Ed Doolan

For the last couple of years I’ve been slowly writing a book about local radio. It’s a travelogue of the UK using local radio stations and I’ve been interviewing people who have stories to tell about the history of local radio. One of the first people I spoke to was Ed Doolan, one of the first voices on local radio in the UK. Sadly last week the news broke that he had died. This is the chapter I wrote when I was invited round to his house in Birmingham, where I spent the afternoon with his manager Paul and his friend Les Ross, who is also one of the key figures in the history of local radio. It was a special experience to spend time with him and I’m posting this to hopefully remind me that it’s an important book to finish and we don’t have forever to get things done.

Ed Doolan and Les Ross.

‘The management worried I wouldn’t get there on time so I had to sleep at Pebble Mill. I had a camper bed in the record library.’
– Les Ross remembering his days presenting the Breakfast Show on BBC Radio Birmingham.

‘Hello John. We’re all ready for you. The fire’s roaring and we’ve prepared some cheese and biscuits.’
I’m in Birmingham to meet two much loved radio personalities from the early days of local radio. It was their agent, Paul Vaughan who arranged it all. Vaughan also represents Chris Tarrant. I’d been in touch asking if Chris would be interested in talking to me for a book about local radio. ‘Absolutely,’ was Paul’s reply. He said Chris was busy at the moment but he had spoken to him and knew he was always keen to talk about his radio days. He didn’t often get a chance to talk about them. People were always more interested in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Tizwas. “I do represent a couple of other radio stars by the way,” he told me. “Ed Doolan and Les Ross. You’ve probably never heard of them but if you’re writing a book about local radio you have to meet them. I’ll arrange everything if you can find a day to come over. Bring a tape player, press record, sit back and let them talk.”
Ed Doolan helped launch the commercial Midlands station BRMB on February 19, 1974, before switching to BBC West Midlands in 1982. Les Ross joined BBC Radio Birmingham when the station launched in 1970. His show was soon the most listened to show on the station. It’s Ed’s house the four of us are meeting.
‘The house is easy to find,’ Paul tells me when I call to say I’m a few minutes away. ‘You can park on the driveway behind my BMW.’
‘It’s called The Les Ross,’ Les Ross explains, showing me a photograph of a train that has been named after him. ‘They presented it to me when I did my last radio show for BRNB. I’ve always loved trains and we did the whole show live on the platform at Birmingham International Station. I pulled back the curtain and unveiled my train. It says Peter Pan on one side and Les Ross on the other.’
‘You will meet Chris …’ Paul promises, handing me a plate of cheese. ‘But first of all you have to put up with these two,’ he says, beaming a smile at his two colleagues on their armchairs. ‘These two were there at the beginning of local radio. Ed was there on the first day of commercial radio in Birmingham. Les came along for an interview at the old BBC studios on Broad Street and all these rather pompous people said [adopting a generic posh accent] “his voice is not suitable for broadcasting,” but Jack Johnson, who was the first manager at the station said “that’s exactly what I want. Sign him.” But people thought “you can’t possibly have a voice like that on the wireless.”
Les laughs. ‘I remember after a couple of years the Director General of the BBC, Sir Ian Trethowan wrote to Jack. He said he’d been travelling through the west Midlands and asked his driver to switch on the local radio station … “and I heard your breakfast presenter Lesley Ross. Is this really the kind of person we should have on the radio?” So Jack called me into his office and in his thick Glaswegian accent said ‘I’ve had a letter from the Director General … and it’s about you!’ He read out the letter and said “what do we make of that?” I thought oh God I’m dead. And Jack said “I shall reply. Before I send the reply I will let you see it.” I thought crikey. My days are numbered. I wish I had a copy of the letter,’ Les says, still delighted by its content.
‘”Dear DG. I am most gratified that someone in your position should care enough to tune into local output while travelling around. As for your remarks on Lesley Ross … since the very first show I have never had any doubt of his ability. I have taken into account your remarks but he will continue to present the breakfast programme.’
‘Good for him’ says Paul, clapping his hands together. ‘Can you imagine BBC management doing that now? These were determined managers who knew what they were doing. Johnson said nonsense to his bosses. He knew you had to reflect the local area.’

‘When I did the Breakfast Show the hours were ridiculous,’ Les tells me. ‘5 am until 9.30. The management worried I wouldn’t get there on time so I had to sleep in the building at Pebble Mill. I had a camper bed in the record library. Ha! The security man would come and give me a knock. The newsreader Kevin Morrison slept under a table in the record library. I was lucky; I got the luxury of a folding bed! We were cohabiting! It seems extraordinary now!’
Les, chuckling at the image of himself at Pebble Mill in the early hours heads off to make us all cups of tea, giving Paul another opportunity to pass the plate of cheese and biscuits around. It also allows him to introduce Ed Doolan properly. Paul had explained over email when he first suggested we all meet that Ed was not well. He’s been battling dementia for the last eighteen months. “We don’t know how much you’ll get out of him,” Paul had warned. “He’s spent his whole career talking … but it’s hard now.”
‘Ed had realised he wasn’t going to get further up the tree at Radio Deutsche Welle,’ Paul says, getting up from his armchair to perch on the edge of Ed’s chair, using his hands to encourage him, allowing him to take his time. Paul’s manner makes the situation comfortable for all three of us. ‘Like a lot of people Ed realised exciting things were going on in commercial radio. You did all sorts of programmes didn’t you Ed, but the thing that made your name … and I will let you speak in a minute … was your consumer items. You could change gear so well. I remember once there was a Chancellor of the Exchequer, Callaghan or goodness knows who, waiting to be interviewed live on air but Ed was taking a phone-call from a listener. I remember it so clearly. It was a lady saying [adopts Brummie accent] “Hello Ed. You see the thing is … he’s broken my toilet seat.”
‘And Ed said “Who has broken your toilet seat?” and she said ‘The man across the road. I was talking to him and said I needed my ballcock replacing but now he’s broken my toilet seat. He stood on it and broke it.”
“Has he put it right?”
“Yes he’s put it right but he has to pay for it.”
‘So Ed said “well let’s see who is listening and maybe someone can sort that out for you,” and the phone lines started flashing with Fred’s Hardware and goodness knows who else and they said “I’ll come round and sort if for her.” This woman was over the moon; she had her new toilet seat and her ballcock mended and then Ed said “and now I have with me the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chancellor, can you tell me what will be in the autumn statement?”
‘People listened because they wanted to know the denouement of did she ever get her toilet seat fixed?’
‘Milk?’ asks Les, resting a silver tray of china tea cups on the table.
‘Yes please.’
‘No thanks.’
‘More cheese?’

