The Nation’s Not-Quite-As-Favourite

Radio Times launch cover for Radio 1 (1967).

Unless you’re a clickbait-hungry columnist who is actually actively trying to do so and not even remotely caring if you look shamelessly transparent about it, it usually isn’t that often that you will find that you have written exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible time, but it does happen. Only recently, I ended up having to postpone Wish I Could Sing It To You, a feature about the long-lost world of compilation tapes and the frustrations of online dating (which you can find here), twice due to it not quite seeming to fit a sudden shift in the public mood. At least I thought it didn’t, anyway, and am generally wary of and sensitive to the possibility of upsetting people by default for no good reason. Although that said, in a world where taking offence is almost a competitive sport, you can never fully account for what some individuals are liable to get furious about on the flimsiest of pretexts, whether it’s the ‘creepiness’ of talking about the S Club 7 ‘girls’ (who are all in their forties now and in any case this was addressed in the opening comments of the podcast about the band’s rock’n’roll time travel movie that the complainant clearly had not bothered listening to – if you want to listen to it, though, it’s here), disliking the Star Wars ‘Special Editions’ as this is elitist and patronising to younger viewers somehow, or a Looks Unfamiliar guest choosing something that you personally remember as this apparently invalidates your entire listening experience. I don’t know, maybe write to your local Podcast Ombudsman or something.

Self-publishing a book about comedy on BBC Radio 1 at the exact moment that certain stories broke about certain of the station’s former presenters, however, was not exactly a barrel of laughs (so, a bit like Buzzword then). There was nothing that could really be done to, well, undo the situation, and even though none of them were even really mentioned in passing in Fun At One, the best course of action seemed to be to keep relatively quiet and try to ride it out. On an admittedly relative scale, however, it was quite difficult to see something that you had put your heart and soul into disappear into an understandable vacuum of avoidance and apathy, and ultimately I decided to write this feature about the hints that some interviewees had tried to very heavily drop to me while I was researching Fun At One, more as a way of contributing to the discourse than rescuing the situation really. I don’t doubt there will be some even now who will accuse me of making it all about myself, or trying to paint myself as the ‘real’ victim, or straight-up trying to sell books, or will even get angry at me and the deliberately unnamed parties for not exposing the stories that I didn’t know and they were wary of disclosing there and then, but then again they are probably the sort of people who in the absence of anything else would also complain about the fact you can hear a church congregation very faintly in the distance during a podcast about the Marvel Cinematic Universe series Helstrom recorded outdoors under strictly socially distanced conditions just to give people a bit of entertainment during lockdown. It’s over here if you want to judge for yourself.

Thankfully, matters surrounding Fun At One would later improve dramatically, leading amongst other things to my involvement with the pop-up anniversary station Radio 1 Vintage. Fun At One is of course still available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here, and you can also read abridged extracts from The Mary Whitehouse Experience here, Blue Jam here and here, Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World here and Rawlinson End here, and listen to me and Phil Catterall talking about about the Christmas Specials of The Chris Morris Music Show and Lee And Herring on Looks Unfamiliar here. Although it will not be too surprising if someone now complains about the accidental omission of Punt And Dennis – Follow That Star!.

Some time ago, I had an idea for a book about comedy on Radio 1.

Well, it wasn’t really a book at first. Initially it was just a list of transmission dates and titles for all of those Radio 1 comedy shows I’d once listened to religiously – which was somewhat ironic considering the religion-baiting themes that many of them had mined for their humour – including The Mary Whitehouse ExperienceBlue JamVictor Lewis-SmithThe Chris Morris Music ShowLee & Herring’s Fist Of Fun and, erm, Intimate Contact With Julian Clary, really more for my own amusement than anything else. Then I started to get curious about all of those shows that I hadn’t liked. Then the ones that I’d never even heard of. Then what about all of those magazine, documentary and even ostensibly straightforward DJ shows that were essentially ‘comedy’ in all but name? That list soon began to evolve into something far more substantial, so come with me now into the swirling mists of human inadeq… or, actually, just read on. Dot dot dot… yes, alright, no more obscure catchphrases. Conclusion: Ken Dodd is innocent.

Anyway, eventually, after long hours spent searching randomly through Radio Times listings and attempting to negotiate copies of off-air recordings of the little-heard likes of SonglinesWindbags and Z Magazine from frequently surprisingly cautious collectors, the time came to try and pester a couple of the performers and producers into answering a couple of questions, clearing up a couple of obscure details, and generally reminiscing about their days spent trying to fit jokes around Bomb The Bass records. Surprisingly, nearly all of them were prepared to have a frequently lengthy chat with the self-publishing nobody with the bizarre open-ended research project. From Mark Radcliffe and David Baddiel to Dave Cash and Danisnotonfire and even zany old prankster Chris Morris, they were all more than happy to spend half an hour or so nattering about mostly long-forgotten shows that they clearly all still held a great deal of affection for, and seemingly everyone that I spoke to had an almost inexhaustible supply of amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes and recollections of sketches and routines that had given them a rarely-recaptured creative thrill. Needless to say, there were plenty of exciting moments dotted throughout all of this, from The Mary Whitehouse Experience‘s original producer Bill Dare breathlessly recounting virtually word for word his experiences both encouraging and bruising with BBC ‘suits’, to The Ginger Prince from Radio Tip Top suddenly breaking into character on the phone when I managed to track him down after months of effort, to Adrian Juste’s extraordinary rant about how “it’s very unhealthy to let politicians, and this preponderance of celebrity nonentities we have now, get away with what they spout uncontested… they are so up their own arse, and getting worse, if you don’t stop them by pricking their little bubbles of pomposity… we all need a good laugh now and again – at their overpaid, mollycoddled expense”. Just occasionally, though, there were slightly more uncomfortable moments.

