All performers love doing radio. You don’t have to look your best.
A radio producer called Nick Barrett saw me singing topical songs in a nightclub in 1965, and invited me to do the same thing on ‘This time of day’, a midday magazine programme introduced by Lord Arran on what was still the BBC Home Service. This led to some songs for the new ‘World at One’, introduced by William Hardcastle. He gave me a useful piece of advice after I got a letter complaining about something I said or sang. He said, “Half the listeners will like what you do, and half won’t. Don’t waste time trying to persuade the ones who don’t like you – you may lose your supporters in the process. Work to the ones who are already on your side, and leave them to convert the others.” In a business fraught with paranoia, this is helpful.
By late 1965 I was doing regular topical songs for the Today programme fronted by the legendary Jack de Manio, who was famous for his inability to tell the time. He would regularly announce that it was eight thirty when it was only seven thirty, sending coffee cups flying at the breakfast tables of panicking commuters. I must have done more than a hundred songs for Today – each about some piece of topical trivia, and each entirely unmemorable.
There were some Archive programmes – stringing together interesting bits from the BBC vaults – and a not very good quiz called ‘The Year in Question’ which the cut-glass continuity announcers of the time always appeared to announce as ‘The Urine Question’.
The first thing I did that I was even slightly satisfied with was a series called ‘Stilgoe’s Around’. (The surname lends itself to silly puns – Stilgoe’s On, Stilgoe’s Up, Stilgoe’s Mad, etc.) Each progamme was a single-subject revue recorded on location– Industry at a factory, Gardening at Wisley, The Sea at the Boat Show, with Belinda Lang, Charles Collingwood, Peter Blake, Kerry Shale and a musical guest. In 1983 I started working with a brilliant producer called David Rayvern Allen. He had just come back from the Monte Carlo Radio Festival, and hadn’t been impressed with the winning programme (from Norway). Together we set out to make a Euro-friendly programme to win the Monte Carlo Radio Prize. It was called Hamburger Weekend (two words used in almost all European languages) and it duly won the prize in 1984. We carried on listening to prize winning programmes and copying them; we made ‘Who Pays the Piper?’ about musical patronage, ‘Used Notes’ about plagiarism in music, ‘Music on the Brain’, ‘The Singing Wheelchair’ and some others. In the end our total haul was three Monte Carlo prizes, two New York Gold awards and, in 1991, the one we really wanted – the Prix Italia.
In 1995 I gave the first Radio Two lecture. They did one more, then stopped. The words ‘Radio Two’ and ‘Lecture’ don’t really go together.
I still enjoy doing radio, and I would never have had a career without the opportunities the BBC has given me.