The Nation's Not-Quite-As-Favourite
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 for all those Radio 1 comedy shows I'd once listened to religiously - somewhat ironic, considering the religion-baiting themes that many of them had mined for their humour - such as The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Blue Jam, Victor Lewis-Smith, The Chris Morris Music Show, Lee & 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. And then the ones that I'd never even heard of. And what about all of those magazine, documentary and even DJ shows that were essentially 'comedy' in all but name? Needless to say, that list would soon expand into something far more substantial, so come with me now into the swirling mists of human inadeq... actually, tell you what, you can hear all about what happened next in this podcast here.
Anyway, eventually, after long hours spent scouring randomly through Radio Times listings and attempting to negotiate copies of off-air recordings of the little-heard likes of Songlines, Windbags and Z Magazine from surprisingly cautious collectors, the time came to try and pester a couple of erstwhile 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. And, surprisingly, nearly all of them were prepared to have a bit of a 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 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 or recollections of sketches and routines that had given them a rarely-recaptured professional thrill. Needless to say, there were plenty of exciting moments in all 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 the crap 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". But, just occasionally, there were slightly more uncomfortable moments.
Sometimes, in the progression of the conversation, the names of some of the more comedy-averse (usually in both senses) 'old guard' of daytime 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. Often this went no further than moving rapidly on to the next question, but once or twice, one or two of them 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 individual who was involved in an 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 as a person. 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.
In the meantime, work on what would eventually become Fun At One continued apace and its scope increased dramatically, extending to cover not just such nominally non-comedy shows as In Concert, Collins 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; sorry, but you'll have to buy the book to find out exactly how and when they 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. Which was handy as, frankly, none of them were ever that amusing, or even likeable, and 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, 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.
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, Andrew Collins, TV Cream and Ian Greaves - but, well, 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 by then it really wasn't the done thing to be seen to be celebrating Radio 1 in any way, and, well, it seems that it still isn't the done thing. At the time of writing, Fun At One has been 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 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 vexing 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 prats 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 the unease, I've actually considered withdrawing Fun At One from sale once or twice, though more sensible people have always talked me out of that.
What this is a plea for, though, is for an end to this tainting of the whole of Radio 1 by association. 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 celebration and appreciation that now seems to be roundly denied. Which is understandable, but has to stop some time. So go out and listen to a BBC Sessions album by The Beatles, Belle & Sebastian, The Jimi Hendrix Experience or whoever takes your fancy. Catch the imminent repeats of series two of Blue Jam on Radio 4 Extra. Lend an ear to the actually rather good Dan And Phil. 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.