‘Tell John what you did yesterday,’ Paul says, nudging Ed.
‘Yesterday,’ Ed tells me, ‘was The Ed Doolan Christmas Show at the Symphony Hall, 1700 seats, packed. I was pushed onto the stage in my wheelchair and was faced with a standing ovation. The place went nuts.’
‘There is huge affection and respect for you Ed.’
‘It’s nice isn’t it,’ Ed smiles. Paul touches his arm affectionately.
‘I pay tribute to the BBC,’ says Paul, ‘for continuing to employ him because they know the immense value he brings. Ed has been doing fifty minutes a week on Sundays for the last three years.’
‘That’s all I do. All pre-recorded.’
‘The archives he’s got … oh my God. Mention anyone and he’s interviewed them. He’s the only person to have doctorates from all three universities in Birmingham. He’s Dr Dr Dr Doolan.’
‘I was always one for vanity.’
‘One OBE, one MBE. You’ve done some Radio 2 as well haven’t you? You’ve stood in for Jimmy Young. Every radio award that could be given. I’m very proud of these two because they were my first clients, Ed and Les. Their bosses didn’t want to deal with greasy little agents like me. I wasn’t asking for a lot of money, I’d rather my clients had bronze for twenty years than gold for six months. You can impress people by getting them a huge amount but then it begins to go wrong. It doesn’t work. The managing director starts to think “he’s earning more than I am!” We’ve not been greedy … but we’ve done well.’

‘What was your happiest memory in radio?’ Paul asks Ed. ‘Interviewing all the politicians maybe? They all asked to be on your show. General elections, local elections, Ed in the town hall with results being fed into his ear, handling all of it supremely. The next day, back to the lavatory seats and people complaining someone had been rude to them at the petrol station. Then at the end of the show there’d be a denouement. ‘We fixed the lavatory seat, we solved the problem of the holiday prices. We spoke to so and so.’ They all asked to be on your show didn’t they Ed. You’ve spoken several times to Kissinger haven’t you?’
‘I’ve got his phone number in there,’ Ed says, proudly pointing at a leather pad on the table.
‘You never gave them soft interviews. Any of them. And they liked that, they appreciated it because it meant they could come back at you. You didn’t say to Thatcher “well aren’t you very nice Prime Minister and you’re wearing a lovely dress and you’ve got beautiful hair and everything’s going well.” Who did you do? Blair? Callaghan? Ted Heath was terrific. What about you Les? Happiest radio memories?’
‘The problem when you’re asked these kind of questions is it’s hard to think of individual occasions,’ Les says, looking into the air for inspiration and memories. ‘Outside broadcasts were quite rare so by and large that’s what I remember. But to be honest I’m so proud to have actually been on the radio. Me and Ed – it’s what we were born to do. So my highlight is the fact that I got there and I stayed there. Radio is so ephemeral. When we started there wasn’t much choice for listeners, but there was one big one – they could always switch it off. That was a long time ago though. The nature of radio is changing. It’s all so dull. Tony Blackburn had an audience of 20 million! If you did a poll in a school playground in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and asked what the most popular pastime was it would be the charts. People would discuss what was number one and the new entries in the Top 40. That was talked about more than football! But why would a seventeen year old who is interested in music want to listen to someone on the radio telling them what to listen to? They can make their own playlist.’
‘The problem is,’ says Ed, ‘… it’s just not fun anymore. I think we’ve seen the best days.’
‘The stations are teetering,’ says Paul. ‘They can’t set their own budgets. If a company phones up a commercial radio station and says ‘We’d like to pay for some advertising and this is how much we’d like to pay’ you can’t say ‘actually our rate is higher.’ They have to take whatever they can get. Which is why when I’m negotiating for Ed and Les’s successors there’s no chance. There’s no negotiation. They don’t have any budget to play with. Back in the day when I was negotiating I’d sit with the station’s bosses and they’d say “Look, money is very tight at the moment. Ansell’s Brewery over the road are making a lot of people redundant at the moment,” and I’d say “well Ed’s not working for Ansell’s Brewery so I’m not particularly bothered about that!”

