Author’s note: This is a pure stream-of-consciousness bile-filled expletive-riddled tired, wired, fucked and bombed warts-n-all thought-spew about the last eleven years and eight months of my life doing the Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 6 Music. Its not important, its only a radio show, I can’t be arsed writing a book and one is not justified, but this grim pamphlet is just about justified, so here we go:
They say that the evil genius of the radio medium, is that, in the end, over time, a person’s true personality seeps out whether they like it or not. So then, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am a dour, curmudgeonly pessimist nihilist who favours sexual innuendo over true intellectual stimulation.
I will certainly never forget how lonely it was to begin with. Before they are won, the audience is a wary animal, a bit like a deserted pet…where has my owner gone? (Phill) and who the fuck is this Herbert? He knows nothing of Laurie Anderson or deep cuts reggae, he seems to be a Dire Straits fan…(lest we forget what a cabal of true purists 6 Music listeners were in the early days). In those first days weeks and months, the first 18 months in fact, the hell ride was intense. It vacillated madly between high and low. Coming in to work in the cab, when it felt like it was down to me and me alone to entertain these people..(messiahcomplex anyone?!) and I had yet to find the tools..wait, I WAS the tool. Or a tool. I’d been called that a fair bit.
The other thing is, audiences sense weakness, despair, and lack of confidence just like any pack animal, and they sometimes seize on it. No audience wants to feel sorry for someone who is supposed to be entertaining them. You’re there to alleviate their concerns and fears not add to them, be another thing for them to worry about..they resent that!! And oftentimes they will fucking tell you. “YOU’RE NOT FUNNY!” I would hear that A LOT..thank GOODNESS for email texts and social media, its possible to be told you’re a prick 133 times a day in case you forgot! A humorist being told “you’re not funny” is the best heckle ever. Worse than YOU’RE RACIST or YOU ‘RE IMPOTENT! Being funny. It’s tiring. TRYING to be is even more wearing. What eventually comes with time is a realisation that you’re not meant or designed to be funny all the time, that way lies total madness. Instead, you quietly supplant that idea for a different thing or things…whimsy, skew, warmth, sincerity at times, passion, dick jokes, silliness, childishness,playfulness, and most importantly, the ingredient that is often missing to begin with, the trust, support, and daftness of the audience. Once all that is I place you’re golden. And magic can happen.
Why on earth am I writing this? I wouldn’t mind, I’m not even retiring, I’m not even LEAVING THE STATION!! As me old mate Papa G Papa G D-o Double G Guy Garvey said –
“It’s like saying you’re moving to Australia then moving three doors down”
But, there is something a bit different about doing an early morning show for a long time. There is something vulnerable about us at that first point of the day. Its “before we have our armour on” as someone clever once said to me. We’re like crabs without a shell. Totally sensitive and as-yet-unprepared for what the day will bring. We’ve often been spat into consciousness by a violent alarm from a deep sleep, we’re full of weird subconscious fears that were percolating in dreams or sleeping thoughts. AND NOW WE HAVE TO PRESENT OUR SELVES TO THE WORLD. It’s hard being a human, and the darkest hour can be before the dawn.
THINGS I RANDOMLY REMEMBER IN NO ORDER:
I remember being anointed by Terry Wogan. Early on, I was befriended by the great man’s great producer, Alan Boyd, and he promised to bring Tel down one day after his show finished and just before mine did at 09.30. We didn’t think he would ever get round to it but sure enough, one summer day he sauntered in with a tray full of bacon baguettes from upstairs. He stayed for half an hour and bathed us in his gentility and hilarity, in THAT voice, while we all lay in the palm of his hand being tickled like comfy cats. I remember the exchange:
Me: “Well Terry I probably should’t have the bread, I’m carrying a bit of carriage”
Tel: “Ahh, what? There’s not a pick on yer!”
Terry would make other appearances and each time it felt like the radio gods themselves were unlocked the doors of Wireless Heaven and allowing us in with the angels.
I remember a shite feature that, flying in the face of Darwinism, survived for much longer than it should have, called CEREAL KILLER…basically, and inexplicably, I would try to eat a bowl of Frosties, on mic, during the course of a song, and complete it before the song finished. Absolute bollocks. (Lauren, if you fancy giving it a go don’t even ask just crack on!)
