This is a really long one. It's a good one though, exciting but with an unhappy ending. I know there’s one more Big And Daft history post due, as this is nine of ten, but this is pretty much where the actual history all draws to a close. Post number ten is an overall retrospective, as opposed to a linear part of the story, so I guess this is the final chapter of the plot.
I know you’ll miss it terribly, but we’ve had a good innings on it.
We left the story in ruins at the end of the last post, and that was pretty much how the land lay. We’d done our final tour that took in the length and breadth of the UK (well…England and Scotland), I’d had my primadona hissy fit and announced my departure from the group halfway through a show in Brighton, and we’d returned to our respective abodes with the bombshells still ringing in our ears. Emotional, battered, and probably defeated.
Which is how the phonecall from BBC London found us. I can’t for the life of me recall how we came to be on their radar, but the producer Julia Mckenzie called, and asked if we would do some show cover over Christmas. Basically, and this will sound like I am making it up but it’s what we were told, Mark Lamarr traditionally did the show cover at Christmas, like a rockabilly Santa. However, one of his conditions for doing this was that he could smoke whilst presenting. As you couldn’t smoke in the studio, he had a makeshift studio set up on the roof, and they just didn’t want to go through all that again. Honestly. I promise that’s what we were told.
In strode the hastily re-formed saviours of BBC local radio. With not a solitary clue between them of how any of this worked. As is so often the case with this sort of thing, cometh the hour- cometh the panicked desperation that can lead to accidental gold. We really did blow the roof off that studio in our first broadcasts, so – all things considered - it’s a good thing that Mark Lamarr wasn’t up there.
I couldn’t tell you details, but I do recall there being a tangible sense of excitement about us. I remember people talking with big smiles and wide eyes about the possibilities. We’d grown accustomed to that in industry meetings though, and as you’ve heard, when we got to around meeting number five or six, our “charm” started to wear thin when it was obvious that we were never, ever, going to play ball properly with the other children. BBC London didn’t know that yet, but were about to find out when they offered us the midday Saturday slot permanent, straight after Danny Baker. We ousted Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins.
We managed to hide our nerves exceptionally well in the planning meetings, and went down to Marylebone High St (where the studio was) several times to meet with Julia, who was retained as our producer and was clearly championing us to the rafters. As time went on, I think we all got a bit frustrated with Julia, as she was steeped in BBC. A conflict no doubt for her, as we were steeped in arsing about and making each other laugh, and she was kind of swept along with it. My overall memory of Julia is a vague feeling of not knowing if she was going to play by our rules or her (BBC) rules at any given time. When she played along with our rules, I really liked her, and when she went all BBC… I didn’t so much. We rubbed each other up the wrong way regularly, yet when we got along she singled me out for solo presenting and even doing cover on the early morning call in show. It was a complicated relationship when I think on it properly. Before we all start thinking of her as the enemy in this story though, let’s remember that it was she who was doing her job properly, not us. It’s just the job hadn’t been updated in thirty years (still hasn't really). There is a far more deserving recipient of the villain mantle…
Jon called me at some point in the week leading up to our first show proper, and said that he’d just heard another presenter slagging us off on air. Now, the caveat to all this is we had made a ludicrous trailer for the show, and had already started being difficult by refusing to record anything other than what we ended up recording. There was an ident sting announcing “The Big And Daft Show”, followed by about fifteen seconds of Rob making fart noises with his hands, before saying “Will that do for the trailer?” and Jon and I saying it perhaps wasn’t suitable, ending with another ident sting “The Big And Daft Show, Saturdays at noon, on BBC London”.
I’ll wait whilst you finish laughing…
Now, apparently this had appalled the previously mentioned call in presenter, and he had decreed loudly on his show that he had never heard of us, that we sounded awful and that somebody should tell us that farts aren’t funny. Which I really wish I had an audio clip of. As was my nature, and still sometimes is, I immediately set about plotting my counter attack, which meant listening to this presenter’s show.
It was Jon Gaunt, who nowadays spends the bulk of his time on twitter trying to sell a diet plan that appears to have been pilfered from other sources. This is before we take into account that he perhaps doesn’t have the physique to be giving dietary advice, but let’s not get sidetracked at this juncture. If you ever listened to Peacock & Gamble on Fubar, then you’ll know that the battles resumed many years later, ending with defeat for Gaunt due to a far more even playing field. This is the origin of how the battles started though.
