They both hated DLT

Andy Beckett

  • The Nation’s Favourite: The True Adventures of Radio 1 by Simon Garfield
    Faber, 273 pp, £9.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 571 19435 4

Radio 1 used to sound like Surrey to me. Perhaps it was the disc jockeys they used in those days, with their creamy car-dealer’s voices and their discreetly tabloid opinions; or the on-air pub quizzes and snooker, where female contestants were flirted with and spoken to slowly; or the endless suburban doze of the afternoon programmes; or the sense, if you cared about pop music, that the records played were nothing but restaurant muzak to the DJs – to be talked over, cut short, looped repeatedly, forgotten about.

West Byfleet, as far as I could tell, liked its radio this way during the Eighties. There were Radio 1 car stickers on Ford Sierras. There were conservatories being added to the strains of Simon Bates’s mid-morning show. There were big and tidy back gardens, on hot Saturdays, ringing with the amplified chuckle of Dave Lee Travis. I was 12 or 13. I’d stay in the car when my parents went to the garden centre, trying to get a better reception on my portable radio.

At that time the station had more than twenty million listeners. The London pirate stations did not reach the rhododendron belt, and BBC local radio was even blander than Bates at his chummiest. So Radio 1 it was: whole school holidays of it, burbling by, endured for a chance few minutes of New Order or the Smiths. Then, as now, pop was going through one of its quiet phases – elderly singers, supergroups and reunions, teenage stars charming everyone’s grandmothers – so I suppose it was appropriate that the national pop station should be so safe. Radio 1 was light entertainment. Cool Britannia, and government talk of ‘cultural industries’, was a long decade away. Early in this book, Simon Garfield repeats a well-known but telling tale about Dave Lee Travis (or ‘DLT’, as he gruffly liked to be known). Travis was having a party at his home, and decided to invite John Peel, then the only DJ at Radio 1 with a serious interest in the music he played. Peel, who was much older, and held a far more marginal position in the station’s daily schedule, went along out of curiosity. Looking around Travis’s house he ‘suddenly realised that DLT didn’t own any records. He asked him, and DLT said, “Oh no, it’s too much trouble and the dust ... Anything I really like I’ve copied on tape. I’ve got quite a lot of tapes and I play them in the car, you see.” ’

The station was in tune with the times. Television and football, the two other great British forms of entertainment, were out of favour with the Conservative Government. Radio 1 channelled its energies into milder areas: listener competitions and phone-ins, fake guests with silly voices, summer roadshow tours of holiday resorts. It dismissed most dance music as ‘not good on the radio’, and was careful to maintain, as its then controller Johnny Beerling put it, ‘a relationship with the Red Arrows’. The DJs’ jokes tended to feel state-sanctioned. While the Government was busy outlawing the ‘teaching’ of homosexuality in schools, Steve Wright’s afternoon programme invented a highly camp hairdresser called ‘Gervase’. While the poll tax was being planned for Scotland, DLT greeted Scottish colleagues with impersonations of their accents. When the DJs stayed together in hotels, during trips away with the roadshow, the antics were as oafish and obligatory as those of the Young Conservatives. ‘They’d be letting sheep into each other’s rooms and doing apple-pie beds,’ Peel’s producer remembers. Before Radio 1 broadcast the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium, a memo was distributed instructing DJs not to make comments of a ‘political nature’.

You are not logged in