I first came across him when he was a DJ, hosting a Radio 1 roadshow one summer. It was quite an event: huge trailers, crush barriers and loudspeakers dominated the promenade of the little Norfolk town, and local bands were brought in for excitement. Yet it was clear from his rapturous welcome that the crowds who materialised from nowhere were there largely to see him. And he knew it, playing to them like a stand-up comic. A strong man pulling lorries up the beach lost his audience at a stroke.
When Campbell moved to R5 Live, he took over The Magazine from the extremely successful Diana Madill: simultaneously, it became The Nicky Campbell Show. It's hard to hear Medium Wave clearly where I live, so I took my car (and its excellent radio) round the M25 to give him a whirl.
It is still a "magazine", in that it has regular and predictable features, and is frequently interrupted by those apocalyptic horsemen - news, sport, weather and travel. Yet those whole three hours are dominated by the presenter. It begins with a phone-in. It's not easy hosting phone-ins. Nick Ross took years to develop the skill and Robin Lustig, his replacement on The Exchange (R4), still sounds anxious and harried. Neither adjective would apply to Campbell. Like Scott Chisolm on Talk Radio, he knows where he stands. He is a self- declared, unimpeachable, right-on, liberal new man. But I'd never phone him - he'll appear to side with a caller and then turn devil's advocate in a second.
On Tuesday, when the subject was illegal immigration, one Charlotte rang, to tell a labyrinthine tale of her miserable relationship with a man who proved to be a drug-dealer ... " Charlotte," said Campbell, cutting her off. "We all have complicated lives." Vic from Fulham was aggrieved because he had answered what he thought was an advert for sperm and had been invited to marry a would-be immigrant. To hell with that: Campbell was astounded that any man would want to sell his sperm. His mix of authority and genuine interest is leavened by arrogance - but it makes for fast and furious listening.
Later that morning he interviewed the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham. This was a man with very interesting things to say about prison reform and Campbell let him say them, giving him time to reflect on the unusual arrangements at the Maze prison, which he had first seen as a young soldier in 1971. The interview made the news headlines on R4 later that day.
The Euronews section came next: it was fun, if hopelessly frivolous. Nobody can touch the World Service in this field, but James Procter and Campbell played a round with snippets of gossip and small local disasters. One item featured the problems the Germans are having with their spelling. Apparently they can't decide how to write "aubergine" and "kangaroo", have been forbidden to use the foreign expressions "mid-life crisis" and "sex-appeal" (don't they have those things in Germany?) but are still allowed to use the word Flussschiff despite its otherwise unacceptable number of consonants.
This was followed by a truly hilarious interview with a French sociologist called Mignon (honestly) who spoke of "ze problaim wiz ze Engleesh lout". His sweet little theory was that "ooliganisme" was the result of the liberal (sic) policies of Thatcherism. Campbell handled him superbly, proffering yards of rope for this strange man to hang himself with. Mignon's last insight was the relevation that in France, Cantona is perceived as a rebel. No, really?
As a DJ, Campbell had a mildly irritating manner and a tendency to show off, but then few DJs have history degrees: he's much better on R5, where he can properly exercise his mercurial intelligence. Incidentally, there was one item of European news I think he missed. It came on R4's Today. In the European Parliament, an interpreter was translating a Frenchman who spoke of a problem which would be resolved by "la sagesse normande". Nobody else understood why the English were so amused by this new role for Norman Wisdom.Reuse content