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How I Learned To Love Tony Blackburn, By Pete Paphides
Pete Paphides , March 7th, 2016 12:44

After the recent sacking of Tony Blackburn by the BBC, Pete Paphides has the revelation that the guileless broadcaster was a prism through which he's charted his own life in pop

Image via Shutterstock

We should have been in Birmingham Central Library revising for our A-levels. Indeed, our exercise books were spread across a double desk, scattered among sheets of A4 paper that featured little more than a few doodles and made-up swearwords written with the express purpose of making each other laugh. My best friend Richard and I had abandoned the pretence that any studying was going to happen, but were running out of distractions that had included asking the librarian to wheel out a stack of old Radio Times issues that stretched back decades. We bunked off, venturing out onto the neighbouring city centre streets.

It was in the ‘sale' bin of a now defunct bookshop called Midland Educational that I set eyes upon Tony Blackburn's autobiography The Living Legend. With a title that promised so much, 50p seemed like no price at all. I alighted upon a random page and quickly realised I'd found something that could easily postpone our revision schedule by a good couple of days. The Living Legend appeared to be the work of an inspired idiot, whose talent for landing himself in extraordinary situations was matched only by the guileless candour with which he would later recall them. A lot of people who pursue fame find that when they finally achieve it, the reality merely brings complications and a profound sense of emptiness. Not Tony though: "Since childhood, I had dreamed of being famous. When I was [singing] with the Jan Ralfini Orchestra in Bournemouth, my picture was printed in the local paper. I was very upset when, after that, still no-one recognised me in the street. I now realise that you have to be on TV for your face to register with the public. That's why I haven't changed my hairstyle over the years, because along with my teeth, it makes me instantly recognisable."

As we made our way back to the library, Richard and I read out paragraphs from The Living Legend. It was the gift that kept on giving. "I also discovered that my celebrity status was a magnet for loonies," began one paragraph, "The only time I was late for my breakfast show on Radio One was because I was kidnapped by students as a Rag Week stunt. They grabbed me outside my flat at 5.45am, bundled me into a van and drove me to Heathrow Airport. They demanded that the BBC broadcast a charity appeal but quite rightly, their demands were ignored. I wasn't hurt, but being assaulted by a gang of strangers in the street was a frightening experience."

By the time we got back to the library, Tony's memoirs had sent us into a state of near-hysteria. The Living Legend reached a plateau of poignant brilliance with the chapters that detailed his brief marriage to Tessa Wyatt. These were respectively titled ‘Searching For Love', ‘Tessa' and ‘A World Without Love'. Richard and I took it in turns to read out sections which chronicled Tony's intensifying infatuation with the refined, somewhat stern-faced Robin's Nest actress. Their palpable lack of compatibility seemed apparent from the moment he meets her parents for the first time and accidentally walks into an antique table, in the process, breaking "one of its spindly legs."

We were sternly shushed by a librarian when we got to the bit where Tony realised that Tessa was having an affair with her Robin's Nest co-star Richard O'Sullivan. In 1977, as news of their break-up reached the tabloids, Tony had famously broken down on air and told breakfast show listeners at some length that the dissolution of their marriage had left him desolate. "My depression deepened and wasn't helped by the delightful creatures who waved their scarves back and forth at the Radio One roadshow, like football hooligans crying ‘Robin's Nest, Robin's Nest.' Flashing my toothpaste smile that day was a true test of my professionalism."

For the 17-year-old me, at the apex of my love for DIY indie outsiders like The Pastels and The Wedding Present, editing my own fanzine, utterly sure of what I stood for and, by extension, what I stood against, Tony Blackburn was a tacky anachronism – a yellowing relic of an era that had nothing left to teach us. Iconoclasm comes all too naturally to teenagers with a head full of untested ideas about how the world should be – and, in that regard, I was no exception. But even then, I could see that if there was one thing that Tony simply didn't know how to do, it was lie. Even when narrating his story to his biographer, Tony struggled to cast himself the hero of his own story. At every turn, given the choice of making himself seem like one of the most gifted broadcasters of his generation or a harmless clod who wound up in the right place at the right time, he opted for the latter. Almost uniquely in the pantheon of Radio One breakfast show presenters – and in marked contrast to Smashie and Nicey, the characters that Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse partly based on him – Tony Blackburn didn't seem to have much of an ego.

