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.
‘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.
‘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?’
‘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.