Sometimes, in the course of the conversation, the names of some of the more comedy-averse – usually in both senses – tangentially related ‘old guard’ of daytime Radio 1 DJs would come up, and that was the point at which many of the older contributors, from both in front and behind the microphone, would suddenly go a bit quieter. Usually this went no further than moving rapidly on to the next question, but on a handful of occasions the interviewee tried to subtly drop hints that there was some sort of potential minefield here that should be avoided at all costs. Without wishing to give too much away, one particular individual who was involved in a suspiciously pointed on-air prank at the expense of a now-discredited DJ darkly hinted that they weren’t just sending him up as an affectionate in-joke, and virtually spat out every word when having to actually talk about him. Meanwhile, one Radio 1 veteran went even further and, without even hinting at details, named names, warning against featuring them in any detail or even in any context because it wasn’t likely to be long before “some stuff will come out about them and nobody will want anything to do with your book”. What this ‘stuff’ might have been, I had no idea, and looking back now I’m glad that I didn’t.

Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1 by Tim Worthington.

In the meantime, work on what would eventually become Fun At One – which you can find out more about here – continued and its scope increased dramatically, extending to cover not just such nominally non-comedy but still frequently hilarious shows as In ConcertCollins And Maconie’s Hit Parade and The Antiques Record Roadshow, but all kinds of other rarely acknowledged cornerstones of Radio 1’s output like Newsbeat, live sessions and late night dance music shows; you’ll have to get Fun At One here to find out exactly how and when and why The Dreem Team collided with the world of comedy. And, on top of all that, every time that I thought I’d finally managed to find the whole lot of them, the list of actual proper comedy shows kept on increasing too. The happily accidental upshot of all this was that, with a couple of notable and thankfully all still respectable exceptions, there was literally no room nor indeed need to mention any of the self-styled ‘Welly Boot Mafia’ as anything more than passing references that rarely went beyond a name. Which was handy as, frankly, none of them were ever that amusing, or even likeable. In short there are few things less funny than someone who thinks that they are.

Eventually, after what seemed like endless amounts of research, writing and rewriting, not to mention a last minute change to the entire final chapter when Radio 1 decided to actually start making comedy shows again albeit at a million o’clock in the morning, Fun At One was finally ready to hit the virtual presses. Graham and Jack Kibble-White helped out with some amazing design work, Ben Baker came up with some great promotional ideas, and the few people who had read it in advance of publication all seemed to be confident that it would be a huge success. And then… well, you all know what happened next. The phrase ‘it’s time for… it’s time for… The Mary Whitehouse Experience‘ might well have been seared into my mind while I was writing it, but this definitely was not time for Fun At One.

The Mary Whitehouse Experience (BBC Radio 1, 1989-90)

In fairness, quite a few people were very generous in their attempts to help plug Fun At One – I’m particularly grateful to Richard Herring for mentioning it on RHLSTP (RHLSTP!) and the sheer gratitude that Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie and David Quantick have expressed for being considered worthy of inclusion in a book about ‘comedy’ in the first place – but it really was just the wrong book at the wrong time. Regrettably, that cautious interviewee had been proved right; nobody was saying as much, but it really wasn’t the done thing to be seen to be celebrating Radio 1 in any way, and Fun At One was outsold three times over by my anthology of pieces on neglected TV Not On Your Telly, a good third of which had already seen print in one form or another. Even fan forums that I’d not unreasonably assumed would go wild for the book seemed to be giving it a wide berth. This isn’t a whinge or a complaint by the way – it would be crass to intimate that a couple of pages about Sound Bites With David Baddiel was somehow more important than the difficult questions of how and why those scrawny old bastards got away with what they did for so long, let alone use it as an excuse for a sales pitch (though doubtless some berks on Twitter will accuse me of doing just that) – and sometimes it’s just the way these things turn out. In fact, in moments of sharing that sense of unease, I actually considered withdrawing Fun At One from sale once or twice, though more sensible people talked me out of that. I eventually went on to write The Larks Ascending, a similar book about comedy on BBC Radio 3, and as some of that humour was actually perpetrated by classical instruments there was significantly less chance of a repeat of all this.

It really is time, however, that the admittedly reasonable tainting of the whole of Radio 1 by association came to a conclusion. As Fun At One arguably demonstrates, there was – and is – so much more to the station and its staggeringly broad output than the off-air antics of a handful of presenters who were only there for a fraction of its existence anyway, and all of it deserves a celebration and appreciation that now seems to be roundly denied. Which is understandable, but has to stop some time. So go and listen to a BBC Sessions album by The Beatles, Belle And Sebastian, The Jimi Hendrix Experience or whoever takes your fancy. Catch the occasional repeats of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World on Radio 4 Extra. In short, remember what you liked about Radio 1, and start liking it all over again; because, let’s be honest about it, nothing would have hurt those talentless egomaniacs more than being overshadowed by something that was actually good.

Blue Jam (BBC Radio 1, 1997-99).

Buy A Book!

Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1 – which includes tons of background detail on the story behind some of the greatest comedy shows ever made (and Buzzword), and next to nothing about certain scrawny old bastards – is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Further Reading

You can find abridged extracts from Fun At One looking at The Mary Whitehouse Experience here, Chris Morris’ Blue Jam here and here, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World here, and Vivian Stanshall’s Rawlinson End here.

Further Listening

You can hear more about the Christmas Specials of The Chris Morris Music Show and Lee And Herring in Looks Unfamiliar with Phil Catterall here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.