But it would take me years to realise that. The reason why Tony's autobiography piqued my interest in the first place; the reason why I would have thought to myself, ‘Now this will be funny' was an appearance he made on a music magazine show some years previously, in 1984. Hosted by Robin Denselow, the format of Eight Days A WeekM was simple. Every week, three guests would discuss a host of new releases from the world of music: be they records, books or films. The episode I in question saw Tony Blackburn guesting on the show, alongside George Michael and Morrissey. My reasons for taping the show in the first place – I loved The Smiths – coloured my perception of what happened beyond the opening titles.

On the week of broadcast, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go' entered the charts at number four – Wham's highest chart entry up to that point. The impressive all-overness of George Michael's tan was apparent through the chunky string vest he was wearing. Beside him was Morrissey. His quiff never looked better than it did on this, the week that ‘Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' was released. Neither singer had much in common with the other, but both seemed to sense that this was their time. Between them, they had the British pop zeitgeist carved up, and this seemed to be enough to create a delicate if unlikely alliance between them. Their luminescent nowness was further brought into sharp relief by Tony Blackburn, who was seated to the right of Morrissey. He was wearing a canary yellow jacket. His hair was oil-slick black and appeared to be made of nylon.

In any group of men, someone has to assume the alpha role – and, incredibly, among this bizarro gathering, that honour fell to Morrissey. George Michael was the mainstream pop star, but he was keen to show that he shared common indie references with Morrissey. He proudly announced that he had loved Tracey Thorn's pre-Everything But The Girl solo records and, later on, during a review of a Joy Division book called An Ideal For Living, he revealed that Side Two of Closer was an all-time favourite. Relatively early in the programme, George Michael and Morrissey made no attempt to hide their amusement at that fact that Tony thoroughly enjoyed the week's highlighted film Breakdance. As one might expect from a film which is centred around New York street dance, Morrissey "found every aspect of the film repellent." George claimed that his video recorder chewed up the tape after 15 minutes, but declared that what he saw was awful too. Even Robin Denselow made it clear that he found the plot – ingenue white girl (played by Lucinda Dickey) falls in with black street dancer who, much to the chagrin of his co-dancers, lobbies for her to join their gang – corny and formulaic. But once again, what comes through here is the DJ's inability to offer anything other than an honest answer. For better or for worse. "I liked it! I thought that, for what it was, it was great. [Lucinda Dickey] had the most gorgeous bum as well. Even for that, I'd go along and see it."

"Didn't you find the script absolutely awful?" asked the presenter.

"Who cares?" was Tony's response, "We're trying to read something into this that isn't there. I think soul fans will enjoy it. It's just a bit of fun. The dancing is so electric. I just enjoy dancing, really…"

The wide shots were revealing at this point: Morrissey cringing visibly at everything Tony is saying; George weighing in by suggesting that if Tony liked the music and the dancing, then he'd be better off going to a really good club.

If Tony elected to be any less gracious in the face of George's patronising prescription, he could have pointed out to the bloke from Wham! that he too knew a thing or two about what plays out well in clubs. His BBC London soul show was so popular it spawned a weekly club night called Soul Nights, for which demand was so high that it eventually took over Capital's Best Disco In Town nights. Six thousand people would regularly attend Tony's Soul Nights, including, one occasion, Stevie Wonder who personally thanked him for keeping the profile of soul music so high in the UK.

I remember a couple of years later, watching D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back for the first time and instantly falling hard for the Bob Dylan who landed on British shores in 1965, with an entourage that included Alan Price, Joan Baez and Donovan. How could you not feel a certain awe as Dylan impishly asked Alan what was happening with him and The Animals, knowing very well that the camera was rolling and this was a sore point for the freshly departed keyboardist? How could you not stifle a giggle as Dylan typed out the lyrics to a new song (‘Percy's Song'), pointedly ignoring the overtures of Baez as he did so? How could you not think Dylan was the coolest person who ever lived as he smirked through a Dylanesque song that Donovan had come to play him; as Bob sarcastically toyed with a bunch of fusty middle-aged journalists in suits and playfully eviscerated an awkward, nervous student who had come to him in search of an interview? And all while wearing a killer suede jacket, Ray-Bans and a boho crows-nest barnet that many imitated but no-one bettered?

Even though, at some subconscious level, I knew I was far closer to being that awkward, nervous student than the rock star ripping him to shreds just for fun, I didn't think a human being could ever carry themselves as impeccably as Dylan did in Don't Look Back. Then, 20 years later, I put it on again and could barely understand what I was watching. The music was still amazing, but the Bob Dylan I remembered had been replaced by a bored bully, compounding his power within a group he already dominated by making them feel relentlessly uncomfortable in his presence. In the court of King Bob, only road manager-cum-cocky lieutenant Bob Neuwirth seemed truly relaxed. Twenty years on, I liked everyone else in Don't Look Back more than I liked Bob Dylan.

