So this is me on my bicycle. Early start. I leave home at 7.15am most days. I love cycling but yes, in London it never feels very safe. Here I have just turned north off Kensington High Street to head for Hyde Park on some quieter roads (Kensington High Street is a shocker — apparently the posher residents don’t want any part of it painted blue to allow cyclists a safer lane). Two seasonal sights up ahead — a tree decorated for Christmas, and right next to it an ambulance with its lights on. I’m guessing the person was so excited they’d got their lights up early, they necked a whole bottle of sherry and fell down the stairs. Ask not for whom the bell tolls: my next appointment of the day is a close shave with a white van, so I guess I’m lucky it didn’t toll for me. Not saying anyone is to blame here, but take a look if you’re not squeamish. This kind of thing happens every day on a cycle.
Safely in to Western House, headquarters of Radio 2 and BBC 6Music. First major decision on arriving in the office is not whether to lead with Trump or Corbyn. It’s the tea/coffee moment. Let’s boil that kettle while we think. By the way, I have removed my hi-viz, cycle clips and helmet by this stage, in case you were wondering. Feast your eyes on the R2 kettle: surely that must have been front and centre of this year’s Ideal Home Exhibition? I mean, the blue light when you switch it on — cutting edge, no?
The kettle steam momentarily obscures the gentleman on the wall. Actually he is obscure all year round — none of us knows who he is, which is no matter of pride. One day the luckiest broadcasters will have a meeting room named after them, or their picture above a kettle; and no one will know who we are. It is something to aim for — when I started as a trainee in 1987 I never dreamed I might one day be unknown throughout the whole organisation.
Welcome to our morning meeting. It starts punctually. Only a full-scale panoramic photo can do it justice (well, they refused to huddle up in a group). On the right, next to me on the sofa, is Eleanor Kiff. Her surname has become a verb — when taxis don’t appear and a guest is delayed, she will ring the firm to give them a “full Kiffing” (there are several levels of this; all highly effective; once, after a taxi firm had made repeated errors, they had to be Double-Kiffed). Beside Ellie is Tom, then Ben, then Tim Collins (blonde hair, glasses, religiously wears his BBC ID). Tim is remarkable for an encyclopaedic knowledge of what we have broadcast — he and I have worked together since the very start on January 6th, 2003. Next to Tim is Mark “My Hat Hides The” Payne. On the far left (his position, not his politics) is editor Phil Jones, who has been editing the show since the days of Jimmy Young — a full 17 years — making him the longest-serving editor in the BBC. That’s my left leg in the dark denim, I should mention. I am not doing anything bad with it, I just thought I would point it out.
Tom is in full flow. He has seen a story about a pensioner who found a dead dolphin on the beach and whose first response was to get a knife, cut a chunk out of it and cook it for lunch. On my show we always want the sound of something happening — radio is as much about activity as speech — so Tom wonders if we can get the pensioner to cook and eat the dolphin live on the programme?
When Tom has a really good idea, and gets enthused, his tracksuit top starts glowing. In production terms, the man is basically a genius.
On my lap is a print-out of some of today’s stories. The one I am interested in is the Glasgow bin driver. It seems to me quite unbelievable that Harry Clarke was given a promise that he would not be prosecuted if he testified at the fatal accident inquiry. So when that inquiry revealed that he had lied about his blackouts to get a job driving a twenty-ton piece of metal around Glasgow, thus killing six people, there was nothing that could be done to bring him to justice. Important to add that when I suggest the story I don’t have the status of editor — Phil makes the decisions, thankfully. I suggest it with only the same oomph as any of the producers and I am quite cool about my favoured story being forced out by others.
The meeting is about to end and I realise my armrest is a relic from the BBC of the seventies and eighties. This is the kind of machine I worked on as a reporter in the early days — a reel-to-reel tape player that would be laced with quarter-inch tape. Heaven knows why it is still here! The metal block below the tape heads is where you would do your edits by physically slicing the tape with a razor, then dropping the section you didn’t want on the floor and sticking the loose ends together using narrow white tape. A century ago. But in reality, only fifteen years. It makes a good armrest.