‘Let Ed show you his photograph albums, John,’ Paul suggests, surveying the room and seeing a stack of photograph albums and a box of cuttings Ed has next to his chair, placed there in preparation for our afternoon reminiscing about radio. I move my chair so Ed can show me the albums.
‘This is BRNB’s first ever walkathon in 1982. 30,000 people.’
‘Who’s that?’ asks Paul. ‘Is it Sally Thomsett? The Railway Children? She must have been doing panto.’
‘Is he dead?’
‘Yes. Buried in Cyprus.’
‘Who’s that? What was his name? Alan … Alan … Alan who sat outside when he was sacked.’
‘Yep that’s him.’
‘There’s a lot of cool looking people,’ I observe.
‘Well it was the seventies, John,’ Paul tells me, smiling at the flares and big ties. ‘That’s what we looked like! Look there’s Alan Towers. He’s dead now.’
We carry on flicking through. Every photo provokes a different kind of smile or shriek or groan from one of the three friends who remember these days so fondly.
‘These are happy days Ed,’ sings Paul. ‘There’s Bob Monkhouse! Do you remember Bob Monkhouse John? There’s Dame Edna. That’s the walkathon. Princess Anne. Johnny Morris. Do you remember Johnny Morris, John? David Bellamy. Noel Gordon from Crossroads. She was queen of British commercial television. She looked so regal. There’s you and your mum. This one is the launch of the Birmingham Post. That’s Rene and Renata. Oh my word I’ve found all sorts of things here. Doris Stokes. Do you remember Doris Stokes? A medium. She’d pack 3,000 seats, three times a day. She got none of the money. She said well they let me have a new dress. I was round there with a contract for her so quickly. I’d done the sums. She’s still alive. Or at least she was. That’s a comedian whose name I can’t remember. Harry Worth? What’s he doing there? You won’t remember Harry Worth, John. He’s famous for the trick in the window. Ah there’s one of you two together. Les and Ed. Ed and Les. The rivals meet at last. You see – they did know each other! They did team up sometimes even though they were on opposite sides.’
‘We’d do things for the greater good,’ remembers Les, peering over Ed’s shoulder. ‘That’s us at the children’s hospital. I think through the two of us the two stations were able to speak to each other because we got on so well.’
‘The Lord Mayor’s Parade. One year Bob Holness was there. He was absolutely charming. Do you remember Bob Holness, John? Ah Soap. Katherine Helmond. Do you remember Soap, John? Have you heard of it? It was brilliant. That’s a show that’s been forgotten. Who was the lad with the bobbly hair? He’s gone on to do other things.
‘Billy Crystal.‘
‘Yes. I suspect he’s not got bobbly hair anymore. There’s a Christmas tree. Turning on the Birmingham Christmas lights. Did you ever turn them on Ed?’
‘Yes. Once.’
‘I did it twice. Tens of thousands of people.’