It might seem strange to compare the greatest verité music documentary of all time to a 30 minute music programme broadcast on BBC2 in 1984, but then that's not really what I'm doing at all. The only thing they have in common is that both acted as useful barometers of my own teenage shortcomings. A couple of years ago, I saw that someone had uploaded that episode of Eight Days A Week onto YouTube. Again, nothing was as I remembered it. Watching as a 44 year-old, Morrissey seemed barely any more an adolescent narcissist than I had been at the time the show was aired, holding forth with all of the unearned certitude in the cosmos about genres he had no interest in understanding. Despite the fact that George Michael's aesthetic was far closer to that of Tony Blackburn, George sensed where the power is. When it was time to review the Joy Division book, George snapped into line with Morrissey's pompously delivered verdict that "at the end of the day, I support Joy Division".

Then, finally, it was time to hear Tony thought of Joy Division. Back in 1984, I remember hooting with derision at this bit. Look at silly old Tony Blackburn, not getting Joy Division!! Look at him going on about how he finds their flirtation with fascist imagery "disturbing"! He just doesn't get it, does he? "I would personally have like for [the author] to go into detail about the individual members," explained the DJ, perhaps as close to tetchiness as I've ever seen him, "I'm not interested in the fact that they played The Cat's Whiskers in wherever-it-was and they left the gear on stage for a roadie to clear up. That's not interesting – that's what every group does." I felt like I was watching someone's dad describing exactly what was happening before him, without any desire to romanticise it or make excuses for it – which, of course, is exactly what I was watching.

And now, three decades later, I am a dad. Which might explain why I think everything Tony does in this episode of Eight Days A Week is totally brilliant, even the comment about the how he'd watch all of Breakdance again just for Lucinda Dickey's "most gorgeous bum."

Aesthetically too, he's pretty much right on the nose. I don't much listen to Joy Division these days. What use do I have for Closer in 2016? It's not what I need to have on when I'm picking the kids up from school. And when I'm going out for a run, that's the last thing that'll get me motivated. If I'm cooking a meal, I'm far more likely to stick on an old soul compilation. I've even come to appreciate a lot of Luther Vandross's solo work – albums which Tony championed throughout the 80s, when the BBC had relegated him to Junior Choice and the only outlet for his love of soul music was his Radio London show. Over the years, I've come to understand that the songs which move you the most aren't the ones that address the weightiest matters. Shannon's ‘Let The Music Play' wipes the floor with ‘Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now'. ‘True Faith' and ‘Confusion' might be far happier songs than ‘The Eternal' and ‘Dead Souls', but there's nothing lightweight about the feelings to which they give rise. They're the songs that simultaneously instil me with a delight and sadness that moments of such elation are impossible to sustain. With Joy Division, all I can hear is the sadness.

Here's Tony speaking to The Times in 2004: "I'm still a part of the disco generation. There is no pretence there and it never seems to date. I think disco did much more as a contribution to music than Bob Dylan or Neil Young. People get snobbish about music. Disco never takes itself too seriously." He's describing disco, but, that final sentence, Tony is also describing himself. And once again, I find myself, in middle age, coming around to his way of thinking. Of course I listen to Bob Dylan and Neil Young from time to time but, in the last years, neither have propelled me to a state of high emotion quite like the string arrangements on Sister Sledge's ‘Love Don't You Go Through No Changes On Me' or Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' original version of ‘Don't Leave Me This Way'.


For the longest time, I didn't have occasion to update my views about Tony Blackburn. In my mind, he had merged into Mike Smash – the character that Paul Whitehouse based upon him alongside Harry Enfield's Alan Freeman-esque Dave Nice. When he appeared on the first series of I'm A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here!, I tuned in for reasons of pure schadenfreude, expecting to see the same buffoon whose book had given me so much pleasure about 15 years previously. I suspect many others tuned in for similar reasons. But, over the course of a fortnight, an entire country seemed to fall in love with him. By default, he became the tribal elder – I say "by default" because he clearly didn't seek out any position of authority and neither did he expect it. Tony Blackburn seemed genuinely interested in the stories of his fellow contestants and his preoccupation with gathering enough logs to keep the fire going was little short of adorable. It can't have just been me who felt this way because, of course, he won the entire series.

