Court Of The Phone-In King

From being a hairy cornflake on Radio One, the host of 'Wheel of Fortune' has become the nation's favourite interrogator of leading politicians. Who does Nicky Campbell think he is?
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The Independent Culture
WE ARE 20 MINUTES into Nicky Campbell's morning show on Radio Five Live. The subject of today's phone-in, provoked by the Prime Minister's speech to the Labour conference the day before, is zero tolerance of crime. It's bog- standard phone-in fare, but it can make for compulsive, combustible radio. Round about now, at 9.20, says the producer, a bear of a man with cropped grey hair, you usually get your first woman caller. Today, even though a majority of the listeners are women, it's all men on the phone lines. The first woman doesn't call until 9.41, and she goes straight to the top of the queue. The second follows at 9.43. Surprisingly, she is a pensioner. It is policy on Five Live to keep elderly callers off the air - they don't form part of the network's listener profile. But this one has a passport onto the show in the form of a horror story. She tells of an estate in the north-east where a 70-year-old neighbour of hers asked a group of youths to make less noise in the streets, "with the result," she says, "that he is now dead".

There is a sudden hush in the control room. It is, Campbell tells me later, pretty visceral stuff. Not long after the call, a message flashes on the top of the producer's screen from Roger Mosey, the controller of Five Live. "This is great," it says. The ratings certainly agree with him. Since Campbell took over the show a year ago today, listening figures have gone up by almost 400,000 a week, or 25 per cent.

In the Birtian BBC, radio phone-ins are of a piece with the docusoap and the studio debate. They're everywhere because talk is cheap and because Joe Public works for free. In this sense, Nicky Campbell, 37, is merely the host of yet another phone-in show. But according to his peers, nobody currently does it better. Within months of taking over the show earlier this year he had won a Sony award for best daytime talkshow. The recent Programme Strategy Review praised his "unpretentious rapport" and "natural authority". Like a charismatic traffic warden, he smoothly directs the crackling, honking log-jam of public opinion, except that his task is to incite rather than mollify. He calls it "dancing". Thanks to his discreet connivance there have been some spectacular broadcasting collisions. An underpaid nurse has skewered Tony Blair about low wages. The father of a child killed by an IRA bomb has civilly pricked the conscience of Gerry Adams.

In no time at all Nicky Campbell has become a conduit through whom the nation speaks to itself and to its leaders. He is now so valued by the corporation that he was recently offered pounds 250,000 to present the breakfast coverage on BBC1. "Right now I can't see the sense of getting up at three o'clock in the morning," he says over a post-show cigarette on the balcony at Television Centre, where Five Live moved in July. "I've got a baby coming (his second wife is Tina Richie, Chris Evans's head of news at Virgin Radio). I've got some exciting late-night TV commitments early next year. Moving to Five Live has opened up possibilities that I wouldn't have dreamed of two years ago. What I'm doing now I really love so much more than anything I did on Radio One, ever."

It's hard to credit that just over a year ago he was marooned in the drivetime slot at Radio One, spinning discs from a computer print-out playlist and endlessly regurgitating his impersonation of Jimmy Savile. And three years ago he was still hosting the ITV game show, Wheel of Fortune. Imagine, if you can, Dale Winton in-terviewing Dennis Skinner about Tony Blair and Alan Clark about William Hague (as Campbell did in the fortnight I listened) and you get the extent of the transformation.

It's possible that politicians see him as a soft touch, in the school of matey interrogators like David Frost and Jimmy Young. To the probable mystification of some of his colleagues, he sought out politicos to interview on Radio One, home of the easy ride. "That used to help me enormously on Radio One," he admits. "But I've never thought of myself as a soft touch. It's an interesting point. It's a possibility. You can sometimes lure somebody a bit by chatting merrily and just fling them a question while you're catching a mood."

As befits a tribune of the people, at the conclusion of the daily slanging match between right and left, fat and thin, male and female, wealthy and disenfranchised, Campbell goes home on public transport. He tells me that no one talks to him on the Tube, and it's my hunch that most people don't even recognise him. Although there's a reservoir of vanity evident in his beautifully declasse leather jacket, the extravagance of his gestures in the studio, it plainly suits him to be a kind of everyman with no outstanding features.