After taking some time to absorb the hundreds of photographs I ask about any memorable features from their early days of presenting shows on local radio. Les nods enthusiastically.
‘What you won’t remember is that in the eighties it was incredibly expensive to phone long distance. Your mother would be hovering. As for phoning abroad, people just couldn’t do it. So when I had a Sunday show I started a feature where people could phone abroad. They’d write to me with the phone number of a family member or friend who lived abroad and I’d call them up live on air. “Hello … is that Edna? Edna we’ve got Doris here. “Oh no you haven’t. Doris? How on earth? …” They would just erupt in tears. Often these people hadn’t spoken for years. I think BT sponsored us. It happened by accident. I think a listener had written to me and in the course of the letter mentioned their brother lived in Australia. I must have written back, because you did in those days, but there must have been something about this letter that affected me. I said send me the number and I rang them up on air. It became a feature called Around The World. I’d ask what it was like in Australia. I suddenly had a feature. It lasted ten years. I phoned the Queen Mary. I remember this one guy. I think his name was Edwin. He was a West Indian. He’d emigrated to Erdington in the 1950s. Edwin wrote to me and said “would you ring my brother in Saint Kitts in the West Indies? He’s the Prime Minister of St Kitts.” So I thought wow, a Prime Minister on my programme! So I phoned up Edwin, then phoned up St Kitts, hoping I’d be able to connect them. It was 5 or 6 in the morning in the West Indies but I dialled the number. Sometimes I got a wrong number, which was always fun. Sometimes I’d have a five minute conversation with them because they were so fascinating. The phone rang in St Kitts. Brr. Brr. Brr. You had to get used to the different dialling tones. Then there was an answer. “Hello?”
‘So I said “Hello. I know it’s very early in the morning but I wondered if there was any chance I could speak to the Prime Minister?” He said “Yes. Prime Minister speaking!”
‘What a sentence to say! Prime Minister speaking! So I explained what was going on and said “We’ve got Edwin for you,” and he said “aaah, Edwin!’ It was beautiful. But I don’t imagine if you phoned the Downing Street phone you’d get the Prime Minister answering directly!’
‘And there was the lady … the really good story, don’t miss that out,’ reminds Paul.
‘Ah, yes, of course! I think it was a lady from Edgbaston. I got a lady from … let’s call her Mary Smith. She said can you call my pen pal? She lives in Ontario. They had written to each other for thirty years but had never spoken. Maybe it was the magic of being pen pals or perhaps they just couldn’t afford the cost of the call. It seems hard to believe now. I always felt slightly awkward when pen pals got in touch because it was like I was breaking the spell. So I got Mary, and let’s call her Anne. I had Mary waiting and I was building up the tension for the listeners, explaining they’d written every month for thirty years.
‘A very quiet voice answered. I said “Hello. Is that Anne?”
‘Silence. I said it again. Is Anne there? But then I quickly said “sorry I think I’ve got the wrong number.” But I heard them say “No, no, you’ve got the party line.” Back then you had party lines where people shared the same number. So I said Great! Is there any way of getting her? I’m doing a radio show and I have Anne’s pen pal on the other line. We thought it was time they actually spoke!”
‘This lady … her name was Ruth. She said “Oh Anne has often spoken of Mary.” But then she said “I’m very sorry to have to tell you but Anne died. Three weeks ago. I’m sorry.”’
Les looks at us. ‘I’m actually going cold even thinking about it. Anyway. I heard Mary take a sharp intake of breath. I said to Ruth “Can you hold on a second,” and I said to Mary “I’m so sorry that happened like that.” She said “That’s okay. You weren’t to know.” I said maybe we should stop and let you process the news and I’ll call you later, off air. But Mary said “No, if it’s okay I’d like to talk to this lady.” So I said to this lady is it okay if Mary talks to you? And this lady explained Anne had been taken ill and they spoke to each other about her. In the last letter everything had been hunky dory. They would have been in their sixties. I think Mary was so shocked she couldn’t be upset. It doesn’t kick in until later. When someone dies there are so many people you don’t think about. No-one thinks of the pen pal But eventually she would have started to get concerned or upset that Anne hadn’t written to her for so long. This was a very lucky chance encounter. No-one would have got in touch with her. That’s the magic of radio. They said they’d write to each other. I think I put them together on the phone a few months later because people always talked about it and asked how Ruth was. Anyway. I’d have preferred it didn’t happen, but it did and it was live radio. At the end of the show there was a phone call. It was Ed. He said “Hello mate. Heard the show. Heard the phone call to the lady who died. Well done. I thought you milked it very tastefully.”’
From his armchair Ed nods and suddenly there’s an enormous grin, still enjoying the zing.
‘You handled it brilliantly,’ says Paul. ‘And anyway, you’re in showbiz, not counselling.’
‘That was a special radio moment.’
‘Your listeners must have been glued to the spot,’ I say, remembering a few times I’ve heard something on a radio show or podcast that has left me rooted to my seat.
‘That’s the chance you take. You know in the back of your mind something like that might happen. There were lots of lovely calls. And lots of average ones too. I liked that people were sitting in their Birmingham living rooms having their cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon listening to people on the phone in Australia and Canada and France. We phoned missionaries in Papa New Guinea who had met a tribe of headhunters. “Brummie couple meet headhunters.” That ended up in the local papers. It was a good snapshot of other types of life. People could understand more about the world. We ran up the station phone bill but we got it back in the advertising. Like all best things, it happened by accident.’
‘No. Paul says sharply. ‘It wasn’t an accident. You were astute enough to realise there was something in this. And you owe it all to Jack Johnson when you had that audition in 1970. Because he took that risk and stood up for himself and the things he believed in you had your career.’
‘True. The one thing I didn’t know at the time is the Johnny Beeling story. It was the Sony Awards, I won my third award and I was standing at the gents. Johnny Beeling came in who was then controller of Radio 1. It was the late eighties. He said “Hello Les.” We knew each other a bit. He said “Three Sonys. We missed out very badly there didn’t we! If it wasn’t for that bastard Derek Chinnery.”
‘I said what about Derek Chinnery? We were washing our hands and he said “you don’t know this story, do you?” He said when he was a producer, Chinnery was Controller of Radio 1. Noel Edmonds had just left the Breakfast Show so they had a meeting and drew up a list of people who could replace him. It came downto Mike Read, Dave Lee Travis and me. So they sat down at the meeting with Derek Chinnery, an old school BBC guy who suddenly found himself surrounded by pop music. Johnny said “If I remember rightly ten of the twelve producers all voted for you.” They got the cassette tape that we’d sent over (We were in there like a shot, says Paul) and they listened to one of my shows for a few minutes. Chinnery pressed the stop button. “He’s very amusing … but we’re not having that accent on this network.” Johnny said “What are you talking about? It isn’t a strong accent, we understand what he’s saying.” So I was turned down for the Radio 1 Breakfast Show without realising it. I was only told a few years later, in those toilets at the Grosvenor Hotel. It turned out well though. I’m not saying I would have turned it down. The thing is … I’d had elocution lessons!! They just didn’t want a Brummie.’
‘Birmingham is the only accent I’ve ever struggled with selling,’ Paul tells me. ‘Norwich isn’t a problem. Geordie, Mancunian, fine. But you can’t sell Brummy to the people of Poplar and Maida Vale.’
‘Asking what if is completely pointless,’ says Les. ‘I don’t think I have any regrets. I’d have made more money, but you just don’t know. I’ve had such a charmed life I wouldn’t change a single day. Why would I? If I’d been on Radio 1 it could have not gone right and then there’s only one way.’

Paul starts to tidy away. The plate of cheese and biscuit crumbs and empty cups carried back to the kitchen. Les starts to pack away the photograph albums and cuttings. I’d promised I wouldn’t stay for too long but my Dictaphone is showing I’ve been there for over two hours. It’s time for all of us to go home.
‘We’ll see you on Boxing Day,’ Les says to Ed as they help him off his chair. I thank them for letting me see a glimpse of the early days of local radio.
‘I hope you have milked it all very tastefully John!’
I nod and laugh still overawed by their tales of local radio (and trains). Paul stays for a few more moments with Ed and Les and I walk outside.
‘That’s the most animated we’ve seen him for a long time,’ he explains to me. ‘There were glimpses of the old Ed in there. Only briefly, but he’s definitely still in there.’ He looks delighted to have been able to spend some more time with his old friend. ‘He just loves talking about radio.’

