Just leave the tape. 100 years on, we'll be in touch

`I got a telegram from Queen once, begging me not to play their records. I was happy to oblige'
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The Independent Culture
BELLS RANG, bonfires blazed and fireworks exploded throughout Britain yesterday as the whole country celebrated the 100th birthday of Sir John Peel. Born in the same year as Hitchcock, Hemingway, Noel Coward, Duke Ellington and Jorge Luis Borges, but effortlessly outliving the lot of them, Sir John Peel stood gracefully to attention as the BBC Flying Club did a formal fly-past, followed by shaky black-and-white footage of huge crowds lining the route. Sir John then waved a stick at the thronging film crews, told them to buzz off and turned to re-enter Peel Towers, the modest stately farmhouse in which he writes about life with his family in Peel Towers, the modest stately farmhouse in which he writes about etc etc.

"Look, I really should be getting back inside and doing my next piece for the Radio Times," said the ancient seer of the 20th century, with the wit and panache for which he has been famous for many years. He was referring, of course, to the column in the Radio Times which he has been writing single-handed now for more than 100 years, mostly about the difficulty of writing a column for the Radio Times, or about the embarrassment of having been forced to preview certain BBC programmes in the coming week which nobody will watch if he doesn't mention them in his Radio Times column.

It was typical of the man that even yesterday, on his 100th birthday, he should be hard at work listening to congratulatory tapes sent in by new groups hoping to catch his ear. One of them was a telegram from the Queen, hoping he would have a fab 100th birthday.

"That's nice," said Peel. "Of course, it's not a first for me. I got a telegram from Queen once, begging me not to play their records on my show. I was happy to oblige."

Had he ever met the Queen herself?

"I think so," says Peel. "Assuming that the person who gave me my knighthood was the Queen, and not a dep, then it must have been the Queen I met. She said how delighted she was to meet me, and I said, without thinking, that I'd listen to her tape as soon as possible and be in touch if we thought it was worth a session. In retrospect, it was a bit embarrassing. Especially as she had sent a tape, and it was ghastly."

Another embarrassing moment at the time was not knowing what to call himself when knighted. Sir John Peel? But John Peel is not his real name. Sir John Ravenscroft? But nobody would know who he was. Eventually he compromised by putting the knighthood in a cupboard and getting it out only when booking a table in a restaurant, or being photographed for a Radio Times cover.

"To be frank, I only accepted the knighthood because the BBC wanted me to," said Peel, relaxing in his kitchen over a cup of tea. "They are desperate for respectability, the poor dears. When Des Lynam went over to ITV, the BBC went bonkers for a bit, thinking they had lost the last elder statesman they had, and then someone discovered they still had me. I'd never thought of myself as an elder statesman, but at least I was elder, which is half the battle."

Would Sir John Peel say that he had achieved one of the great conjuring tricks in showbusiness?

"You mean, being instantly recognisable even though I'm hardly ever on TV?"

No. We were thinking rather of the way he has gone from being a guru of teenage music to a grandfatherly figure, much in demand for presenting programmes that need a patriarchal touch, and never had the conventional period of maturity in the middle as a conventional grown-up, thus going straight from the teenage years to old age.

"Mmmm," says Sir John Peel reflectively. "What was the question?"

We can't remember.

"Quite so," says Peel. "Look, what I always say in life is... Hold on a moment. What do I always say in life, Zeitgeist?"

Zeitgeist is the name he jokingly gives to his butler and factotum, who is called... well, Zeitgeist.

"It's not much of a joke," says Peel, "especially as I have no idea what Zeitgeist actually means. But it certainly attracts his attention, which is what names are all about, at the end of the day."

"This is what you always say, sir," says Zeitgeist, handing him a large sheet of paper headed "What I Always Say".

"Just leave the tape and we'll listen to it, and if it's any good we'll get in touch," reads Sir John.

We have, as a matter of fact, brought a tape with us... Would it be all right if we left it?

"It's a funny thing," says Sir John, "but they always have brought a tape, no matter who they are. Now, if you don't mind, I really do have a piece for the Radio Times to write."