outen and Zoe Ball.
It joined 90s yoof culture peers The Word and The Day Today in dividing kids from their parents in a way unmatched since. Nancy Banks-Smith, reviewing its launch in the Guardian, wrote: “Not everyone is ready for fried eggs on the wall at 7am. The colour is like catching your head between a couple of cymbals. Anyone under 25 will love it.”
But for all its success, diversity was never one of its strong points: the show never had a Black or Asian main presenter. That’s an oversight Channel 4 will address with the show’s one-off return as part of their Black to Front diversity initiative. On Friday, the broadcaster will air specially commissioned editions of the channel’s most beloved shows, including Celebrity Gogglebox, Channel 4 News, Countdown and Hollyoaks, featuring exclusively Black cast members and behind-the-scenes crew.
The comedian Mo Gilligan and the presenter AJ Odudu (known from Big Brother’s Bit on the Side, and soon to appear on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing) will front the Big Breakfast reboot live from its original east London location. They’ll be joined by original Big Breakfast newsreader Phil Gayle (one of the few non-white faces on the show), as well as rapper and TV personality Big Zuu, the Instagram star Munya Chawawa and Tolly, Audrey and Milena from The Receipts Podcast.
“It was just anarchy in the morning,” says Gilligan. “If you look at TV at the moment, there isn’t anything like this. There’s still fan groups for The Big Breakfast, which goes to show how big its legacy was. To be among the ranks of people who have presented it is massive.”
Says Odudu: “I always used to watch The Big Breakfast before school, which meant I was quite often late. It was naughty TV, essentially, and we’re all looking forward to poking fun at the world and news. I can’t wait to keep that same spirit but obviously putting our own stamp on it, too.”
As for Black to Front, Gilligan says: “Representation is key in all parts of society and TV is no different. Myself and AJ, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, but there’ll be lots of kids watching who are like: ‘He looks like someone I know, maybe my dad or my uncle.’”
However, the initiative has been met with a mixed reaction. The comedian London Hughes described it on Twitter as “performative tokenism” over the fact that Black to Front only takes place on a single day. “I have no words. Stop it … Just hire black ppl in general plz!” Hughes added.
Gilligan and Odudu, understandably, defend the show’s intentions. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” says Gilligan, “but I think what’s getting lost is that there are people who are going to be part of this who don’t normally get a look-in.”
Following the publication of a report by the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity into how Black to Front can “ensure genuine progression”, Channel 4 has committed to funding at least 10 paid jobs off the back of the initiative.
“All of the shows involved in the day have seen this as an opportunity to do things differently and make changes to their show that will last,” says the broadcaster’s deputy director of programmes, Kelly Webb-Lamb. “The key thing was ensuring the legacy from this for Black talent within the industry.”
While Black to Front was conceived by Channel 4 commissioning editors Vivienne Molokwu and Shaminder Nahal, the onscreen talent is emblematic of a television landscape that is less top-down than ever.
Gilligan has been doing standup since he was 19, and built his audience via YouTube. In 2016, he went viral for impersonating different types of grime MCs. A year later, Channel 4 hired him to co-host The Big Narstie Show. He now has his own chatshow, The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan.
“A lot of people are finding their own lane in entertainment and being successful,” says Gilligan, “and the TV channels and execs or commissioners are having to go to them now. TV is a small part of it, but the landscape is changing. It’s quite slow, but it’s getting there, and things like this at least have the potential to kickstart that.”
And, for one day at least, The Big Breakfast will offer a reprieve from a distinctly bleak news cycle. While Chris Evans is not expected to return, the show is leaning into nostalgia with the return of Super Hints, the Wakey Wakey song and a Family of the Week, who will have the chance to win a luxury holiday when an Olympian and Paralympian tackle the classic game One Lump Or Two.
“It changed the face of morning television,” says Odudu. “[Everything] was so straight, so news-led, then The Big Breakfast came and it was an explosion of energy, fun and positive vibes. I can’t wait for that to come back.”
Black to Front is on Friday 10 September on Channel 4. Mo Gilligan’s book That Moment When is out now on Ebury