THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK

It's been two weeks since Mark Radcliffe and his sidekick Lard took over Radio 1's breakfast show. Ben Thompson asks them how it feels to be the new Gingers; overleaf, Cole Moreton meets John Peel, back on familiar ground as Radcliffe's replacement in the late-night slot
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The Independent Culture
If Mark Radcliffe was the type to make bold proclamations, he might have begun his tenure at the Radio 1 breakfast show with a loose adaptation of the words of St Francis. "Where there was egotism, let us be modest. Where there was deep offence, let us sow mild amusement. And where the out-of-control libido of the ginger fop Evans has caused even previous admirers to wish him forcibly gelded, let our caustic Lancastrian wit and instinctive ear for a catchy tune put the British pop breakfast on a new gourmet footing."

In many ways the appointment of Mark Radcliffe as the replacement for Chris Evans was the logical culmination of all the huge changes Matthew Bannister has wrought at R1 over the last three years. In its blend of irreverence, erudition and enthusiasm, Radcliffe's late-evening show epitomised all that was best in the revitalised network; and to shift the 38-year- old Mancunian into the key early-morning slot was a bold stroke typical of the one-time Newsbeat reporter.

The horizon, though, is not without clouds. The Rajar audience figures released just prior to Evans's departure showed that R1 had lost more than half a million listeners. For the first time the ratings also showed the station being overtaken by a newly ebullient R2. Demographically, and in terms of Bannister's overall strategy for the five networks he now controls (R1 as the young person's glitteringly hip and happening point of entry to a lifetime of BBC listening pleasure), this makes perfectly good sense. But given the huge amounts of money that have been invested in R1's long-term revamp, not everyone could be relied upon to see things his way.

In their spartan Manchester office at the BBC's Oxford Road studios, the twinkly Radcliffe and his bluffly genial accomplice Lard (aka former Fall bassist Marc Riley) wind down after their second Monday in the hot seat. The pressure may be getting to them - but you wouldn't know it from the grins on their faces. So how are they finding it, broadcasting to the nation when a high proportion of their natural, student-layabout constituency is still in bed?

"There are two schools of thought," Radcliffe observes cheerfully. "Half the people seem to think there's too much noisy guitar music, and the other half think we've sold out because we keep playing the Spice Girls." Are there no regrets at leaving behind the total liberty of their old set-up for the compromise of the R1 playlist plus one free choice every half hour? "It'd be lunacy to go on the breakfast show and play all the same records we used to play at night," Radcliffe insists. "You feel differently in the morning to at night - you know, a hundred times worse."

Even after a couple of weeks settling in, the habitual self-deprecation of the Radcliffe/Riley double act still sits rather strangely next to the hard sell normally associated with pop radio at this time of the morning. But this can only be a good thing. Never before has a R1 breakfast show been trailed as "the best way to start the day - apart from listening to other radio stations, reading a newspaper or just not saying anything at all, really". And it can only be healthy for Nottingham to be persistently referred to as "down there".

On air everything - after the first day's nervous start - seems to be going OK, but off it Mark and Lard are still struggling to come to terms with the heightened public profile that comes with following in Chris Evans's footsteps. "When Simon Mayo took over the R1 breakfast show, who knew?" Radcliffe shakes his head in bemusement. Within moments of his appointment, however, the News of the World was knocking at his door and the Daily Mail was round at his ex-wife's house trying to sniff out bad blood.

"It sounds very naive, I know," Radcliffe says apologetically, "but I really didn't expect that to happen." He looks at Riley in mock anger. "I mean, no one followed him on his gay badger-baiting weekend." Riley [nobly]: "I maintain that I have got a really horrible dodgy past ... but it's all on record and available to the public in shops around the country."

"You can take people saying the show's no good, that's fair comment," Radcliffe continues. "On a bad day I'd say it myself. But the press being determined to dig for something in my private life, even though there wasn't much there [Radcliffe's ex-wife, with whom he amicably manages the upbringing of an eight-year-old daughter, was the soul of supportive discretion] - that was just extremely unpleasant. When you get friends selling photos of you in your underpants to the Sun, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. If I'd known there was going to be so much interest in all this stuff, I'd have sold it to Hello! for 50 grand."