It's not that his isn't a good-looking face. Working in tandem with his chiselled charm, it has ensured a healthy strike-rate with women. But even after all those years on television - he still hosts Thursday Night Live every week - it's not a household face. After watching his show on the last day of September, I met him for lunch in a BBC restaurant. It may not have helped that John Simpson sat down at the next table, but 24 hours later, apart from the zigzag parade of bottom teeth, I had no clear memory of what Nicky Campbell looks like.

His voice, however, is another story: it has a deep timbre, and the softened burr of the educated Edinburgher. If you were going to design a voice specifically for talk radio to appeal to the widest constituency of listeners, you would probably need to clone the Campbell larynx. It's not quite a new reading voice, nor a light-entertainment voice, but something that prospers in the blurred zone between. In the course of the three-hour show I watched, he surfed from a fulminating phone-in on crime to a slight interview with a television archaeologist to atroc-ities in Kosovo, followed by another lively phone-in about the most boring place in Britain. This is grasshopper radio. He rather grandly calls these gearshifts "a manifestation of the human condition. That's how people think when they're in the pub or talking at a dinner party. Conversation does flip around." But whatever you call it, he does it very well.

It may shed light on this agility that Campbell has put his mark against three different political parties. "There's one place I haven't put my X," he says. Needless to say, this protean ability to slide effortlessly between light and shade translates into something more slippery when someone else is asking the questions. For all his force of personality on the radio, I get no sharp sense of what he is like. It may be that no one is more self-protective in an interview than an interviewer who finds himself at the business end of the questions - there is the divorce from his first wife, who suffered from ME, that he flatly refuses to talk about on the grounds that the tabloids have had their pound of flesh. There's a more general reluctance to spend time truffling in his navel. Answers frequently come wrapped in a carapace of jocularity. But my guess is that there is more to his elusiveness. In cricketing parlance, he has the swagger of the all-rounder, but also the attendant doubts about what it is he does best. "You've got to have self-doubt," he says, "because that's how civilisation progressed. You've got to question. Galileo asked the questions."

The question is, who exactly is he? He admits that on air he plays a version of himself, that fronting Wheel of Fortune was "a bit of an acting job," albeit better paid than most at pounds 6,000 an hour. His producer Mark Sandell, who knew Campbell at Radio One, says that "he is a different person now". Nicer? He won't be pressed. Campbell himself says he is "probably just hap-pier. Not trying so hard. I think at Radio One I was a bit of a square peg in a round hole. I always was. And that was part of the reason I got quite far with it. That was part of my strength in the early days. I didn't want to do it."

When he first arrived there from Capital, the cult of the personality DJ was still in full swing. Campbell with his 2.1 in history and interest in politics was perceived as a maverick, and not a very popular one. If you weren't wacky in that tired, hairy-cornflake sort of way, you didn't conform. On his evening show Campbell could pick his own playlist and, before it was popularised by the 1990 World Cup, went through a phase of playing Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma" every night. He wrote the sleeve notes to Pavarotti 2. This was not normal behaviour. Mike Read and Dave Lee Travis would accost him in the corridor with bad Scottish accents. Simon Bates was like Princess Margaret.

"Bates was a tricky character," Campbell recalls. "All of his characters were tricky. He saw himself as queen bee in the hive, but many people saw him as a dot of poison in the well." One night on air, Campbell recommended that his listeners watch Laurel and Hardy on daytime television. "I said, 'But unfortunately you'll have to tape Our Tune.' The next day I was washing up in the kitchen and I hear Simon Bates on air, 'Last night Nicky Campbell was disparaging Our Tune. Well can I just say to him, these are real stories.'" He remembers that there were factions with rotating membership. "Wrighty would be in Batesy's gang and everyone would hate DLT. Then DLT would be Wrighty's gang and everyone would hate Batesy. It was like a playground. I wasn't in anyone's gang. That was the problem." In The Nation's Favourite, a forthcoming book about Radio One, Campbell told Simon Garfield that "in their perception I probably got too big for my boots, and I probably did, but everyone sort of goes through a little phase when they become successful when they become a pain in the arse."