We say goodbye and I get back in my car. I had planned on listening to some local Birmingham stations while I was in town, taking advantage of a full day in the Midlands but it was dark already and after seeing the old photographs it didn’t feel like a day for twenty-first century radio. I wanted to allow myself a few more moments in the world of Bob Holness memories and the thrill of overseas dialling tones and old friends whose lives were made so much happier by the existence of local radio.

Circled in the Radio Times

This is my new show. It’s about watching TV and finding a collection of old copies of the Radio Times. ‘A new storytelling show from the creator of John Peel’s Shed about how finding a collection of old copies of the Radio Times leads to him piecing together the life of the previous owner, and looks at the changing nature of the way all of us watch television.’

Here’s some chances to see the show:

Sunday 30th April. Machynlleth Comedy Festival.

Friday 12th May. 7.30 pm. Clapham Omnibus. London.

26th – 29th May. 6 pm. Brighton fringe. The Warren.

Edinburgh festival. 5th – 27th August (not 16th). Voodoo Rooms. 1.30 pm.

Artwork, as ever, is by the supertalented Katie Pope.

John Peel’s Shed, Weds 22nd March 2017, Norwich Arts Centre

I’m doing a one-off version of John Peel’s Shed this month in aid of the British Red Cross. Last year I wrote an article for Mosaic, a science magazine run in association with The Wellcome Trust. I wrote about the effect technology has on homesickness. As part of the research I spent time with some people who worked for the British Red Cross. I wanted to know about the way homesickness affects a range of people in the twenty-first century. It was quite incredible to hear the amount people who work there do to help refugees settle into their new lives. You can read the article here.

John Peel’s Shed is a show I first performed at the Edinburgh festival in 2011 and went on tour the following year and was adapted for Radio 4. I still perform it occasionally because it’s a show I love so much, and Norwich Arts Centre have kindly let me do the show in aid of The British Red Cross. It’s on Weds 22nd March and it’s ‘pay what you like’. Book your tickets here.

2017 performances

Weds 22nd Feb. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at York Playhouse.

Thursday 23rd Feb. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at The New Wolsey, Ipswich.

Weds 22nd March. John Peel’s Shed at Norwich Arts Centre. A one-off event to raise money for The Red Cross.

Friday 7th April. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Oxford Playhouse.

Saturday 8th April. Fundraiser at Beccles Public Hall, with Yanny Mac and Patrick Lappin.

Tuesday 11th April. Louder than Words presents John Peel’s Shed. The Ship Inn. Sheffield.

Weds 12th April. Louder than Words presents John Peel’s Shed. Pontefract.

Weds 10th May. Poetry event in Bridgend with Rhian Edwards.

Friday 26th May. EDINBURGH PREVIEW. Circled in The Radio Times. Brighton fringe. The Warren. 6 pm.

Saturday 27th May. EDINBURGH PREVIEW. Circled in The Radio Times. Brighton fringe. The Warren. 6 pm.

Sunday 28th May. EDINBURGH PREVIEW. Circled in The Radio Times. Brighton fringe. The Warren. 6 pm.

Bank Holiday Monday 29th May. EDINBURGH PREVIEW. Circled in The Radio Times. Brighton fringe. The Warren. 6 pm.

Weds 14th June. Louder than Words presents John Peel’s Shed, The Woolpack Inn, York.

Thursday 15th June. Louder than Words presents John Peel’s Shed. Wakefield Beer Exchange.

Thursday 13th July. Circled in the Radio Times at Latitude Festival.

Friday 28th, Saturday 29th July. Poems at the poetry tent at Port Eliot festival, Cornwall, alongside Ross Sutherland, Luke Wright, Rosy Carrick, Hollie McNish and Caroline Bird.

Sunday 30th July. John Peel’s Shed at Womad festival.

Edinburgh 5th – 26th August. BRAND NEW SHOW. Circled in The Radio Times. Voodoo Rooms. 1.30 pm.

Monday 7th August. Voodoo Rooms poetry gig with Luke Wright, Jemima Foxtrot and Rob Auton.

Sunday 10th September. Circled in the Radio Times at Morecambe fringe.

Wednesday 11th October. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Pocklington Arts Centre.

Tuesday 24th October. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Stamford Arts Centre.

No-one cares about your new thing


The very nice people at Go Faster Stripe have published my new poetry book. It’s called No-one cares about your new thing. It’s been the most enjoyable little project to put together, the artwork is by Katie Pope who I’ve worked with a few times now and hopefully this will be the first of a billion books we can all do together. It’s a very nice looking book and it’s good to have something out that people can buy again.

You can take a look and buy for a fiver here.

The 1998 David Bowie fan club picnic

I’ve made a new story – The 1998 David Bowie fan club picnic. It’s about love and loss, booze and picnics, friendship and Bowie. It was recorded for Future Radio and was a really fun thing to put together. I made it with Laura Woodward, who I worked with on After Hours. She’s brilliant and I’ve wanted to work with her on something for ages so this was a very nice thing to create, especially scoring it with Bowie songs. Hopefully there’ll be a chance to do more shows with Future Radio and with Laura.

You can listen to it here.


The day Caroline Aherne was in my sitcom

This morning as the two people who sit opposite me at work took off their jackets and logged onto their computers they talked about the death of Caroline Aherne. They talked about Mrs Merton and ‘Scorchio’ and the episode of The Royle Family when Nana dies and how sad they were when they heard the news on Saturday evening. I don’t tell them that I was involved in the last show Caroline ever appeared in. They wouldn’t believe me. I’m a data entry guy. A minimum wage temp who doesn’t iron his shirt because what’s the point? So I’ve decided to write this instead. A happy memory from the summer of 2014 when I spent a day with Caroline Aherne.

