The Daily Telegraph
Back from the dead air, Mr Nice smashes it
Sacked radio royalty Tony Blackburn is broadcasting for the BBC again.
In February last year, the BBC sacked Tony Blackburn. The corporation’s longest-serving DJ, who was the first voice ever heard on Radio 1, was given his marching orders after the director general, Tony Hall, declared himself unhappy with the way Blackburn had behaved during the inquiry into Jimmy Savile.
“My interpretation is that Tony Blackburn fell short of the standards of evidence that such an inquiry demanded,” Hall told a news conference, gravely. But Blackburn wasn’t prepared to go quietly. Instead, the normally chirpy presenter issued a furious statement, accusing the BBC of trying to cover up its negligence during the years that Savile roamed its premises and announcing he was taking legal action over his dismissal.
“Sadly, what is happening to me now seems to be entirely in keeping with the past BBC culture of whitewash and cover-up,” he said. “[They] have decided to make me a scapegoat. I will not allow them to destroy my reputation.”
The row centred on one thorny issue: a meeting Blackburn was meant to have had in 1971 about an allegation – later withdrawn – that he had seduced a 15-year-old member of the Top of the Pops audience.
The BBC swore the meeting between Blackburn and a senior executive and a lawyer had taken place. Blackburn swore just as vehemently that it hadn’t. The BBC’s claim implied that it had historically taken complaints of this nature seriously; Blackburn’s implied that it hadn’t and that presenters in the Seventies (and beyond) were regarded as untouchable.
There was never any suggestion that the 15-year-old’s allegation was true. In fact, the inquiry, carried out by Dame Janet Smith, did not accuse him of any misconduct. The girl, Claire McAlpine, tragically took her own life a few months after making her allegation, but neither a coroner’s inquest or a subsequent police inquiry attributed any blame to Blackburn.
The whole episode was unfortunate and a messy end to an otherwise good relationship between Blackburn and the BBC.
But what is this? Spool forward 12 months and the DJ is back, presenting two shows on Radio 2 – Sounds of the Sixties on Saturday mornings and Tony Blackburn’s Golden Hour on Friday evenings – and two other programmes on BBC Radio London and BBC Radio Berkshire.
What on earth happened? I have already been told by Blackburn’s agent that his client will not be able to comment, but when I meet him at Wogan House, the home of Radio 2 in central London, I ask anyway.
Is there anything he wants to say about the inquiry into the Savile period?
He smiles apologetically, shakes his head. “No.” His dispute with the BBC? “No.” The BBC, too, has issued a statement saying it will not comment. But, we can perhaps draw our own conclusions about who was in the right from the fact that Blackburn is back behind a microphone, doing what he does best. And it is obvious, whatever his opinion of the top brass, that the DJ is thrilled.
“Everybody wants to work for the BBC,” he says. “It’s the height of the profession. Especially Radio 2. I absolutely adore it here.”
His job on Sounds of the Sixties – one of Radio 2’s most popular programmes – started three weeks ago, following the departure of 88-year-old Brian Matthew, who had presented the show for 27 years. Matthew had apparently not wanted to go. And a new, earlier time slot for the programme has annoyed some fans.
“The scheduling is, unfortunately, not up to me,” says Blackburn. “I know listeners will miss Brian, but I hope they will come to think that I was the right man to replace him. After all, it’s my era and I can’t mess it up too much because the music’s so good. There’s still a huge appetite for it.”
In addition to his shows on the BBC, Blackburn also presents programmes on Thames Radio, Dragon Radio, KMFM and the Bauer/City network, which goes to 17 stations in Scotland and the north of England, all of which stayed on air during his temporary absence from the BBC.
You could, I point out, listen to Blackburn for a total of 18 hours from Friday to Sunday.
He smiles. “And I hope people do! I suppose I am a workaholic. I just absolutely love radio. I programme all of these shows so I spend a lot of time working out the records that I’m going to play.” So what does he do with himself in those few hours when he’s not working? “I lead a very simple life,” he says. “I’m not much of a drinker. I’m not one for showbusiness parties. I like being at home with my wife. I listen to a lot of music and I watch a lot of TV.” He is a news junkie and never misses Newsnight. For the record, he supports Brexit but can see Remain’s point of view. But his favourite show is Coronation Street, which he has followed since it began. “I came home from holiday recently and I was 12 episodes behind. I didn’t have time to watch them and the number crept up to 16. In the end, I watched 18 episodes back-to-back because I had to catch up.” His only remaining ambition is to appear on the show: “I’d like to just be sitting in the Rovers Return, drinking a pint.” His agent put out feelers but CorrieCor executives pointed out, quite reasonably, that viewers would wonder what Tony Blackburn was doing in the pub. He might not be quite the superstar DJ he was in the days of Radio 1’s pomp, when his shows commanded audiences of 20 million, but he is still instantly recognisable, despite the fact that he is now – his own description – “a decrepit mess”.
His radio persona is eccentric; that of a self-deprecating narcissist. He pretends to think himself amazing but the pay-off to most stories is a gag at his own expense. His daftness on air has meant that his technical skill and genuine passion for music are sometimes forgotten, but he has two Radio Academy lifetime achievement gold awards and is respected by his industry peers.
Stuart Maconie says: “I’ve always thought he was unfairly mocked by people like [John] Peel and by dreary music snobs because he liked pop. He was a massive champion of black music, too, which I like him for.”
Another presenter regards him as “the head boy of DJs”.
Even Peel himself, who affected to think Blackburn “the antichrist”, grudgingly admitted on his This Is Your Life that he actually liked him.
When comedians Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse introduced their parody DJ characters, the cheesy Smashie and Nicey, who endlessly played Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, some presenters didn’t see the funny side. Blackburn did.
“Adored it. Absolutely loved it,” he says, sounding not unlike Whitehouse’s character, Mike Smash, which was loosely based on him.
In 1984, his Radio 1 contract was not renewed and he worked in local radio for years before joining Radio 2, now the nation’s most popular station, in 2010. And after the recent contretemps, his star is once again ascendant. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. With that, he ambles off down the corridor to do his Friday evening show. A quarter of an hour in, he plays a very familiar record.
“Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Smashie and Nicey always used to do that, didn’t they?” he says as the song fades. His voice becomes infinitesimally more Tony Blackburn-ish: “And right now – You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”
He’s doing an impression of Smashie doing an impression of him. He sniggers. He’s absolutely loving it.
Sounds of the Sixties is on Radio 2 on Saturdays between 6am and 8am