And, of course, throughout the whole time – the years of popularity, the ignominy of doing Junior Choice, his years as a respected soul DJ and his subsequent mainstream resurrection on Radio Two – he never stopped deejaying. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was hands on about the content of his shows – choosing every song personally. Talking to millions of people while making them all feel like they're the only person you're talking to isn't as easy as it looks. And I can't think of a single other DJ who makes it seem quite as easy as Tony Blackburn. It's no accident that Pick Of The Pops added a million listeners since Tony took over the show from Dale Winton in 2010.

One of the most tragic aspects of the way we have come to view the early years of Radio One in a post-Savile, post-Smashie & Nicey world is that we have reimagined the entire era as an unregulated hell populated by paedophile sex offenders and petulant egomaniacs. But Radio One had dozens of DJs on its payroll. No doubt, you wouldn't want to venture into the same postcode as some of them; but that still left plenty of others, many of them brilliant practitioners of a frequently underrated art.

In February 1970, BBC1 aired a Man Alive documentary about the fledgling Radio One. Focusing chiefly on Emperor Rosko, John Peel, Jimmy Young, Kenny Everett and Tony Blackburn, The Disc Jockeys centred around the cult of personality that attracted the station's most famous names. Perhaps the star of the show is Kenny Everett, who comes across as the overcaffeinated lovechild of Spike Milligan and Vivian Stanshall. It seems almost inconceivable that, with his scholarly regard for radio, Chris Morris didn't spend hours listening to Kenny Everett's programmes at this time. For each of his Radio One shows, Everett would spend up to three days alone in the studio, using four-track machines to construct increasingly outlandish scenarios for alter egos such as Basement Bill, his butler Crisp and a 120-year-old nymphomaniac called Gran. And yet, when interviewed on The Disc Jockeys, Everett seems almost dismissive of the significance of his job. He's distrustful of the notion that pop music has any lasting cultural importance and yet he clearly loves it. In his flat, we see him unable to contain his excitement as he listens to The Beatles' ‘Because'. Given that the programme was aired four months after the release of Abbey Road, it's conceivable that he might even be playing the album for the first time.

Tony Blackburn isn't the innovator that Kenny Everett sets out to be, but by the same token, there's something about the way he navigates his way through his breakfast show that impresses the otherwise austere female narrator: "He handles the cassettes of prepared material, a confusion of controls, turntables and telephones as happily as a little boy playing a Meccano set," she notes. He certainly comes across better than Jimmy Young, at any rate, who – despite receiving 400-500 letters a day – readily admits that he doesn't choose any of his music because his is a "personality-led" show. Furthermore, he doesn't listen to music at home either, because neither would you if you'd spent two hours listening to it here.

As with Kenny Everett, the subtext to much of what Tony Blackburn says is that radio doesn't really matter very much at all and, actually, at the same time, matters a huge amount. "[It's] an atmosphere, more than anything else," he explains, "A sort of fun sound… In other words, a lot of people wake up in the morning feeling absolutely terrible and I like to make them feel a little bit happier before they go to work. This is really the idea of the thing." He comes across as a simple soul at times – if simpleton wasn't a pejorative term, I might even use that. But his understanding of the place that pop radio has in the lives of the people who use it is spot on. It worked as a definition then, and I think it still does now.

Over the decades, it was a definition that certainly stood Tony Blackburn in good stead. But as anyone who read the newspapers last week will know, conflicting versions of events that took place in 1971 have led to his dismissal by the BBC. The point at issue is a memo that claims Blackburn was at a meeting concerning the suicide of 15-year-old Claire McAlpine who, in her diary claimed that she had slept with Blackburn. When challenged by the BBC, ahead of a 2012 News Of The World story about McAlpine, Blackburn denied that the 1971 meeting had taken place. So when Dame Janet Smith concluded in the Savile inquiry that the DJ's denial "fell short of the standard of evidence that such an enquiry demanded" (Lord Hall's words), the BBC concluded that they had no option but to fire him.

The Tony Blackburn interviewed by Paddy O'Connell on Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme was a picture of bewilderment. He was there to defend his name and, specifically, to try and explain the disparity between his version of the events in 1971 and the version in Dame Janet's report. Blackburn explained that Bill Cotton Jr, then head of the BBC Light Entertainment and Blackburn's agent Harold Davison were close at the time. As such, he felt there was every chance that Cotton settled the issue with Davison, and between them, the two agreed (without telling Blackburn) to report that Blackburn had seen the complaint.

Speaking to O'Connell, Blackburn added that, in the light of Dame Janet's findings, certain people within the BBC had suggested to him that he might keep his job if he equivocated and said that he might have been at the meeting in 1971, but it was so long ago that he couldn't remember. Perhaps naively, Blackburn rejected the suggestion, saying that he would have certainly remembered being a meeting concerning such a serious matter. He would rather he had been investigated in 1971 – not because he had done anything wrong, but because it there had been a complaint of impropriety, then he should have been investigated (and subsequently cleared).

