The pirate who made Auntie swing
RADIO: When Radio 1 launched in 1967, Kenny Everett was its most creative DJ. Then the BBC sacked him. David Lister explains
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Sunday 08 September 1996
And it suited everyone involved that this was perceived to be the cause of his dismissal. The BBC had to protect the good name of a government minister from a clear libel. Everett looked a martyr to establishment croneyism. His listeners could side with his cheeky, irreverent humour. Some had car stickers demanding their favourite DJ's reinstatement. Even the Labour Party got in on the act, complaining that the BBC was protecting the Conservatives.
It was a good story. And it held sway for 25 years. But it wasn't true. The BBC got rid of Kenny Everett for a much more important reason, and one which threatened the corporation far more seriously than a silly jape about a driving test. It was because he threatened to go public on the restrictive practices and deals with the Musicians Union that were frustrating not only Everett and his listeners but making the much-vaunted BBC pop station Wonderful Radio 1 a pale shadow of the pirate stations it tried so hard to imitate.
Everett had been in on the birth of Radio 1: he composed and recorded the promotion jingles for the new station; he had even played a part in its conception. As he left his studio for the last time in 1970, he probably thought back to a lunch at Verrys restaurant, the then fashionable stars' eating place at the top of Regent Street, in the spring of 1967 with Robin Scott, the founder-controller of Radio 1, and Johnny Beerling, then a senior producer and later to become a highly successful Radio 1 controller himself.
Scott knew that BBC Radio would have to change to catch up with the pirates. The Home Service and Third Programme would stay as Radio 4 and Radio 3; and the Light Programme would have to be split in two, with "sweet music", as he described it, on Radio 2, and a brand-new pop station, Radio 1. By early 1967 most of the plans were laid. The BBC knew the government's anti-pirate legislation was on the way; it would poach most of the pirate DJs to give it street cred.
Everything was ready. Hadn't Frank Gillard, one of the BBC's most senior figures, already made a giant leap into the Sixties by declaring he would henceforth be known as Director of Radio rather than Director of Sound Broadcasting? Auntie was ready to swing.
But Beerling was worried. He had made a secret trip out to Radio London, the best of the pirate stations in the North Sea. And on the ship Beerling gazed in amazement. "I saw this man Everett doing everything. In the old way of doing things, the DJ sat in one room with a script. Someone else played the records and somebody else controlled the sound. Yet I see this man who has control of everything."
Beerling told Scott he must meet Everett. "He has come from nowhere to become a cult figure," he added. Scott was hooked, and the lunch at Verrys was fixed.
Over lunch Everett listened to the two older men describe the station they were planning. Immediately he saw that one key ingredient was missing. "If you want your Radio 1 to sound like pirate radio, you must have jingles," he said.
And so the BBC for the first time had jingles. To Radio London listeners they were pretty familiar. "Wonderful Radio London" was inverted to become "Radio 1 is Wonderful". Everett himself wrote and sang the radio promotion jingles for the new station which were repeatedly heard that summer.
The young and often seasick Everett had already left the pirate ship and, with uncharacteristic boldness, taken to hanging around at Broadcasting House. He was becoming known. Years later he told a friend the formula for infiltrating the BBC bureaucracy: "You could always get into the Beeb," he said, "as long as you were carrying something under the arm. I used to carry a 10-inch tape spool. You won't be stopped as long as you have something. You then wander around the corridors until you find an empty office - make sure you get one with a telephone. Then start paging yourself regularly, and after a while people will feel they know you. Then, when you apply for a job, everyone thinks they know you and you're in."
Everett's producer was a woman named Angela Bond who had been working in the old Light Programme's Gramophone Department. At first she wore her colourful hats in the building - hats she was to wear in the producer's booth to make Everett giggle - until a colleague whispered to her that only lesbians at the BBC wore hats.