I remember how hard it was to begin with. When you are launching a Breakfast Show, you are infused in the received wisdom of such a venture. You must be UP at all times! You are full of excitement, pep, vim, vigour, spunk and chutzpah. YOU know what Breakfast Radio should sound like!! We’ve all heard it…its packed with ideas, and fizz, and energy, and laughs, and friends and voices and YEAA!! YEAA?? YEA!! Life is just a series of pranks, bants, guests and FUNFUNFUN…
Well I got news for ya. It’s hard to do that shit when you’ve got LIFE rumbling on in the background..babies and arguments and sleeplessness and insecurities and everyday existential TERRORS that everyone has. Thing no one tells you about doing a live daily national breakfast show is…once the mic is up..you have to erm, entertain people, and there is no-place-to-hide. The number of times my ma or pa would call me and say “you ok? Sounded a bit flat today”..SHEEZ HOW DO THEY KNOW I THOUGHT I WAS COVERING IT SO WELL!! When you check your life and you realise that actually, you DO need to work, and you CAN’T afford to retire, and you actually practically CANNOT sell up and move to the south island of New Zealand and farm alpacas, you have to find a way to make it work and not go crazy.
That was when I hit on this crazy idea of just being totally myself all the fucking time no matter how pissed off I was.
I REMEMBER STUFF!!-
REMEMBER THAT NEW YEAR’S EVE SHOW WHEN I GOT MY HAIR CUT LIVE ON AIR?? What the F**K were we thinking??!! I got my then-barber, a lovely Italian fella, to come to the studio and sure as shit, we laid out a load of plastic on the studio floor, he whipped out his scissors and went at the barnet. I know lads who’s bus would stick a pudding bowl on their heads and cut round it day before school photo day and this effect was similar. Let me tell you now, wearing headphones whilst having your haircut has never caught on, and almost certainly Cheryl Tweedy has never done it.
HILARIOUS DOUBLE-BOOKING MOMENTS- REMEMBER THE MORNING when our wonderful now-passed (he’s not dead, just living in Hong Kong) producer Nic Philps booked an absolute shitstorm of talent by accident all on the same day? I tell you what, you’ve not experienced true adrenaline til you realise that you’re interviewing Stephen Fry live, Bret Easton-Ellis is sitting in the ante-room through the glass reading the New York Times waiting patiently to be grilled, and then you notice in your peripheral vision that maverick and occasion loose-cannon comic Sean Hughes has also arrived for a chat!! “What the actual fuck, Nic, I can’t possibly interview this lot!” “I know, Shaun, I was meant to move Sean’s booking but I must have forgotten..but Sean is insistent, he says he’s come out of his way and anyway it won’t take long”..Sean was always massively persuasive and not-alittle- intimidating in a “THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO” kind of way…so there it was..a national institution, an international bestselling author and a crumpled comedy genius all queuing up to spill their guts like planes at Gatwick.
Thing is, I would say, that at best, I am only truly fit for air around 78% of the time (sorry I can’t be more accurate than that). The rest of the time, the muse deserts me, and I feel not only unfunny and silly for even trying to make people laugh, but utterly vapid, clueless and out of my depth. I have gotten better at hiding this, but some days the grinding idiocy of my lizard brain just takes over. One such day around 8 years ago I remember so well. I must have been suffering from a severe bout of baby-related sleep deprivation and possibly a passing wave of mild depression, when the legendary (and dangerous) gardener Alan Titchmarsh came on the show. I was bug-eyed, bombed out and useless that day, and I don’t remember much of the chat, but what I do remember was getting to the end of it and announcing, “Well thanks so much for coming in to chat to us today, Mister Alan Partridge”..fucking hell, you could have cut the air with a trowel.
We cannot incant the name of the great TV gardener and erotic novelist Alan Titchmarsh without remembering that somehow, eventually, we turned him into a character, EVIL Alan Titchmarsh. There’s just something about the likes of these serene, genteel gardeners/outdoorsy presenters that make me feel very strongly that there is a DARKNESS somewhere deep down..”oh yeh? Think gardening’s for chumps do ya? Say that again and I’ll break this shovel shaft off the back of your head”..See also our suspicion of the ostensibly pleasant but possibly psychotic Matt Baker, “welcom’ to Countryfile..here I am in a wheat field just outside Bath, with a question, can you guess where I have buried sixteen bodies? First, Ellie talks to a Cumbrian Park Ranger about bothy maintenance..”