The team now have the four stories we will focus on —
The floods in Cumbria show us some of the best in human nature – people opening up their homes to each other;
Donald Trump says he wants to ban ALL Moslems from entering the States until the government ‘can figure out what the hell is going on’;
How on earth has the bin driver from Glasgow, who killed 6 people after lying about blackouts, avoided prosecution;
One photo from World War One. One man obsessed with finding out what happened to every single person in the picture
— and, with the crew starting to work their socks off to book guests and find soundbites to illustrate those topics, I nip out for a cup of coffee. In Great Portland Street there are so many breakfast places. Cheap and cheerful, high-end, low-rent and stylish. There is breakfast for £2.50 or £52. Looking at the buzzer for the BBC Club, right next to Radio 2, you can probably work out where I have decided to go on that spectrum.
0915, at the BBC Club
I get black coffee and two rounds of brown toast for £1.63 (WHAT???) and am seriously tempted, with the money I’ve saved on the equivalent at Pret a Manger, to make a contribution to the repair of the doorbell. This is the Golden Hour for me — while my colleagues, Phil and the Producers (sounds like the name of a sixties band) slave over scripts and telephones in the office, I can read the papers and look at social media to see what’s going on. Generally speaking presenters need to have quite a lot of standing knowledge on big subjects. Hope that doesn’t sound self-important — but if, for example, we are doing a piece on obesity or World War One it really helps to be aware of the background as well as the urgent facts the producers will press into my hand. So this hour is for general awareness. And that black coffee.
They have refurbished the booths here. So now, if you are old enough, which at 50 I think I nearly am, you feel like you are in the House of Lords. If I fall asleep here there is a good chance I will wake, see the fake red leather, panic, and start making a long speech that begins, “My honourable friends…”
1048, back in the office
Now we start the briefing. This is Tom talking about a World War One photograph showing 46 soldiers. An amateur historian has spent twenty years trying to find out what happened to everyone in the picture. You see the book on my lap. An astonishing story and the kind of thing I love to do — having an enthusiast lay out twenty years of work for my listeners in fifteen minutes.
The blacked-out pictures show the deaths, between 1915 (when the photo was taken; the first soldier, top left, fell ill during his training) and 1918 (when the war ended). Those in red were gassed or wounded. Unimaginable. Well done to the historian Andrew Tatham.
Ellie and Tim Johns brief me on the bin driver story. Both are great pals and producers. Although I suggested the story, I have all kinds of questions for them: is the Scottish ‘fatal accident inquiry’ we keep hearing about the same as an inquest? What reasons were given officially for not prosecuting Mr Clarke? By the way, each of our brilliant team have their own backstory and their own (big) future! If you are interested in the kind of people who work on the show, Tim’s website is here so you can look him up.
1127, Studio 6c
I get up to my studio. This is also the room used in the mornings by Chris Evans, and at Drivetime by Simon Mayo. So it has that faint quality of exhaustion: everything looks like it might be about to break. At the end of the desk nearest to the camera I place my briefing notes (you see that photo again), plus a cup of tea and a flask of water. For some reason there is a roll of toilet paper on the surface as well. The loo roll is there every day. It is cheaper than Imodium, I guess.
1132, Studio 6b
If you listen to the slot I have on Ken’s show, where I explain what’s coming up on mine, you will be aware that it is the hardest part of my day! It didn’t help when a listener calculated that over the entire year I broadcast the equivalent of ten full shows while I am with Ken. It is impossible to get anything past Mr Bruce — he seems to have read all the newspapers before I visit. So he knows every story and he has a brilliant way of gently taking the rise out of me without my realising until about ten minutes later. Ken has been broadcasting for nearly 40 years and is without question one of the greatest DJs in the history of British radio. The most bizarre moment I ever had on his show was one where he was not present, though: on April Fool’s Day 2011, the comedian Rob Brydon did an extraordinary 150-minute marathon impression of Ken (causing many listeners to ring in and complain that KB was drunk on air), and when I came in to trail my show I was, incredibly, told not to make any reference to it. The whole thing was incredible.