She persuaded the initially nervous BBC to give Everett his first programme. And between programmes he would pour his heart out to her - about how he hated the BBC bureaucracy and stuffiness; about his own feelings of inadequacy, his shyness, dislike of his own appearance, his "short, skinny legs", his hatred of being gay and how he couldn't discuss it with his parents because of his Catholic upbringing. His creative energy in the studio, she quickly realised, sprung from this personal anguish. But she also realised this pent-up frustration made her charge lash out unpredictably, and the BBC was a victim of these mercurial lashings.
Within months the programmes Everett did with her had become a nationwide cult. While Bond chose the music, Everett would be in the BBC archives picking out ancient sounds, dialogue by Thirties actors like Jack Hulbert, big band sounds from Benny Goodman, snippets of classical music. Bond quickly realised his love of gadgetry and what he could do in a studio, so she had a special room built for him where he could experiment with tapes, with sounds, with sketches, making unprecedented and unnatural mixes. There was a ring modulator so he could make his Dalek voices. They called the room the "Wireless Workshop". She also suggested he use some classical-music themes on the programme and suggested characters for him to use in his sketches.
One day in the canteen, Angela was chatting with a colleague who had brought in her husband, a retiring actor with a refined, but rich and fruity voice. Bond turned to Everett, seated beside her. "What a marvellous voice," she said. "You must have him on the show. He could be your butler." Everett's eyes lit up. "Yes, and I'll call him Crisp." The Jeevesian butler, trying to calm the young master disc jockey while at the same time being pursued by Ken's frisky gran, became a staple of the show.
Everett's favourite trick was to comment on the news. The Radio 1 news usually ended in a light item where the newscaster said: "And finally ... " Mrs Peyton's driving test was just such an item. After another that said an Olympic high jumper had jumped a new record height, Everett asked: "Into what?" Once he introduced newsreader Peter Jefferson saying: "Here comes Peter Jefferson with his airplane" - referring to the American rock group Jefferson Airplane. He then listened in horror as the newscaster gave details of a plane crash. Rarely could he resist sitting opposite the newscaster of the day and trying to make him laugh. Nearly always his remarks were inconsequential. But to the BBC they were heresy. They had never, never, come across anyone like him before. To make funny comments on the news. It beggared belief.
The show grew even more popular, with regular audience figures of around five million. But Everett started giving interviews in which he complained about BBC stuffiness, and particularly about the needle-time agreements with the Musicians Union, who demanded a fixed percentage of live music - between 25 and 30 per cent - which meant that Radio 1 could only play so many records and had to fill in with bands coming into the studio to record cover versions of current hits. "How can you have the Northern Dance Orchestra doing cover versions of The Beatles?" declared an exasperated Everett. "They would sound terrible. Worse than that - they sound like the Northern Dance Orchestra." And he declared it on air.
The BBC made him sign a pledge not to give any more interviews. But Bond could see he wasn't at peace with himself, and watched, frightened, not knowing where the next outburst would be aimed. In the spring of 1970, Everett made a clearly libellous remark about a well-known recording artist's wife being pregnant by another man.
After the show Bond took him aside. "Lovey, you've got to be careful," she counselled. He stormed out. That was the last straw. Even Angela Bond was now the BBC and not his friend. To her astonishment she learned that he had gone straight to the managing director's office and said: "I don't want to work with Angela Bond any more."
The management gave in to him. Angela Bond was rueful: "I'd made him into the biggest thing since sliced bread. And there he was on self-destruct. He absolutely hated the BBC by this time."
By now the BBC was locked in negotiations with the record companies and the Musicians Union to try to increase the amount of needle-time, the number of records the MU would allow the BBC to play instead of having live performance. But, time after time, a negotiating session would start with the MU delegation protesting that one particular BBC employee had been insulting the Musicians Union on air. The BBC hierarchy took fright.
