HI! I'M STILL ALIVE

Veteran DJ Alan Freeman talks to JAMES RAMPTON
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The Independent Culture
Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse were musing with Alan "Fluff" Freeman over how to use him in one of their priceless Smashie and Nicey sketches about superannuated DJs, when Fluff himself came up with an idea: put him on a Zimmer frame. "I said to them, 'Let's have a giggle.' I've learnt one thing in this business: if you can't laugh at yourself first, you've no right to laugh at anyone else."

Over his 39 years on our airwaves, Fluff - no one calls him Alan, he says - has developed a keen sense of self-mockery. It's one of the reasons why he has lasted so long. Now in his 70th year, the DJ introduces himself to me with the obviously well-practised line: "I'm still alive." He joshes that his 52-year-old manager is "still a foetus".

Although hampered by osteo-arthritis in the back, nothing has dimmed the twinkle in Fluffs eye. Looking dapper in a green sports shirt and cords, he still has a full head of hair which is only slightly greying. He claims that: "I've hung around like incurable leprosy. I'm heading for 70, and people like you must think, 'Oh, Christ, not him again'. I look in the mirror and say, 'Hang about, should you really continue?'. But my initial excitement remains with me. My feeling is that my best show must be my next one. The moment you lose your excitement you should give up the microphone."

There seems little danger of Freeman doing that. He presents Pick of the Pops - 35 years after it first appeared on the BBC's Light Programme- on Capital Gold every Saturday morning, and a rock show for Virgin Radio on Friday nights. In addition, he hosts regular opera specials on Classic FM and makes documentaries for Radio 2. On Monday, he is to be the first broadcaster honoured with the Music Industry Trust's Award at London's Grosvenor House Hotel. Last year's winner was Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The award comes as no surprise to those in the business. DJ Martin Kelner observes that: "Fluff is a good thing, and most people in the industry will say the same. No one has a bad word to say about him. Unusually for this business, he is without malice - which is almost unheard-of."

As much as anything else, it is the boyish enthusiasm, the sheer relish with which he approaches work that so endears him to listeners. "He used to present an afternoon programme," Kelner recalls. "People would send him poems which were almost without exception hideous. But he used to read them all out. Long before [Simon] Bates's 'Our Tune', Fluff would play lacrymose music in the background and give it his all. It must have given housewives such a thrill. He really believes it all. In the age of the insincere DJ, he delivers with such conviction. It's dead easy to become jaded in this business, but he still loves it. Fluff is the daddy of them all."

Freeman's own assessment is that he's popular "because I'm comfy. I'm the listeners' cuddly, little, fluffy bear, and I retain my enthusiasm. Two minutes before I go on air, I'm still a nervous wreck, telling myself I'll never get through it."

His top ten (see chart, below) may be creaking at the knees a bit, but Fluff still keeps on top of all the latest releases. Whether belting out the chorus of "Hi-Ho, Silver Lining" or humming his timeless theme-tune ("At the Sign of the Swinging Cymbal" by Brass Incorporated, in case you're interested), he is touchingly in awe of music. "I never knock records," he affirms. "I'm a great believer in the fact that each record has its own value. Because you've got the freedom of the airwaves, it's easy to be a smartarse. But if you can't say something nice, why say something just for effect? You're dealing with people's livelihoods here. The best DJ in the world runs a bad last to the worst record he's ever played."

It's not all been awards and accolades for Fluff (the nickname stems from when he had a jersey dry-cleaned and it went fluffy). He has featured in some of the worst ads ever made; remember him extolling the virtues of Brentford Nylons? And two years ago, he prompted some lurid coverage in the popular press when he revealed to Richard and Judy that he is bisexual.

But he even manages to shrug off this storm in a tabloid teacup. "Judy leant over to me and asked why I'd never married. I said, 'I couldn't make up my mind about men or women. As I sit here and look at the pair of you, Judy, you win by a short head. But don't feel safe, Richard, because I'd chase you round the bed five minutes later.' One of the headlines the next day was 'Fluff Admits He Likes The B-Side'. Marvellous. Afterwards, I thought it was right to say that rather than give out the usual bullshit. I'm sure I've missed out by not marrying and raising a family, but I'm married to my work. Anyway, it's been so long since I've had sex, it doesn't matter now."

Honest, humble and humorous. It's a beguiling combination - and one that shows no sign of waning. Only one thing will stop him wowing us pop- pickers with his catchphrases ("truck-drivers lean out of the window and shout 'not 'arf' at me".) "The great thing is that people keep employing me," he says, as if he can scarcely believe it himself. "What I'm glad about is that I have been given the chance to do what I do on such limited talent. Fans don't seem worried about my age. They write wonderful things like 'Dear pensionable pop-picker.' What am I going to do? Pretend I'm 34? The truth is I've had a wonderful run. When it ends, I hope I have a fatal heart attack while I'm playing a record on air. Preferably 'Stairway to Heaven'."

Fluff's Top Ten

1. Dancing in the Street Martha Reeves

& the Vandellas.

2. It's Over Roy Orbison.

3. Going Back Dusty Springfield.

4. Wind of Change The Scorpions.

5. Kashmir Led Zeppelin.

6. Always Atlantic Star.

7. Eleanor Rigby The Beatles.

8. Freebird Lynyrd Skynyrd.

9. Hold Your Head Up Argent.

10. Parisian Walkways Gary Moore.

Plus Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven, a song dear to Fluff's heart.

EYE TEST

1927: Born in Melbourne. Later left school with hardly any qualifications.

1957: Came to London and burst into tears on hearing Big Ben chime.

1961: Got summer relief job at Radio Luxembourg; joined BBC Light Programme. Started "Pick of the Pops" (runs until 1972, peaking at 14m listeners).

1965: Starred in "Doctor Terror's House of Horrors": got eaten by a creeping vine.

1973: Started Saturday rock show on Radio 1; starred in Brentford Nylons ads.

1989: Returned to Radio 1 to host Saturday night rock show and "Pick of the Pops".

1993: Joined Capital Gold to present "Pick of the Pops Take Three".

1996: Joined Virgin Radio; awarded Music Industry Trusts' Award.

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