More characters come to mind. Again, where does this shit come from? When I first started the show I basically used a template of performance I had back in the old job at XFM, forged in the blackness of the empty overnight studios….I would take a news story, and I would write out the whole bit, start to finish and deliver it like a script. As time ground on, somehow, I evolved some more spontaneous habits, and after a couple or so years I was more content to freestyle. From this fecund and fucking silly ground would grow weird regularly percolating characters, the weirdest of which were Janine and her dad…basically a mini soap opera, improvised, where an annoyed young woman argues with her curmudgeonly father about who she can go out with and how long she can stay out. It’s silly that’s what it is.
But is it as silly as fictional Rotterdam DJs Dirk and Jurgen?? DnJ have they own t-shirts, we have even tried to perform them onstage. Over the years it has never occurred to me that everyone else might not think these things silly throwaway fun, and might instead, be murderously enraged by their sheer, half-arsed dumbness. Oh well, we gots to fill the airtime somehow…
OR DO WE…what about DEAD AIR??
There is plenty of it on the show. Always has been. Another edict of live radio always was
KEEP IT TIGHT, NO SILENCES, A SONG FINISHES, BOSH ANOTHER SONG IN, TALK OVER THE CODA, TALK UP TO THE VOCAL…I am not claiming any special maverick status or innovation, I am just a bit shit and lazy. And annoyingly/conveniently, over the years that is what has become my style. Dead air to me is a lovely breath, a beat, a moment of meditative quiet and peace. I remember one of my many meltdowns. It was real, what I said, I really meant it. I came off the back of a record and then I waited for a bit before I spoke. No bed, no music. And I said –
“God…I’ve just realised…all I am here to do, my whole professional reason for existing, is to make some noise in between songs so the emergency tape doesn’t kick in.”
I was genuinely blown away by this realisation, which in turns amused and horrified me. Who could get highfalutin’ about being a “radio DJ” when all you were doing essentially was making a bit of a racket between two other rackets?
REVELATIONS CONTINUED: Much more recently I had another one…about two weeks ago in fact…
“I don’t even sit here expecting to make people laugh..people think I do but I don’t..in fact all I expect people to do is just go (raises corner of mouth almostimperceptibly) “hmmm”..just the tiniest flicker of amusement or acknowledgement”
We’re not mining for belly laughs, gutbusters and side splitters here..we aren’t expecting people to pull over onto the hard shoulder faces wet with tears, hyperventilating into a brown paper bag to prevent an asthma attack..no. We just want the odd “hhmm..” Not too much to ask is it? And how do we go about getting that elusive “hmnn”? By deploying the Big Guns..like bad impressions of long-dead soap characters..Percy Sugden and Phyliss Pearce anyone?? Or Kevin Webster….I mean really, WTAF? No WONDER people report bemused partners and workmates, sitting agog, listening to this tittishness having been assured by their mad other halves/workmates that its “a great listen”.
To me, the show is like lager or cigs..fucking horrible the first twenty times you try it, but eventually weirdly addictive.
Must we talk about Macca? How I came to perfect my impression of the most thumbs-up, fab-gear popster of the sixties I can’t remember. I think I was inspired by watching the shite-est film of all time, the howlingly bollocks, deranged and superbly idiotic LINDA MCCARTNEY STORY..i implore you to find and watch this immediately. You will die laughing. I interviewed Sir Paul in 2008 for 8 minutes. It wasn’t a masterclass. I said the word “yeh” 78 times and we edited them all together with a She Loves You “YEA YEA YEA YEAAA” at the end.
Get in there and take the piss out of yourself before everyone else does is my motto and it still is.
Pendants Corner!! This is one of the silliest and most enduring running gags of the whole endeavour and one of which I am, I feel, rightly proud. After years of broadcasting I finally worked out my “appeal” such as it was, and that was, that unlike most people on the radio, I was LESS well-informed than my listeners. Rather than me elucidating, regaling and informing as well as amusing like nearly all of my brilliant peers, I would shamble in and come out with all manner of inelegant and often unsubstantiated nonsense. Not that I was ever proud of this. Over the years this has become something of a signature theme. My being picked up on factual inconsistencies became such a regular occurrence I invented PENDANTS CORNER. Of course then misspelling was deliberate, as it goaded the actual pedant into correcting me. And still they do after all these years. I count it as a minor victory every time it happens.
Because I am a dick.
Why did we decide that Lord Tony Hall fixes the coffee machine on the 6th floor when it
goes on the blink? Why did we decide that what Fire Warden Phil and I like to do of a wet Wednesday evening rather than be with our children, is drive around in a BBC Licence fee van looking for licence-dodgers? Why did it become so pivotal to the programme that Matt Everitt essentially looked like a horse?