I listened to his show. He was ranty, provocative and pushed buttons, throwing out ridiculous propositions on the news in order to goad people into calling in, which he did very successfully. If you took away the foulness of the attitude and opinion, the technicalities were a winner. People were calling in. After a few hours of baiting and shouting, with very little sign of reasonable discussion or debate, he signed off his show with the saccharine, beyond parody, catchphrase “If you’ve got kids, give them a kiss, give them a hug, and never stop telling them you love them”. Something like that. It seemed that nothing was off limits in his repertoire, no opinion too right wing or vindictive, except when it came to cruelty to kids. A latter day Bernard Manning, who famously would joke about anything except “crippled kiddies”….
Suffice to say, my counter was quickly in place.
It would be fair to say, that we were quickly given the nod that there was a fair bit of dislike around the staff of the station for Gaunt. We heard bits of – possibly apocryphal - tales of his having meltdowns, threatening folk, and one story about him pushing someone down the stairs, which may or may not have happened, but the nastiness I’ve had directed at me, and seen directed at others, doesn’t inspire any feeling of wanting to leap to his defence. He was thoroughly unpleasant, and it seems pathological in him to this day to lash out and screech (he really does have a screechy voice).
His dismissal of us, for all our bravado, had wounded us. As I say, we were pretty out of our depth, and had been given nothing but nurture and support from the other presenters we’d met, yet here was this loudmouth , middle-England oaf, calling us out before we’d even started. You may know that I’m not really one for being trod on, and the three of us united were far more formidable than our childishness suggested. It rather inspired us to raise the bar.
The first show was another belter. We caned through it, never finding ourselves lost for content, and Jon Williams had the task of making sure we hit the news and travel and all that sort of thing, whilst Rob and I mucked about. The roles we’d inhabited in our stage show, came full circle and naturally slotted into the new format. Julia came through to the studio regularly to tell us how well it was going, how she was getting great feedback and plenty of calls were stacked up. It was genuinely exciting. As we wound down the show at 1:59, thanked all our guests and callers, with the countdown to travel already started, I said “And don’t forget, if you’ve got kids…give'em a slap, show’em who’s boss”. Turn out his catchphrase wasn’t beyond pardoy at all. I continued... "There you go Jon Gaunt, you said you'd never heard of us, now you've heard of us..."
I have two favourite parts to this. Firstly, the look on Julia’s face through the glass, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, and secondly, the fact that the lady doing the travel was laughing as she began her bulletin, and had to take a moment to compose herself.
From that moment on, every week, he was having pops at us. Under his skin already, after he'd started the ball rolling with his dismissal of our show before it started. We were firing back and undermining him and his show (like Ed and I did on Fubar, but a little less adult). People would call our show and slag him off, stirring the pot. We would get occasional messages from “upstairs” to tone it down, so we would do that for ten minutes before resuming. It was frustrating Julia, because it was derailing our shows, but…well… you can’t let people like that get away with it, can you?
The shows were genuinely great for the most part though. We got to interview Kenny Baker, who had unknowingly inspired our puppet alter-egos, and finally ask him if he did indeed like ladies and beer (he did), we had somebody call every week who was in love with their budgie, I recall having a lovely time on air with the weather presenter Iain McCaskill, and there was definitely a guest who was obsessed with bricks.
(Can I just point out that the feature above from the Sunday Times Culture Section was always called "A Good Face For Radio" no matter who was interviewed...it wasn't specifically for me...)
When I think about it properly, other than Renta-gob, everybody at BBC London liked us a lot. We were pals with everyone. I even used to pathetically turn up to the studio an hour early to flirt with Emily Maitless, who always came for a chat and I'd fallen a bit in love with her. Danny Baker was effusive with his praise for us on his show, and insisted on doing a handover on air to give us more of a fighting chance. This wasn’t just professional courtesy, they were willing us to succeed. Over the years, I’ve had a memory of BBC London being a rather restrictive environment, perhaps compounded by some of my subsequent experiences with BBC Radio, but on reflection (and a reappraisal after speaking with Jon recently), they were kind of abnormally supportive of three very inexperienced radio personalities. I should clarify that by “inexperienced” I mean we had zero radio experience. We had no business presenting a flagship programme on what was once the utterly credible GLR station.