I emerge from Ken’s studio and bump into another great of British radio. They grow on trees here. Tony Blackburn launched Radio 1 in 1967 — but I am sure you know that! He is asking me “How did you get that blue tick on your Facebook page?” I say, “I don’t know, but ask my friend Tash Courtenay-Smith” [who does this website]. Phil Swern, on the left, is Brian Matthew’s producer and was famous for having one of the biggest collections of vinyl in the world. He says Tony should try for a green tick, and then next time we meet I could ask him how he got a green one … and we could go round in circles like this forever. But hey, if you love British radio, isn’t R2 a lovely place to be?
Back to work. Phil Jones, my editor, likes to check things through before we go on air. He also brings fruit. I once said to him when he put the items on the desk, “A great editor brings fruit,” and it sounded like one of those statements of permanent truth, like: “To govern is to choose.” When other people stand in for Phil, they never bring fruit. We used to have an official fruit delivery from BBC catering, a hangover from the days of Jimmy Young, and then someone worked out that a couple of apples and a banana were costing the programme £8 a day. So now Phil goes down Great Portland Street and, for £8 a week, buys enough to keep us both happy. Good boss, eh?
It looks like thirteen minutes to go. But I have always wondered at the mind’s ability to compress those thirteen minutes to four. I will blink and the programme will be on the air. There is no time to lose. Where are my headphones?
A strange thing happens in December in this studio. The concidence of the time of day and the time of the season means, at the odd moment when the sun makes an appearance, it comes smack through the window…
…and hits me in the face. This does not happen at any other time of year! In the summer months the sun is too high. Actually, I often think there may only be a stretch of about ten days in every 365 when this happens between 12 and 2pm. And today it has happened for the first time this year — the time being 12.35 — so I take a look at the studio blinds and wonder, if I yank the cord, will they break like last time? By the way I took a short video during the second half of my show so you can see the view from where I sit:
And pretty soon the programme is over for today!
So now a special lunch. Normally it’s a cheese and tomato sandwich but today I am with friends. Jimmy Young once wrote me a note saying he couldn’t come out for lunch, “because it is impossible in this job, as you are about to find out.” It’s not impossible but it does require patient friends who can forego their starters. On the left is a publishing genius who put out my memoir in 2012, Carly Cook. She is always interesting and full of life. Opposite us are Johnnie and Tiggy Walker, both (as you’ll know) broadcasting pals. Johnnie did one of our most memorable “What Makes Us Human?” strands this year on my show; and Tiggy came on my show to talk so powerfully about her recovery from cancer and the photo-book she published as a journal to help encourage others. We had a brilliant time together at Casa Becci on Paddington Street, a compact and friendly Italian.
Cycling home. Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park must be the most expensive funfair in the world. I can hardly afford even to look at it. £4 per person per ride last time I went here.
But I know how fortunate I am. As my cycle lamp traces out the path back to the main road in Kensington (that’s Diana’s palace lit up ahead), it occurs to me that I never planned my journey in the BBC; nor was any path laid for me to follow. Every time I went forward, or left, or right, or stumbled in some one-legged diagonal, somehow the tarmac was there. I used to think the BBC had a guiding hand. Now I reckon I was just bloody lucky.
The following day
I didn’t want to leave you in the lurch with Tom’s dolphin! The story of Cornish pensioner Arthur Boyt, pictured above, who found a dead dolphin on the beach and whose first thought was to hack lumps out of it and put them in his freezer, appeared on air the following day. Yes, he did indeed fry dolphin live down his telephone as we listened, then ate the cooked meat and described it (“this tastes like beef … with a hint of dolphin”). Tim Johns tweeted the item here. It was a classic, achieving one of our record numbers of complaints for the year. Good job, Tom.
Oh, and after admitting my ignorance on the photo on the wall, a number of people told me it is Alvar Lidell. He read the news during the Second World War in a century-changing voice. Here is one of his bulletins.