We will never know. It’s certainly not important. I am just writing this shit down so I don’t forget it. What about some more fallen features? How about the ones that Lammo invented for us like My Morning Racket? How about the one invented for us by that great Canadian institution, not maple syrup but Canada’s Mike Hanson: SONG OF PRAISE!! DO YOU REMEMBER THAT ONE?? The one where a listener would come on and eulogies about a particular song and what relevance I had in their lives….or even was that what the feature was?? We’ve done so many they’re like pine cones on the forest floor!! Each a beautiful and perfect piece of nature, yet so ubiquitous!!
SORRY I AM NOW VERY TIRED AND EMOTIONAL!
There are too many more things to talk about that I can squeeze in here..I haven’t
mentioned the fact that in 2008 we were rescued from Breakfast Oblivion by the comedy sketch writing genius Jake Yapp, and that for 3 years he sat, hunched over his laptop (not like that…well maybe sometimes..) knocking one out twice a show..sorry I am being unclear again, I mean knocking a sketch out twice a show. His was an invaluable contribution and we thank him.
(here are just some of the ones I can remember off the top of my head):
Fictional Pun Headline Game
My Morning Racket
The To-Do List
Toast The Nation
The Kids Alright
Tea Break (surreal genius)
Elaine Paige Breaks Your Legs
We could do a whole 5000 words on the cart wall but we don’t have time. Needless to say it travels everywhere with me, but on a separate plane in case one crashes. It is the sentient one that truly holds the key to any success we have. It is the Norwegian seed bank of our schtick, brimming with facking stupid clips, sound effects and music from every corner of our imaginations.. from Alvin Stardust to Zoo animals, camels to Concorde, Wogan to Wagamamas kitchen. I can truly say that it is among my best friends, so much so that I am going to ask it to be best man at my next wedding, just IMAGINE the speech!!
As for my partners-in-criminally average radio, my current team is the very best, including our newest addition, the woman who finally adds some slight credibility as well as top vibes, Zahra Bhaluani….but I have been blessed with some of the greats.. Our utterly sterling producers and associate producers of the past, please forgive me if I have missed you out, its not cos you weren’t important, its because I am brain-damaged:
(over that Oscars people who died this year music):
Mark Shed Sheldon
Paul Idle Sheehan (Baby Faced Assassin)
Claire The Slev Slevin
GARY BALES & JOE HADDOW
The list is endless. Well, its ended, but you know what I mean..
But I must reserve the mawkish, sentimental and gut-curdlingly saccharine til near the end. I have been on almost all of this JOURNEY with two men in particular.
The first, Fire Warden Phil Smith.
He has a green lanyard. And a bucket of wet sand
He can administer first aid, and wet sand
He loves golf almost as much as his girls
And energy. And ideas. And hilarity. And the perfect balance of encouragement and firm
He loves Embrace and the Boo Radleys
He drums adequately
I have never been happier working with anyone
Except perhaps, the man at the centre of my final love letter.
He was in Menswear. And IS in menswear
I’ve worked with him for nearly 20 years.
I was always a bit jealous of his good looks, competence and scabrous wit. He has always
been jealous of my arse. Which is GHETTOFABULOUS.
There is too much to say and I’ve gone on so long already I fear no one will read this far in their RIGHT MINDS..so I will keep it brief. I love him. He makes me absolutely piss with LOLS every day. He thinks he understands binary. He basically hates all taxi drivers. He thinks Hendrix is over-rated a bit. His face is only marginally longer than a normal one yet I have made it a “thing”. He is very patient with me. He has been my sunshine when skies were grey, and administered lager when stuff was great. He has a ridiculous car that costs as much as a Spitfire to run but he’s so daft he won’t sell it. He is by some distance the most respected broadcast music journo I know. He knows every one, and they all love him, because he is totally professional yet a darling to chat to. He’s brought us so many great exclusives I can’t count them, and I would say about 3 massive laughs a show. He is my wind. Beneath my wings.
Thanks to the management, thanks to the girls and guys in the office who are hilarious, thanks to the music team, but of course, this whole love letter is for the listener. If you by some miracle have read this far, you must be a fan of our “show”. To you I say a genuine, massive, thank you. Xxx
(Cue: Greatest Day by Take That)
DEDICATED TO DAVE SUGABEET.