Between the completion of Dame Janet's report and its publication, Blackburn claimed that he was even given the option of resigning with a view to being reinstated by the BBC a few months later. His reply: "I said no, I wouldn't do that because I've got nothing to hide and they're sacking me for telling the truth. It's as simple as that, so why would I want to resign from a job I absolutely adore?"

Of course, now that the information is out there, people can draw their own conclusions regarding Tony Blackburn's honesty. It's perhaps worth adding that shortly after the initial complaint concerning her daughter's claims, Claire McAlpine withdrew her complaint. It might also be salient to note that in her diary, McAlpine also claimed to have slept with Frank Sinatra and Rock Hudson. Given that Cotton and Harold Davison were friends, it seems likely that, as Blackburn says, Cotton had a quick word with Davison and wrote the memo with a view to putting a lid on a serious complaint.

Quite what Blackburn has been fired for is mystifying. As a Private Eye correspondent calling themselves ‘Arnold the Dog' writes this week, "It should be noted that Mr Blackburn has been found guilty by the BBC not of unlawful sex with a teenager, but of having a memory of a 1971 investigation into an allegation (later withdrawn) that clashes with a BBC memo from the period. The existence of a BBC memo recording an event does not necessarily mean the event happened; it simply means a manager felt it prudent to put a certain version on the record. Furthermore, can it really be the case that Mr Blackburn's clash of 45 year-old memories with BBC management brings the corporation into more disrepute than the actions of executives involved in Newsnight's cancellation of its Savile investigation and subsequent false allegations against Lord McAlpine?"

The Private Eye piece continues: "In December 2012, Nick Pollard, former head of Sky News, was tasked with investigating whether senior BBC managers had halted the Newsnight report to avoid compromising triumphalist documentaries about Savile. It is a matter of record that Ms Boaden, then head of BBC News, changed her evidence, through a letter from solicitors, at the last moment. So, if contradictory contributions to a BBC inquiry are the reason Mr Blackburn had to be sacked, why is Ms Boaden still receiving £352,900 for running the radio division that sacked him?"

Blackburn is generally active on social media and fondly regarded for his tweets, which typically centre on whatever light entertainment programme he happens to be watching, soliciting requests for his Radio London soul and Motown show or the traffic conditions en route to his KMFM show in Kent. On DJs Complaining (@djscomplaining) – a Twitter feed devoted to retweeting the gripes of cosseted superstar DJs, the relentless sunniness Blackburn's tweets have been a long-running gag. The endless procession of mollycoddled millionaires moaning about the lack of priority check-in options or being served mimosa when they asked for orange juice or having seaweed salad stuck in their teeth is broken only by these updates from Blackburn. Here he is on June 9th, 2015: "I'm in East Sussex where it's rather cloudy. I've been on the A21 which is great if you like cherries, they sell them everywhere."

So how did social media respond to last Sunday's interview with Blackburn? Twitter isn't exactly known for the even-handed people it attracts, but after doing a search for ‘Tony Blackburn', I read about 300 tweets, of which maybe one or two were anything other than wholly supportive. Privately, some DJs told me they were appalled by the manner of his departure. One journalist friend told me, "I interviewed many of the old-school big-hitter Radio One DJs: Savile, DLT, Mike Read, Kid Jensen, etc. Of all of them, Tony Blackburn struck me as unfailingly nice and decent." Of the recent revelations, he said, "I was puzzled as to why he should deny being at a meeting with Bill Cotton Jr when evidence seems to exist that he was there, but his account here seems genuine and to ring true. It sounds very feasible to me. For what it is worth, Bill Cotton was not a terribly nice individual: this was the boss who made Flick Colby break up [short-lived Pan's People replacement] Ruby Flipper because 'British people don't want to see white women dancing with black men'."

The Tony Blackburn I heard speaking to Paddy O'Connell on Sunday morning was palpably the same Tony Blackburn that had reduced me to hysterics in The Living Legend and Eight Days A Week. Still unable to give anything but an honest answer when, in so many ways, a dishonest answer might serve him better. But this time, nothing he said made me laugh. In fact, when he spoke about waking up the previous morning and suddenly remembering that he didn't have a show to prepare, he sounded like he was about to cry. I felt like I might too. Next year would have marked the 50th year since he opened Radio One. This is no way to treat a living legend.