They liked us so much, that when Danny Baker went on holiday, they gave us the breakfast show. That's a really big deal, and a huge vote of confidence. An amazing prospect, until we were instructed to do a handover with the show following it. Which was Gaunt.
Management thought, stupidly, that this would provide some sort of solidarity, and be an olive branch between the warring presenters. It actually turned into high noon. I mean, it was an extraordinarily stupid decision. Not helped, by the way, by the fact that our listeners were calling us the Saturday before it, and asking what we were going to do when he came onto our show. Julia was clearly getting worried, and was trying to calm the situation, telling us not to be drawn in. I remember saying “if he’s pleasant and professional, I’ll be pleasant and professional”…
He wasn’t, and so neither were we. Here's how it played out.
At the end of our first breakfast show, he strolled into the studio. Not in a break, but when we were halfway through something else, and just started shouting. Just all Lord of the Manor-ish, dismissing people, making fun of how people looked, giving it the full Alpha, with a level of tedium that he's never matured from. He then started saying what he had coming up on his show, and declared that there was a housing project for paedophiles opening near a school in South London.
“What do you think of that?” he barked, throwing down the gauntlet (no pun intended).
Now. We had been mucking about for three hours at this point, having a laugh and being lighthearted and mischievous. There was nothing in our show that had pointed to there ever being a serious section on the way about the validity of re-housing sex offenders. The three minutes that followed Gaunt’s subtlety-of-a-sledgehammer conversation starter, were a spiral of complete loss of control. There was the suggestion that we thought it was “good he had somewhere to go”, followed by the hissed accusation that we were “three sub-Chris Morris jerks”, whilst Julia shouted into the headphones for us to put a song on. Gaunt had lost his rag completely, in much the same way that ended up getting him booted off proper radio forever when he called a counsellor a nazi on TalkSport. I’d got my shoulders back and was staring him out, our Jon had his head in his hands, and Rob was giggling. We had this bloke totally rattled. He was purple with rage. For somebody who presents himself as such a robust, straight-talking shock jock, he remains the easiest person I’ve ever encountered to throw off their stride into uncontrollable fits of anger, rage and – ultimately – sulking.
The official warnings were distributed that very afternoon. Three for us (one each), and one for him. The next day, Gaunt came into the studio baffled, asking us if we’d have official warnings and saying that he thought it had been really good radio. It wasn’t though. I heard it back recently. It really wasn’t. It was also too late for him to try and buddy up with us. We knew what he was.
We never felt secure at that station again. My paranoia about industry was now considered “just what Ian is like”, and like the boy who cried wolf etc etc. In August, Rob was doing a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I was in The Comedy Zone, which meant we had to sort out what would happen to our show for that month. Julia was very keen to make sure we didn't surrender the show to cover presenters, which retrospectively may be a clue that she had an inkling that something was on the cards.
The first Saturday of the fringe, Jon presented the show in London on his own, and despite having Brian Blessed as a guest, hated it. The next Saturdays of the fringe, Jon came up and we did an Outside Broadcast from the Gilded Balloon, with a cavalcade of top guests, which was just not fun. It was in the box office, that same place where four years previously we’d been flyering our first ever show, completely unknown but gaining a following rapidly, and having the most exciting journey into an unknown world that we weren’t scared of. Now we were having to hit travel on time, with a producer who wasn’t even hiding her frustrations any more.
We came back to London and did one more Saturday show. I couldn’t tell you anything about it, but Rob was going to be away for a couple of Saturdays after it, so Jon and I were gonna present the next two shows as a duo. In the car park outside the studio, as we said goodbye to Rob, I had a strong feeling that we wouldn’t do another radio show. I think I even said it. That was the last time the three of us were all in the same place together, to this day. September 2002.
Julia called on Monday. They weren’t continuing with the show. Effective immediate. No reason was given.
Of course, I had the last laugh, as I went on to be a huge success in alternative broadcasting with my podcasts, and whatever happened to her? She was the head of Radio 4 last time I heard.
When I put that phone down though, Big And Daft was finally dead. I’ll tell you about the aftermath next time.
Have a lovely Saturday please – thanks for indulging these memoirs if you’ve gotten this far.