the interview SIMON BATES
His treacly Our Tune and his Smashie & Nicey sincerity make him an easy target, but when it comes to broadcasting, he's a man of principle
Sunday 17 March 1996
Talk radio has a bad name in this country. Mention of it conjures up nightmarish images of lonely cab drivers ringing up to talk about their kidney stones. Breakfast with Bates is not like that. It has guests and everything. Admittedly the public at large are invited to put their individual oars in over the phone, but anyone endeavouring to outstay their welcome is brushed aside with a flourish. Bates' presentation - "I read your book last night; it scared the hell out of me" - has a commendable sense of urgency, and the show which results is a vigorous and pretty successful assault on the middle ground between GMTV's hellish trivia trench and the commanding heights of Radio 4's Today Programme.
Simon Bates comes off air clutching a cafetiere (he makes his own coffee), touchingly unsure as to why anyone would want to interview him. Does he not realise that the generation whose adolescence was scarred by his on- air reminiscences of "making love at dawn on a beach in Bali" will shortly ascend to political power in this country? And there's Our Tune to be considered. Bates' baby still goes out at 9.45am daily on Talk Radio (now sponsored by Kleenex!) and twice a week -complete with tasteful Crimewatch- style reconstructions -on Anne and Nick. As if this wasn't enough, millions more people carry deep in their subconscious the erotically charged image of Simon Bates warning them that the video they are about to watch contains "some sexual swear-words".
Thanks to the hard work of the video pirate community, the Bates visage has, in fact is, global currency. "I can get a free meal in Delhi or a free drink in Moscow anytime I want," he says happily, his voice resonating every bit as mightily within the studio as it does without. The supreme frugality of his radio show's travel tips - "Guess how much I paid for that insurance ... pounds 82!" - suggests this might be more than just a figure of speech.
Simon Bates's "obsession" with travel began in the mid-Sixties, in his late teens (he is now 48). He put on his metaphorical Jack Kerouac hat and set out from the Shropshire farm he'd been raised on by his mother and grandparents (his father left when he was very young) to circle the globe. "It's very difficult in the context of the 1990s to picture it as being as easy as it was," he insists. "You could get on boats and hitch lifts and it would never occur to you that someone might have nefarious plans for you ... All I did really was go one step further than the guy who went to London."
While in New Zealand, Bates had a job artificially inseminating cattle. He must get asked this all the time, but could he take take us through the insemination process? "It involves rubber gloves, a certain amount of muscular activity with your right arm, and sensitivity towards the cow ... because the intrusion isn't always welcome." This must have been useful training, not only for Bates's subsequent radio career, but also for his other line of business; the 300-acre Buckinghamshire stud farm he runs with his wife Carolyn - a professional concern, far from the "funny farmstead" of Smashie & Nicey legend, it "has to make a profit, or we're in trouble".
It would not take a genius to guess Simon Bates's opinion on the big Radio 1-not-playing-useless-new-Beatles-single issue. Having tuned in randomly on several occasions to hear him slagging off Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister (once the butt of DJ banter as a humble Newsbeat reporter, Bannister's purge at the station was responsible for Bates's pre-emptive resignation), the evidence suggests that Bates is still boiling with fury at his old paymasters. If rage there be, it is well bottled up off the air. "The new culture on Radio 1 is as valid as the old one and the one before mine," he insists with quiet dignity. "I just disagree fundamentally with the idea of getting up and saying `Oh well, if we lose an audience, we lose it'."
For all Chris Evans's success in putting a smile back on Radio 1's public face, most of the millions of listeners lost in the course of the station's radical make-over have yet to return. Bates admits that the old one-nation- fantasy version of Radio 1 was on its way out, but discerns an anti-populist bias in the station's hipper-than-thou new look. "The popular base is something that British broadcasters - and I'm not just talking about Radio 1 now - are rather frightened of," he observes trenchantly. "People are always saying `We can't possibly have this or that because it's not credible'. But credible is a very dangerous word. It's the classic pomposity of the British class system; the idea that you're not happy to run something people want to listen to, you've got to be `taken seriously'."
Being taken seriously was hardly on the agenda for Talk Radio UK's debut line-up, featuring as it did the razor-sharp mental reflexes of Caesar the Geezer: a man once heard to say "People think I'm stupid but actually I'm a member of Mencap." "When this station started there was obviously a strong American influence," Simon Bates admits. "The Americans came over here and said, `Well, this works in Dumbfuck Idaho [Warning: an off- air conversation with Simon Bates will contain some sexual swear-words]'. Of course it won't work here, why in God's name would they think it would?"
With commendable enthusiasm, Bates sets about explaining the difference between the corporate structures of British and American radio. Ours "stems from a protestant ethic in the Thirties, a propaganda effort in in the Second World War, a sense of oneness and a sense of nation". America on the other hand "is all about being open to all-comers, so their radio is much more accessible. If you take the two skeletons," he concludes, "I don't think there's any connection between them. The pirates always believed they sounded American, but actually they sounded like British people - slightly nervous."
Simon Bates' first job at the BBC was as a Radio 4 continuity announcer and newsreader. "I was very bad at it too," he maintains. "I never mastered the art of saying `Radio 4' between the end of one programme and the start of the next. If you try it, it's really very difficult." He tries it. It really is very difficult. There were problems with newsreading too. "I'm not very good with facts. And Michael Aspel once told me that to be a good newsreader the stuff has to go in through the eyes, out through the mouth and bypass the brain, otherwise you'd realise the enormity of what you were saying."
But isn't that the essence of DJ-hood; that you would have your personal opinion, but somehow it wouldn't be relevant? Bates guffaws. "I think that's the most intelligent thing you could say about 17 years at Radio 1. The broadcaster's opinion doesn't matter." But how does that feel? "You mean does it feel like a negation of yourself? No, not at all, because you have so much personal involvement in any programme that you make. It's not like you just turn up and get given a script - that would be a terrible way to make a living."
Simon Bates had the chance to take the money and read when he left Radio 1, but he didn't take it, and now he's glad he didn't. "At Talk Radio I can do 10 minutes on [justly infamous Shropshire poet] AE Housman," he enthuses "and the audience wont walk away." He's happy he didn't go for a TV career either. A self-deprecating shrug: "I mean, look at me. I've done the odd series - one or two have been quite good, some have been appalling - but I've never understood why it is assumed that everyone wants to put on a bright green blazer and a pair of unfortunate slacks and go out in front of the cameras."
An anguished pause ensues. "I can see myself with some cards in my hands and some poor benighted contestants." He shudders. "I'd be a total ..." The voice trails away. They said it couldn't happen, but Simon Bates is lost for words.
8 `Breakfast with Bates': Talk Radio UK, 1089 kHz, Mon-Fri, 7-10am
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