On his Saturday show on 18 July 1970, the newsreader reported as the final item that Mrs Mary Peyton, wife of transport minister John Peyton, had passed her driving test. Everett gave his soon to be famous reaction. Two days later the managing director of Radio, the late Ian Trethowan, sacked him.
On 23 July Johnny Beerling wrote to Ian Trethowan, and received an uncompromising reply. That private exchange of letters, reproduced here for the first time, shows the difference in outlook between those running the pop station and those in the real corridors of power at the BBC. Beerling wrote:
Dear Mr Trethowan,
Some months ago you were kind enough to invite me, along with some of my colleagues, to an informal dinner where we freely gave our opinions on various aspects of radio. I would now like to presume further on your time for a moment or two, to express some personal opinions about the unfortunate Kenny Everett affair.
First I believe it is impossible to sit back and say nothing when a decision is made which I believe is damaging everything we have been working to build up in Radio 1. My reasons for thinking this are as follows:
As the producer who has been responsible for a large number of the various Everett programmes, I can hardly deny that, during his BBC career, he has been a source of controversy and occasional embarrassment by some of his comments both on the air, and to the press. But against this one must weigh his talent. I quite genuinely believe that he is not only the most talented and creative disc jockey/entertainer of our time, and certainly he has produced some of the best radio ever to be broadcast on Radio 1. He is a performer who loves the medium of radio more than any other, and in dismissing him from our employment in which we have the monopoly, we do more to support the case for setting up an alternative system of broadcasting in opposition to the BBC than any Free Radio campaign.
By this dismissal we have received universal press coverage, and in the eyes of our young audience we have been relegated 10 years back into the "Auntie BBC" era. In fact, we all lose. Everett his job, listeners are deprived of one of their favourite DJs and BBC radio some of its hard-won prestige in the eyes of its listeners.
To use a football analogy, if Georgie Best misbehaves on the field, the Football Association does not sack him and permanently damage the Manchester United team. They suspend him for a month or two. Respectfully, could that not have been done, or be done, in this case?
Senior Producer, Radio 1 Club.
On 5 August Ian Trethowan replied, giving the BBC hierarchy case:
I had your letter just before I went off for a week, but I hope that in the meantime you have been somewhat reassured about the Everett affair. I hope that for a start you realise that no broadcasting organisation in its senses would fire a very popular disc jockey without the most careful thought. The position was, as I believe you now know, that he had given a specific undertaking in writing, and that he had been warned categorically that if he broke that undertaking he would be out. He then did break the undertaking, so we felt we had no alternative but to end his contract. One consideration in our minds was that if we had not done this, if a "final warning" appeared to mean nothing, then producers would have found it very hard to deal not only with Everett but with other DJs.
That having been said, I must confess that I would have wished it did not appear that we were sacking him because of his remarks about a minister's wife, even though that remark was clearly actionable and could have cost us thousands. We tried to make it clear to the press that this was not a decisive factor - and that anyway the driving examiner had been equally libelled - but it was probably too much to expect that we would be believed! As for the future, I certainly do not rule out the possibility of Everett coming back to BBC Radio in due course, but I am afraid that under the circumstances we had no option but to act as we did.
Managing Director, Radio.
EVERETT never hosted a live show on Radio 1 again. But it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The one beneficiary of the affair was a 21- year-old lad called Noel Edmonds, who Beerling still remembers as taking pains to disguise his lack of inches. Edmonds was given Everett's show, and rapidly sounded uncommonly like him, with his patter and cast of characters. Poor Edmonds, who was an innocent party, began receiving hate mail.
Edmonds, then still unsure of himself and a decade or more away from becoming a multi-millionaire, gave an interview in which he said: "I doubt whether many people will take to me because I'm the one who's taken over from the one everybody liked." Reading the interview, Everett could only think: "What a complicated sentence for someone planning to make his living from being a disc jockey."
'In the Best Possible Taste: the Crazy Life of Kenny Everett' by David Lister is published in hardback by Bloomsbury at pounds 16.99.
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