From cheesy purveyor of pop, the golden boy of breakfast to radio’s elder statesman, a recognised national treasure, Tony Blackburn reaches (can it really be?) 70 years of age today.
Still sounding as youthful as ever Tony has been broadcasting solidly for the last 49 years. These days you can hear him each week on anyone of five different stations. As he said on-air recently “I never want to retire…. I would quite like to live in a radio station.”As Tony is so busy it’s difficult to grab some of his time for an interview. So I’ve been delving through my archive to see what I can glean about Mr Blackburn.
He started broadcasting on Radio Caroline in July 1964 before jumping ship to Big L two years later. ‘Wonderful Radio London’ offered “coherent programming, interspersed with regular, professional advertising and the best jingles I’d ever heard.” By the time the Marine Offences Act came into force Tony was already on the mainland and entering the portals of the Broadcasting House for the Light Programme’s Midday Spin. Effectively this was a try-out for the breakfast show on the swinging new pop station Radio 1.The Radio 1 Annual (published in 1969 for just 12/6) offered a Blackburn Briefing. So why did he become a DJ? “I suppose I thought of it as the back door to showbusiness in general. At the time, my main aim was to become a singer. I thought dee-jaying would give me the right contacts.” Ah yes, that singing career. In Bournemouth Tony had formed a group – the punningly titled ‘Tony Blackburn and the Rovers’ – that included, on lead guitar one Al Stewart. He was later the singer with the local Jan Ralfini Orchestra. He continued to harbour pop recording ambitions during his time on Radio 1 achieving the giddy heights of number 31 in the charts with the ballad So Much Love.
The Annual also told us that Tony was 5 feet 8½ inches tall, weighed 150 lbs, that his favourite drink was Coke and his favourite food a mixed grill. Hmm, I think not. Tony has been vegetarian from age five, an omelette and chips was about as exotic as it got. In Our First Meal (Times Magazine 9.10.99) he admits that “pasta with tomato sauce is about as exotic as I get. Or Quorn. I’m still a gastronomic peasant really and good wine is wasted on me”.By 1971 Tony was all loved up with actress Tessa Wyatt, a relationship that would publically fall apart some five years later. Talking about that trademark Blackburn humour she told the TV Times (20.1.73) that it wasn’t her cup of tea “but on the first evening we went out together I discovered he has a good subtle sense of humour. All that corny humour isn’t typical of him. I think it was just a gimmick to start with, and now I think it is quite clever”.
By his own admission his radio persona could be both fun and annoying in equal measure. In a 1978 interview (with Ross Benson of the Daily Express 4.5.78) he claimed that he believed “that to get an audience you’ve got to irritate people – and you’ve got to accept that not everyone is going to like you.” He even admitted to ambitions to run Radio 1. “In ten years’ time I’d like to be in charge of this network.”The “mindless, endless, relentless happy talk” on Radio 1 continued to incense journalists like Jean Rook (her words) of the Express (18.3.77). What did Tony think drove her mad? “It’s my goodie, goodie image. I don’t smoke, I hardly drink, I don’t take drugs. I have all my own teeth. I smile too much – only because photographers always ask me to – and I’m a bit like Cliff Richard without the religion.” Even then there were no thoughts of ever retiring. “I don’t think there’s an age limit on radio. I’d like to go on and on.”
Not all was sweetness and light at Radio 1. In 1973 he was demoted, as he saw it, from the Breakfast Show to a mid-morning slot. By 1977 he was moved to the afternoons and in 1980 he lost his daily show and was looking after Junior Choice and the Top 40. “Bye, bye Blackburn” was the press headline. Publically he was ebullient (“I can’t wait to get started”) but as he later admitted “I was lying through my full set of ever smiling teeth. Broadcasting to children just wasn’t right for ‘Uncle Tony. “Tony left Radio 1 in 1984 and, for those of us outside London and the South East, all but disappeared for the next decade. In fact in his next venture the contrast with Junior Choice couldn’t be stronger with his Sex ‘n’ Soul shows on BBC Radio London.
It was back to commercial radio in 1988 on the new Capital Gold station alongside many of his former Radio 1 colleagues. A year later Mark Lawson (The Independent 29.7.89) observed his broadcasting style:
As the music stops he hunches in to the microphone, like the first move of a cuddle. His voice, which can find four syllables in ‘great’, maintains throughout a tone of elevated excitement, reminiscent of the one which those who are unfamiliar with children employ when speaking to them. The jokes, too, might safely be shared with that age group: ‘A friend of mine swam 100 yards in two seconds – he went over a waterfall!’ The vintage of the discs and the birthdays for which they are being played give a hint of the trick Blackburn has played. He presented breakfast shows in his salad days and still does in what he would probably not mind you calling his vegetable days but this is Capital Gold … on which all the records are old and all the disc jockeys – shall we say? – experienced.
There was TV work, Sky by Day, QVC and having the door slammed in his face each week on Noel’s House Party. There was also a second wife, Debbie Thomson, whom he’d initially met some 10 years before. “She’s the first person I’ve ever been out with who doesn’t play those stupid games”, he told Craig Brown (The Independent 9.7.94), “you know, they flirt with someone in front of you. But she’s not like that. Terrific really. Smashing.”If Tony’s career needed a spark to re-invigorate it, it came with his 2002 winning appearance on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. “Could Tony Blackburn’s unlikely comeback”, asked The Times’s Chris Campling (10.9.02), “herald the rehabilitation of the FAB FM jocks?” He goes on: ”Of all the dinosaur jocks, Blackburn is the one most likely to have struck a chord in the hearts of modern yoof. It’s so difficult to dislike him, that’s the trouble. Feel sorry for him, yes. Pity him, despise him on occasions. But dislike him? Never.”
From now on Tony was all over the place, ‘appearing on a radio station near you’. Gigs at Classic Gold, Real Radio, Jazz FM and Smooth Radio followed. Meanwhile back on Radio London 94.9 he had a weekly Soul and Motown Show, the music he had championed since his pirate days. That Radio 1 annual listed his favourite singers as Steve Wonder, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross & the Supremes. Whilst he loved his music he only ever saw it as entertainment. “It was all pop music to me, except the stuff that John Peel tended to play was almost without exception completely awful”, he wrote in Poptastic: My Life in Radio. “I was the happy-go-lucky dispenser of the kind of song that an audience only had to hear once before rushing out to buy it.”From November 2010 it was a return to national radio with Pick of the Pops, (“it’s one of those heritage shows … Radio 2’s equivalent to The Archers”), now live and boasting re-sings of jingles that he’d played on Big L some 44 years earlier.
Tony remains as active as ever embracing the new technology on Twitter and Audioboo. He must hold some kind of broadcasting record: at the moment you can hear him on national radio, regional and local radio within the same week on Radio 2, Magic, Radio London, Radio Berkshire KMFM. No wonder he has conceded that, although otherwise a clean-living man, “radio is an addiction”.Tony’s last regular Radio 1 show was on Sunday 23 September 1984. But he was back the following weekend chatting to Andy Peebles and choosing his Top 10. Here’s a scoped version of that programme. The anoraks amongst you will note that Tony’s first word on Radio 1 was “and” whilst his last word was “Andy”. And not a lot of people know that!
My Top Ten was broadcast on Saturday 29 September 1984.
With thanks to Noel Tyrrel