It was a show called After Hours. My friend Molly and I went to a pub one night and after a few rums we decided to see what happened if we tried to write a sitcom. Both of us are writers, both of us like sitcoms, both of us were in the mood for a new project. We talked about what the sitcom might be like. We agreed it had to be warm and funny and it had to have a cool soundtrack. A sitcom for 6Music listeners, we decided. We didn’t talk about anything else for the next few weeks, which turned into a few years, and it ended up changing our lives. We wrote an episode and started to think about sending it to production companies. I knew from my friend the excellent radio presenter Geoff Lloyd that Craig Cash had his own production company, Jellylegs, and was on the lookout for scripts. I emailed our episode one to Geoff, who was happy to pass it on. Craig emailed us back two days later. ‘Geoff sent me your script. I love it. I promise you I won’t rest until it’s on TV.’ He invited us to meet him in London. We drank wine and talked about sitcoms, writing, life and music. Craig helped shape our script into something special and when Lucy at Sky 1 shared Craig’s enthusiasm it felt like things were happening. There was still a long way to go but it looked like the ideas we talked about that night drinking rum in the pub were going to become a reality.

One night we got an email from Craig. ‘I gave my friend Caroline your script today. I hope you don’t mind. I trust her opinion implicitly and she doesn’t pull any punches. She just phoned to say how much she loved it. We can’t both be wrong.’ He said it felt they’d just discovered a new band and they were the only people to know about them. Molly and I didn’t stop glowing for a year. After commissioning scripts for two more episodes, Sky liked them enough to commission three more, and if they liked those they said they’d greenlight a series. Knowing that Caroline would be reading these new scripts gave us such an extra buzz and incentive. It was the best feeling. When redrafting one episode Craig noticed we’d taken out a line he liked. He emailed us. ‘You need to put that back in. That’s Caroline’s favourite line.’ A script has never been re-edited so quickly.

I like to think Craig saw something of him and Caroline reflected in Molly and me. A boy and a girl who got on well, liked a drink and were determined to achieve things with our lives. I was always delighted to think that maybe I would be Craig to Molly’s Caroline Aherne. Or maybe he just saw us as Molly and John. Maybe that would be just as big a compliment. I don’t think our show would have been made if it wasn’t for Craig. I think he saw things in our writing that other people would have missed. We didn’t go for belly laughs or anything silly. We wanted characters with soul and sadness, with futures and histories. We wanted to make our audience smile and feel something inside. Whatever we had, Caroline saw it too. It probably helped that as soon as we knew Craig was involved we watched The Royle Family and Early Doors back to back. We were being given a masterclass in how to write a sitcom. The main piece of advice was to keep on doing what we were doing. So that’s what we did. Hours and hours of sitting at the kitchen table trying to pinpoint the funniest possible way of phrasing a sentence. All the megabytes of old messages in our Gmails accounts, emailing each other with possible storylines, ‘what about if …’ Soon we had six full episodes and after a lot of anxious waiting it was eventually decided that yeah, let ’em have a go. The series was going to be made.

In-between the series being commissioned and the first day of filming both my mum and Caroline Aherne were diagnosed with cancer. My mum didn’t make it. When he heard the news Craig sent roses to our house. My mum knew I was in safe hands though. I had Molly and Craig and Caroline looking out for me. Good things were going to happen. Caroline had a longer battle. When she spoke publicly about how valuable her McMillan nurse had been every relative of someone who has suffered with the illness nodded along in agreement, with no idea how they would have coped if it wasn’t for these special, robust guardian angels giving advice and somehow turning such a bleak experience into a positive one. We were about to start auditioning for the sitcom we had written. The worst thing that had ever happened to me was happening at the same time as the best. One of the things my mum’s nurse said to me was how important it was to write things down rather than bottle them up. It feels good sometimes. Words appear on your piece of paper and you think thank God they’re not inside me anymore.

Caroline asked to appear on our show. She had been very ill but was on the mend. In a very odd twist of fate, possibly arranged by a McMillan nurse, there was one role we hadn’t cast yet. Sheila. It was a very unrewarding role for an actor – there were no lines, she just had to look proudly at her husband Geoff, played by John Thomson. (I promise the other female roles are much more fully formed than this). The day before filming those scenes Molly and I were sitting with Craig when John Thomson came over.
‘Any idea who will be playing my wife?’ he asked. Craig nodded.
‘It’s Caroline.’

John Thomson is one of the funniest people I have ever met. A relentless storyteller who treated everyone on set like his best friend whether he’d known them for twenty years or they were the work experience catering assistant. I loved being in his company but this is the one time I ever saw him unable to say anything.
Craig nodded.
John’s stunned expression turned into a beautiful smile. He was going to be able to be with his old friend again. Word got around set quickly. Lynne, the costume designer came over to me and Molly. ‘Is it true about Caroline?’ She told us about working with those guys on The Royle Family. She had worked with Craig ever since. So many people on our set were part of the Craig and Caroline family. Practically every crew member was a funny, self-deprecating, talented, adorable human being, cherry-picked for this project. Dickheads didn’t stand a chance. For a lot of people like me and Molly, as well as the cast of young actors – James, Laura, Georgina and Fergus – this world was very new to us but because of the culture Craig had nurtured over the past 25 years we felt as comfortable as people who had been there since the ‘oh Anthony’ days. The next morning things were different as Molly and I drove onto set. We were slightly more nervous than usual. And then we saw her. Caroline, sitting in a community centre in Marple where we were filming that day’s scenes. Craig waved us over. ‘Come and meet Caroline.’ Those words were as overpowering as the day he phoned Molly and me to say ‘Sky have commissioned a series. After Hours is going to be on TV. It’s happening.’

