RADIO / Goodbye to the House of Fun?: The BBC is talking about developing 'services of distinction and quality': could this mean the end of Radio 1 disc jockeys as we know them? Martin Kelner worries

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The Independent Culture
APPROACH Broadcasting House from the south, but instead of entering the prow of that stately liner through the great brass doors, take a sharp right into Langham Street. The first building you come to is Egton House.

This is not one of London's most impressive edifices - not the sort of building from which you expect Nation to do much speaking of peace unto Nation. It was built in the 1930s as a garment factory, but taken over by the BBC during wartime. A 1960s glass and concrete face lift probably looked quite swish at the time but now lends it the air of the geography annex of a minor polytechnic. Surprising, then, to find this dingy, unloved and unlovely outbuilding of the BBC is the Home of the Hits, the Tower of Power, headquarters of Britain's most popular radio station, Radio 1. Welcome to the House of Fun.

How much longer it remains the House of Fun is open to question right now. The BBC's discussion document Extending Choice talks of developing 'services of distinction and quality, rather than attracting a large audience for its own sake'. This has been interpreted as a threat to television programmes like Neighbours and EastEnders, but it would also seem to leave pop-picking, music-loving, audience- grabbing Radio 1 looking vulnerable.

On the day I descend into Egton House's dimly lit foyer (which recalls Dorothy Parker's question, 'What fresh hell is this?'), Radio 1 is presenting its case to John Birt, as all the networks now must. Radio 1 has always argued, with some justification, that it provides a highly popular service, preferred by many to the commercial opposition, and that Radio 1 listeners pay the same licence fee as those to Radio 4 and are entitled to equal consideration.

This time, though, the feeling is that Johnny Beerling, Radio 1's smooth-talking controller, might as well leave his big book of audience ratings locked up in the cupboard. Popularity is no longer the issue. The question is, can Johnny convince John his programmes are 'distinctive and different'? Extending Choice spells it out: priority will be given to 'services which are unlikely to be matched in the commercial marketplace'. This would appear to exclude the type of disc jockey show for which Radio 1 was designed 25 years ago, and on which its popularity was built.

Is it curtains, then, for those priapic princes of platter with whom we grew up in the Sixties and Seventies? Is disc jockeying to become one of those quaint, obsolete jobs, like lamplighter or tram-car conductor, with which they used to stump the celebrities on What's My Line?

The record producer Pete Waterman thinks so. He has launched a Save Radio 1 campaign. Johnny Beerling must think so too. He is busily rewriting the job description of the disc spinners who work for him. 'We have moved away,' says Beerling, 'from the cheeky chappie style of presentation as personified by Tony Blackburn, David Hamilton and Paul Burnett. We now employ a more intelligent breed of music-loving presenter with something useful to say either about the music or some current issue.'

This Reithian redefinition of the disc jockey on more University Challenge lines may prove a difficult concept to handle for those of us whose idea of the disc jockey is forever fixed by the image of Simon Dee in an E-type Jaguar or those pictures we used to see of cheeky chappies in hedonist nightclubs like Tramps with a Page Three Girl on either arm.

'Those days are probably over,' says John Walters, one of Radio 1's original producers, now retired. 'Radio 1 has to look for a new way of doing things if it is to survive. They tried doing it without disc jockeys for a while on a programme called Sequence and people hated it, so there will have to be something between the records.

'But I think they will lose something - I'm not sure what - if it becomes too cerebral. Jimmy Savile was the great British DJ as far as I am concerned. He was like one of those footballers in park football who just gets the ball and charges down the middle of the field past all the opposition. I used to try and get him to listen to records, and he'd say, 'Let me see the charts. Up six places. I'll play that.'

'I wouldn't say that type of DJ was entirely dead. These guys still exist in local radio. They promise two hours of madness and mayhem, by which they mean a phone-in quiz and a Beatles' segue. But as far as Radio 1 is concerned, I think you'd have to say someone like Gary Davies may be the last in the line. You know, he came along and he had the right trousers for the mid-Eighties, and they took him on. He just said 'Hi, I'm Gary. I'm young, fit and handsome,' and that was it.'

Young, free and single, actually, and the man himself claims to have reinvented Gary Davies about five years ago. In his poky office on the fourth floor of Egton House, he manages to look, if not like Bamber Gascoigne, at least like one of the contestants. Hair swept back, horn-rimmed spectacles, expensive-but- sober black polo shirt, Tasmin Archer, Arrested Development, and REM CDs sitting by the player. Nothing to disturb John Birt here. This is a man who appears to have hung up his medallion.

'Frankly, it pisses me off that people still stick this medallion-man thing on me. When I started at Radio 1 10 years ago, being a DJ was all about gimmicks, and that's what it was . . . With hindsight, I regret it.'

Even the famous Gary Davies suntan is now kept within reasonable bounds. Liz Kershaw, a former colleague, says: 'He once exclaimed in horror to me, 'You're so white. You should do something about that,' implying that you couldn't do the job without a tan.'

At one time you couldn't. Tony Blackburn, in his modestly titled 1985 autobiography The Living Legend, makes it clear that a suntan, a fast car, and a king- size bed were essential weapons in the DJ's armoury. Especially the king-size bed. 'I invite all the ladies in my life to the same Italian restaurant in West London where the waiters understand how to create the mood of love,' writes Tony, 'I have a special table and as I take a girl's hand in mine, or look deep into her eyes, the lighting is lowered by an attentive waiter to cast a seductive glow . . . if she agrees to come home with me it's not long before we are climbing the stairs to my king-size bed.'

'Tony Blackburn has got a lot to answer for,' says Jeff Simpson, Radio 1's head of publicity. 'Unfortunately, he established in people's mind what a disc jockey is, and we are not like that now.

'Listen. Steve Wright has had a feature written about him in the Modern Review describing him as the first post- modern DJ. When he does a disc jockeying thing, he's mocking the whole business of being a disc jockey. He's deconstructing it.' So that's all right then.

Mark Radcliffe, who's Monday night Radio 1 show does not so much deconstruct the art of disc jockeying as demolish it with a steamhammer, shares the blame - or credit - for destroying the Radio 1 DJ between John Birt and Harry Enfield. 'The Smashy and Nicey act means a certain amount of ridicule is now attached to the work,' says Mark. 'Nowadays, admitting you are a disc jockey is like owning up to a particularly nasty contagious disease.'

So, Pete Waterman aside, will anyone shed a tear for the undeconstructed Radio 1 DJ? A former Radio 1 producer, now a BBC executive, told me: 'Nobody is going to take to the barricades to fight for the DJ's right to drive fast cars and go to Stringfellows, but there is a danger here of the BBC turning itself into the Church of England. I worry that we'll be doing all these wonderful, innovative things, and playing to empty pews.'

There are also those who believe there is more chance of a John Peel, Kenny Everett, or Steve Wright emerging by accident than if you try and write them into the manifesto.

Peel himself got his break in broadcasting as a foil to disc jockey Russ 'Weird Beard' Knight in Dallas in the Sixties. A favourite line of Russ's was: 'Hey, why don't one of you good-looking Dallas chicks come round here and pull my weird beard?'

Unless we are all misreading the signs, this is not the type of approach likely to be favoured by John Birt's new Radio 1.

(Photographs omitted)