When Matthew Bannister took control of Radio One, the gerontosaurs were put out to grass and Campbell moved to the afternoon show. He did his little pastiches, his Blair-sings-Oasis skits, painstakingly recording the guitar track, writing the lyrics and doing the impersonation all on his own. But he now concedes that he was trying too hard. Ever so slowly, as younger DJs joined the station, he found himself mutating into "the embarrassing uncle at the wedding who dances to the Prodigy". Towards the end he was, by his own admission, one meeting away from the graveyard slot after midnight.

Campbell's success at Five Live offers retrospective proof that he was never quite cut out for One FM. When he told Bannister that he wanted to tack across, Bannister's reply - "When?" - was hardly a ringing endorsement. Campbell and his agent had first approached Roger Mosey with an offer to do one show at the weekend while he continued on Radio One. "It was a speculative offer but at the same time they had apparently come with this list of people that they wanted to get on the network, and I'm informed that I was on top of that list. Which is probably a complete lie. But that's what they told me."

He was duly offered the daily morning slot. "I thought, this is a great opportunity, I'd love to do this, this is actually what I want to do." Campbell agrees that he probably had to wait until his mid-30s before was qualified for this kind of job.

If Campbell's account of his own career curve is to be believed, he has always fallen into jobs rather than hunted them down ambitiously. Unlike DLT and co, "who probably used to charge people 12 pence to come into their rooms when they were kids to listen to records," he never wanted to be a DJ. He certainly never wanted to be a game-show host.

In the beginning, he wanted to be an actor. He was born and brought up in Edinburgh. His late father was a publisher of maps, his mother a psychiatric social worker. He was privately educated at Edinburgh Academy, and all the spare money was spent on the fees. "We didn't have a colour television until really late. We didn't go on summer holidays. We didn't have any luxuries at all. I was quite happy because I didn't want to move from the school." Previewing a recent phone-in about family rifts, Campbell admitted on air that he was "a little bit tricky at times myself".

His best friend at school was the actor Iain Glen, currently playing opposite Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room. They met at 12, and were once close enough to consider sharing a girlfriend. They have since made up, but in Campbell's account they "fell out over who was going to be the next Robert Redford". They once took a production of Durrenmatt's The Physicist to the Edinburgh fringe, in which Campbell dragged up and donned fake breasts to play a woman psychiatrist with a pendulous German accent. Glen, who followed Campbell to Aberdeen University and into the drama society in the early Eighties, politely wonders whether his pal was cut out for acting. "He was more all round. He wrote revue sketches. One was called 'The Rogue and Peasant Slave', a piss-take of Shakespeare. He was very comfortable being in front of people. He's a very strong personality and part of the thing is to submerge your personality in various roles and maybe he was less comfortable with that." I ask Campbell if he could have made it professionally. "I would have probably been able to do it," he says. "I joined my first radio station, North Sound Radio, in order to get an Equity card."

Anyone currently fixated on The Blue Room might like to note that Glen's first stage kiss was with Campbell, in a production of Bent. "We used to quite like tonguing each other in public," recalls Glen. "I don't quite know why. To shock. We did use to love acting out situations. In the autumn I would bury myself in a pile of leaves and leave a hand peeping out and Nicky would walk from the end of the road when he saw someone coming round the corner and scream and point and send people into paroxysms of fear." Their favourite stunt was to participate in the topical phone- ins on North Sound. "And this poor chap," says Glen, "had no idea that half the people who phoned in were me and Nicky."

It's 11.58am. The three hours' traffic of Campbell's show is almost over, and in the wind-down to the handover, a rag-bag of studio guests is pondering the key question of the day: where exactly is the most boring place in Britain? One listener nominates Oban where, he says, "the seagulls fly upside-down because the sky is more exciting". That gets a big laugh in the cubicle, though not from Campbell who, somewhat hurt, confides that he spent summer holidays there. That would be tantamount to laughing at himself, and however much of an all-rounder he is, that's one thing he'd rather not do.