"There's nothing interesting about us, that's the problem," he laments. "We have a pint, watch a band occasionally, go to the odd football match ... we're just dull." As if in revolt against this paean to his normality, Riley essays a spot of the idle banter that is this double act's professional stock-in-trade: "I can't spend a lot on socialising because the plastic surgery cost me a fortune," he insists, unconvincingly. "I shot myself in the foot by having it done just like Salman Rushdie, so I had to have it reversed." "The sad thing is," Radcliffe chips in, "he asked for a Danny Baker."

Ah yes, Danny Baker. One minute John Birt was praising his "invigorating torrents of thought", the next all Danny's furniture was out on the pavement. Are Mark and Lard worried about being ex-corporation golden boys themselves one day? "There's really only one way things can go from here," Radcliffe admits cheerfully, "and that's down. But that's really liberating in a way. The night-time show was everything we ever wanted to do, and we never expected it to last as long as it did. So for us to be given the biggest show on radio is just a joke that's gone too far. When it all happened we were sat in this room - this little airless, windowless room - laughing, in our cardigans."

"If it had failed - " Radcliffe checks himself, " - well, it still might ... But there's something rather compelling about failure on a grand scale. It's like if you're in a band, there's something appealing about the idea of going on at Madison Square Garden and being shit. We didn't go looking for the breakfast show - they gave it to us because there wasn't anybody else, and at least if we really cock it up, people will look at us in pubs in years to come and say to their mates: `Remember them? They were on for 10 days in 1997 and they were rubbish.' "

It seems strange to suggest this amid such a devil-may-care atmosphere, but is there a sense in which Matthew Bannister might be using them to regain control of the breakfast show after the fiscal and other excesses of the Evans era? Riley is slightly put out: "There's a lot of people at R1 more controllable than us." But surely for all their iconoclasm, he and Mark are BBC insiders - groomed via R5 and night-time slots to respect the corporation's needs as well as their own? Radcliffe agrees."I should imagine that from Matthew's point of view there must be the odd sigh of relief. Chris was sort of a loose cannon: you'd never know what he was going to say next." He pauses. "You never know what we're going to say next, but you can be pretty sure it's not going to offend anybody."

Excepting their first writ - freshly received from a source they refuse to specify - the nearest Mark and Lard seem to have come to courting controversy so far is when they announced their determination to stay in Manchester. "We never set out saying 'we want to strike a blow for the North'," Radcliffe maintains. "We just didn't want to move house. When you're young and on your own, going to London to work is a good thing to do - I did it - but as you get a bit older and have a family, I think most people, offered the choice of having a job and moving there or staying where they are, would probably stay where they are."

Surely there was more to the decision than that? Radcliffe waxes political: "Well, I do also think it is an absurd notion to have a publicly funded national radio station all coming from one town. We've got regional accents and some people down south seem to be slightly offended by that. But what they're forgetting is that talking what gets called `posh' is a regional accent too ... I do find it depressing to think there might still be huge swathes of the population who automatically assume you're of inferior intelligence if you talk like I do."

Radcliffe certainly lays to rest the stereotype of the inferiorly intelligent DJ. "It's always struck me as odd," he observes ruefully, "that the people who are let on air to talk with a free microphone and no script should have nothing to say. On R4 you've got a load of people with Oxbridge degrees reading words that are scripted for them by Oxbridge- degree people 20 years younger than them. Then in the past on R1 you've had people - mentioning no names here obviously - without an intelligent thought in their heads, being encouraged to say whatever they want. I think the powers that be have cottoned on to the fact that if you're going to have people talking live without scripts it's better to have someone who knows something."

That Mark Radcliffe knows something is not in doubt. The question is, do the people of this country know enough to keep up with him? His breadth of cultural reference can be daunting to the uninitiated. And once a man has been brought to book by a tabloid newspaper for "encourag- ing Blur's Damon Albarn to talk about Herman Hesse", surely it can only be a matter of time before the natural philistinism of the British causes us to chase him through the streets in an angry mob?

"There is very little evidence of culture in the programme so far," Radcliffe maintains defensively, "though sometimes I'll turn to Lard with a minute- and-a-half to go to the news and say: 'What about Le Corbusier's Modular?' And he'll come straight back with: `It's ill-conceived.' " Lard smiles. "Or I might just say 'bollocks' ... We can be childish and inane. We do make the effort."

Mark & Lard: Mon-Fri, 7-9am, R1 FM.

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