The final scene of the day was an ensemble piece. At the end of episode six there’s a gig in the community centre and afterwards the characters have to clean the place up. In the script it says something like ‘Geoff and Sheila walk around with bin bags.’ When we wrote that scene we can’t have expected its significance. As far as I know it was the last scene Caroline filmed for television. Her and John Thomson, who had been good friends since the nineties, long before fame and success had appeared, side by side once again. John said to her ‘So this is where our careers have ended up’ and Caroline laughed and gave him a cuddle and they walked around arm in arm with bin bags as the scene unfolded around them.

It ended up being a deleted scene. Maybe that’s appropriate. The episode was too long and like many scenes we loved and had poured our hearts into, in the end there just wasn’t enough time and now they only exist on the hard drives of our laptops. I hope one day I’ll be able to make more things for TV but even if I am lucky enough for one of my ideas to be taken further, After Hours will be a hard thing to live up to. Not because it’s been particularly successful, our mantelpieces are untroubled by awards, we have not had to get a special scrap book to keep all the clippings. But those who have seen it really like it. It was special and I have to keep trying to produce something else just as good again because that’s what my mum and Caroline would be telling me to do, and I don’t know what else I’d do with my evenings if I wasn’t writing stories and scribbling things in notebooks. But it’s hard. TV is a hard world and it’s hard to get people to read the things you write. But maybe one day I’ll overhear two people talking about Caroline Aherne and I’ll be able to say I met her once. I worked with her for a day. She was sensitive and kind and her smile made everyone’s cheeks glow.

Life is short and opportunities are rare. Make the most of them and look after the people around you. That’s a horrible cliched way to end an article but sometimes that’s okay. I used up all my good writing. I poured it all into After Hours. Too often it feels like we don’t really have anything left.

After Hours was written and created by Molly Naylor and John Osborne. It was on Sky One in November 2015 and directed by Craig Cash.

Caroline’s final scene: (clip courtesy of Sky 1 / Jellylegs)

day 1


More After Hours photos can be found here.

2016 performances.

Here are details of some live work I’m doing this year…

For more information (or to book me) my email is johninbrigg@yahoo.co.uk

Thursday January 21st. Forked Bar, Plymouth, with Molly Naylor. 8 pm.

Saturday January 23rd. The Lowry. Salford, with Molly Naylor. 8 pm.

Wednesday March 16th. Upstairs at The Western, with Jess Green. 8 pm.

Friday May 6th. The Osborne and After festival in Shropshire celebrating the work of the playwright John Osborne.

Saturday May 28th. PULSE festival. The Fidelity Wars – preview of a new show about osbcure indie band Hefner.

Tuesday May 31st. Poetry at the How the light gets in festival, Hay-on-Wye.

Friday 3rd June. Three Shows from Radio 4 at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.

Saturday 4th June. Literary Death Match with Will Smith, Salena Godden and Andy Riley at Stoke Newington Literary Festival.

Thursday 16th June. New poems Altered Feast at the Birdcage, Norwich – with Byron Vincent.

15-17th July. Latitude festival. Poems and stories.

Saturday 10th August. Spoken word at Bestival with Scroobius Pip.

Thursday 15th September. Hauser and Wirth, Bruton, supporting Michael Horowitz.

25th September. Poetry with Molly Naylor and James Grady in Rugby.

Wednesday 28th Septebmer. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at The West End Centre, Aldershot.

Tuesday 18th October. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Sheffield Crucible.

Friday 21st October
. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Wymondham Words Festival.

Thursday 27th October. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Clapham Omnibus.

Friday 28th October. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Tom Thumb Theatre, Margate.

Wednesday 23rd November
. 3 Stories from Radio 4 at Norwich Arts Centre.

Bob Mills talks about football

I love Bob Mills. He was on talkSPORT the other day with Paul Hawksbee. They were talking about supporting lower league and non league teams. Bob Mills said something that really struck me, so I thought I’d post it up here.

‘Me and my son have been going to the football since he was little. We’ve got a bunch of mates. There’s probably about eight of them. They’ve known my son since he was nine. He’s just finished university – he’s in his twenties now. Apart from their names, we know nothing about each other. We don’t know what any of them do for a living some of them I don’t even know their full names, they’re just called something like Silent Peter. It’s a wonderful thing. Sometimes on the forums they’ll say so and so’s passed away. I’ve been to two funerals where I walk in and I don’t know anyone. None of the friends or family, but I knew the geezer because he was the old boy who would stand in the corner. It’s a wonderful fraternity. There is a freemasonry of football that other people don’t get. They don’t understand. My wife will say who are these blokes you talk about? What happens when you go to the football? I say well I go and stand at the back of the wooden stand and he doesn’t stand with me, he stands with the younger kids cos that’s where he likes watching from. It’s this whole life. At one of the funerals I heard a wonderful eulogy – someone from the supporters club got up. He said I’ve never met any of his family. all I know is the last time I saw him was at the football six weeks ago. He was with his son and his grandson and if that’s my last memory, I’ll be more than happy. It’s a wonderful thing that exists. Friends you know nothing about but a shared love of football.’

