Simon Mayo will have you know that he is no idiot - he has a degree in history and politics from Warwick Univer-sity - and certainly no one could accuse him of overdoing it on the personality front. Not the day I interviewed him at any rate. He emerged, haggard and squinting into the sunlight from the bowels of Radio 1's recording studio like a man who had just done a 12-hour shift in the Accounts Dept of Hell. "Signature sweaters", novelty specs and the other impedimenta of his profession were eschewed for a businesslike suit, shirt and tie. His handshake was exhausted, his manner mildly testy.
Perhaps it is being a repository for the nation's sins that has taken its toll on Mayo. The Radio 1 DJ has just propelled himself onto primetime television as host of Confes-sions, the new BBC1 Saturday-night game-show that makes rivals, such as Cilla Black's Blind Date, seem positively edifying. "Father Simon" forces guilty secrets from the bosom of contestants with a jaunty sadism that owes more to Jeremy Beadle than to Torquemada. The sins unburdened on this trial-by-humiliation range from the locker-room laddish to the downright sweet. One blushing boy from Wales owned up to the perfect, utterly pointless crime of hiding a tiny bit of paper in his workmate's lunchtime sandwiches every day over a period of years until his friend had unwittingly digested an entire novel. The TV programme is adapted from the immensely popular radio slot which started out on Simon Mayo's Radio 1 Breakfast Show in 1988 and moved with him to his current mid-morning show on the renamed 1 FM in 1993. The radio series has already spawned four best-selling books. "The show should stimulate after-dinner discussion," Mayo suggests. "That is why it is such a rich seam to mine."
The son of a headmaster and a BBC studio manager, Mayo grew up steeped in broadcast culture. He always intended to follow his mother into radio production but a small hearing defect diverted him to ''the less technical end of the business". He makes a good game-show host. He knows how to get a rise from contestants without being condescending, a skill he has refined since his early days on the airwaves when he would dismiss less coherent callers to his radio programme as "planks". "I like to think that the rudeness I use to people on the show is the way I'm rude to my own family," he explains. ''It's not 'sod-off' humour, it's inclusive humour. You can be rude back to me and that's fine." The current vogue for "shock jocks" abusing their audiences offends Mayo's professional honour. "A lot of the 'shock jock' thing isn't clever, it's just patronising. The other day the Welsh rugby captain was being interviewed, so the DJ started doing a funny Welsh accent and I was just thinking, 'No! Something is fundamentally wrong here; this isn't witty or controversial, it's just crap'."
Mayo takes an equally stern line on the Radio 1 old guard of Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis, Simon Bates et al, who have bemoaned the demise of "their" station. (Bates was volubly bitter when Mayo took over the Breakfast Show.) "Because of the age I am [he is 36] I hate people going on and on about how great the Sixties were. When the time comes for me to leave Radio 1, I hope I'll be able to do it with good grace," he says, a touch primly. "I just got fed up with presenters who owe everything they are to the BBC and Radio 1, but the minute they leave they start putting it around that all the DJs are crap. Noel Edmonds managed to go on to a successful career and you'll never get a bad quote about Radio 1 out of Noel. But there are loads that can't manage it, and it's just sad, really."
Mayo clearly has high ambitions for himself. He speaks the name "Noel" with due reverence. Telly - "proper, big-time mainstream TV" - is, he has no doubt, the way to go. "It's what every DJ wants to do, but the problem is that you can end up taking things that make you look a bit silly and reinforce the idiot image. For the last four years I've been turning down TV ideas because I didn't want to sully the water. Confessions is The Big Idea. This is what I want to be known for." Noel Edmonds is making himself a fortune with Crinkley Bottom merchandising and theme parks. Can a Confessions theme park with slot-machine, thumbscrews and virtual-reality burnings of heretics be far off?
The Messianic zeal which Mayo brings to his career projection is, maybe, the product of a strongly religious upbringing. He grew up in the Evangelical tradition and remains committed to his faith, although he is chary of easy labels like "born again". He goes to church regularly in north London with his wife (Radio 1 producer Hilary Mayo) and two children, but has no desire to use his media profile for proselytising his beliefs. "My faith is too important to discuss in a news-paper article," he says firmly. "Suffice it to say that I'm a traveller. I'm on a journey. I find spirituality a very interesting and exciting area. It seems to me that there there are all these huge questions which anyone with a brain has thought about."
His attempts to drag these huge questions into mainstream pop culture have not always been appreciated by the religious Establishment. His occasional Radio 1 show on spiritual matters, The Big Holy One, featured regular slots such as "The Joy of Sects" and "The Bishop and the Actress". "The whole area of rock'n'roll is very fertile for the discussion of spirituality," says Mayo. "Anybody who is anybody in rock has written about God. If you address these things in a sexy way, then people are going to be interested."
He says his long-term ambition is to host a TV programme called Big Holy Television - ''a magazine programme for the spiritually aware''. "The worst thing that could have happened to religious broadcasting is this 'exclusion zone' of the weekly Sunday God slot [presenting BBC1's Songs of Praise was one of the offers Mayo turned down in deference to his pursuit of The Big Idea]. It would make much more sense to get in there and compete with the motoring programme or the gay programme or any other magazine programme. Unfortu-nately the Church of England and Religous Broadcasting have between them compounded the image that spirit- uality is not something that would be of interest to anyone under the age of 40."
So, for now, Mayo must content himself with leading his flock through the primetime TV quagmire of drinks laced with laxative and stationery thefts on Confessions. Or, as Brecht put it,"Grub first, then morality."
E Jane Dickson
! 'Confessions' is at 7.20pm Saturday, BBC1.Reuse content