6 Music and David Bowie

As soon as I hear David Bowie has died I put on Shaun Keaveny’s BBC 6 Music show. He reads out tributes with tears in his throat. He plays Bowie’s Where are we now and when he fades up his mic there’s a pause as he realises he is in air broadcasting the death of David Bowie. Him and the station’s music reporter Matt Everitt are like any two work colleagues on a Monday morning. ‘I can’t believe it.’ Sad shake of head.

Two hours later the news has still not sunk in. It’s not turned out to be a hoax or misinformation. From the studio we hear sniffs and intakes of breath and bewilderment. We take these people for granted. Bowie. Health. The BBC. Luckily right now we have 6 Music. People who had Ziggy Stardust posters on the walls of their student bedrooms are 6 Music listeners now. Shaun admits the normal show he had planned for the morning seems ‘tawdry nonsense … the usual rubbish’. Keaveny, as ever is self effacing and the whole morning he conveys listeners’ feelings undercutting the gravitas with a dry sense of humour, of which Bowie of course had plenty. They play a clip from his appearance on Extras and Twitter is full of links to a photo of him reading Viz and his appearance on TFI Friday in the nineties. We can only deal with things Bowie-related this morning. Even the weather report seems inappropriate, although fittingly there is a cold front coming in. It’s a cold Monday morning. There are roadworks on the M4 southbound, each car no doubt blaring out a Best of Bowie CD rummaged for in the glove compartment.

Luckily Bowie’s back catalogue is a fitting soundtrack to a grim occasion. Oh You Pretty Things seems particularly poignant, as does Lou Reed’s Bowie produced Satellite of Love. If Bowie touched it or influenced it, 6 Music is playing it, although that is their general output anyway. It’s a sad, sad morning and we are all sharing this news together. Shaun Keaveny is being forced to process it all, allowing it to sink in at the same time as the rest of us, waiting for our toast to pop and for the bathroom to be free, clicking on YouTube links to people’s favourite Bowie songs.

The breaking news is no easier for those working on other BBC stations. Nicky Campbell announces it on BBC Five Live. There is a few seconds of dead air, shuffling papers while thoughts are articulated to make sure every word that comes out is in no way ambiguous or misconstrued. He takes time for his voice to be that of a professional broadcaster rather than a music fan but it is clear he is both. It is rare you hear a radio presenter’s voice shake with emotion. It’s like seeing a police officer running; you know this is serious. The BBC Five Live jingle is far too cheerful. The reports of FA Cup shocks and Golden Globe winners seem almost insultingly bland. It’s not. It’s not important whether Kolo Toure is going to be fit for Liverpool’s game against Arsenal on Wednesday. Right now there is only one piece of news people can focus on (although it is looking hopeful he will play).

Unlike the breakfast show presenters whose task it was to break the news live to their listeners, Lauren Laverne has had a couple of hours to digest the news and get some fresh air. She is in the unique position of being the person to be communicating with a nation of heartbroken souls. There will be private tears at the desks of open plan offices and on train station platforms and on the motorways and A-roads as people digest the loss.

I look at my to-do list for today but accept that none of it will get done, but that doesn’t matter. Laverne reads out stories listeners send in. One is from a listener who has always had a rocky relationship with her dad but the one thing they always shared was David Bowie. She’s excited about introducing her daughter to Bowie for the first time. There’s the story of Bowie’s first ever drummer who quit the band because it clashed with when he played football. Bowie and Tony Visconti tried to persuade him he was making the wrong decision but he was determined. Bowie stayed in touch with him for the rest of his life. Sent him a christmas card every year. Invited him to stay with him whenever he was in New York. Among the over-arty sentiment starting to appear online I’m pleased that one listener tweets in to declare Bowie ‘The best ever David’.

People email in about being an outsider. They had battled with being gay but the fact that Bowie existed made their life so much more bearable. People who suffered with depression and in dark times hadn’t known how they were going to cope said they were still around because his albums were there for them. There is such resonance to the opening bars of Bowie songs.

‘If you want to speak to us, we’re here,’ Lauren says and plays Life on Mars. It’s a life’s work – choosing your favourite Bowie song. I realise at some stage Lauren Laverne’s accent has changed. Only slightly and only for a few minutes but it’s when she’s talking about her love of McCartney and Bowie. It reminds me of my mum. She was from the north east too. When we were little we’d occasionally hear her on the phone to my grandma. We knew something big was going on when she had ‘gone all Geordie.’ For a brief moment Laverne is Kenickie-Lauren. Teenager-in-Sunderland-music-obsessed-punka-Lauren. It never leaves you. Our accents and attitudes and tastes in music change but it does not take much for us to be a child again. For Keaveny and Laverne and Nicky Campbell and presenters of local stations and community stations throughout the UK and across the world sitting in front of microphones, scrolling their smartphones, headphones (cans) round their neck, all of them reacting to this news, deep breaths and glasses of water while the songs are on.

Lauren, her accent gulped down with a couple of mouthfuls of Evian tells us coming up at 1 pm is a special show Mark Radcliffe is putting together. There is no-one more suited to talking about Bowie, not just as the country’s most accomplished and articulate music broadcaster but as someone with a wealth of Bowie anecdotes from numerous encounters. I’m going to stop writing this now so I can listen to it. It’s the only thing on my newly revised to-do list.

John Osborne is the author of Radio Head, up and down the dial of British radio as well as shows about radio including John Peel’s Shed and Sky 1 sitcom After Hours (written with Molly Naylor and directed by Craig Cash). @johnosradiohead