The sound of swinging 78s
The voice of Norwich is Keith Skues, and John Peel is his biggest fan. Anthony Clavane takes a trip into Partridgeland
Anthony Clavane is the author of Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?, a social history of Jewish involvement in English football, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Football Book Of The Year. His first book, Promised Land, won the 2011 Sports Book Of The Year.
Wednesday 25 February 1998
Steve Coogan might try to pass off Alan Partridge as a figment of his cheesy imagination, but some of us know better. From Monday to Friday every night in East Anglia and beyond, in the slot known as "God's waiting room", the legendary jock can be heard in the guise of one Richard Keith Skues. "Cyril of Ipswich has requested any Salvation Army music. Well, thanks to June and Sidney of Norwich, I now have a lot more Salvation Army music than I had a month ago ...."
Although aimed at the 60 to 90 age group, the Skues show is developing a cult following in Partridgeland. This is due mainly to the efforts of John Peel. Unlikely as it sounds, Peel has put on hold his devotion to The Fall, Asian dub music and all things hardcore to worship at the altar of Skues. He is a man obsessed, tuning in religiously for a nightly fix of Keyboard Cavalcade, Sedate Seventy Eights and Trivia Quiz Time ("How many cc's were there in the group that sang `I'm Not in Love?'") and eulogising the great man's virtues in his Radio Times column.
"It is a genuine alternative to all the other stuff, you know, the fourth- form, locker-room, Chris Evans clones," explains Peel. John's wife Sheila is beginning to worry about her husband: "One afternoon he just rambled and ranted on about him - me and William, our eldest, thought it was hilarious. We were killing ourselves about it."
Like Partridge, the 58-year-old Skues spins his discs from a Norwich station, is easily irritated by listeners, especially "clever trousers" who try to catch him out and old dears who ask for specific tunes - "Sorry, Betty of Wickford, this is not a request show, m'dear" - and has been stalked by a crazed fan. "Have you seen Play Misty for Me?" he asks. What, the film about the psychotic woman's deranged infatuation with a local radio presenter? "Yes. It's like that. One accused me of breaking and entering her house and siphoning off her petrol. A female arrived at my new home the other week; it had only taken her a week to find out where I lived. She was only a young girl. Probably under 60."
He prefers older listeners, particularly those in their eighties, because they never ring in, complain or try to "bowl me a googly". Instead, they send chocolates cakes, teddy bears and talking parrots. "I do jolly well for pressies," he beams, proudly pointing out a cupboard bulging with Cadbury's Milk Chocolate Biscuit Assortment tins.
The oldies love it when he gets hot under the collar about songs recorded in foreign languages - "This is the English-speaking service of the BBC" - and when he activates the "Skues-O-Graph", a master print-out of their top tunes. After leaving the station, he hops into his "Skuesmobile" - a Ford Sierra - and drives back to his chalet-style house to index another batch of records. "It's a national archive. I've got about 250,000 records. I mean, where's that collection going when I pop me clogs?"
He tugs at his neatly knotted cravat, looks up at the clock, then rushes into the studio just in time for the handover with Mark Whall. Unfortunately, he is too late to hear Mark's opening gambit but, being a pro, breezily replies: "Well, everything here is tick, tick, tick, tickety boo. Alrighty, Mark, see you on the wireless."
It is reassuring to come across a presenter who says wireless. His voice is a throwback to that brief, but golden, era sandwiched between the end of dinner-jacketed newsreading and the beginning of mid-Atlantic, Mockney and Mancunian deejaying. He sounds like Alan Freeman's sensible brother - after a ditty by "Mr Barry Manilow" he throws in a "not'arf" homage to his old mate (they were both in at the launch of Radio Onederful) - and feels frustrated that the age-range of his audience prevents him from playing the sort of poptastic ditties championed by Fluff.
Occasionally, he sticks his head on the chopping block and does something daring, like playing a Cliff Richard or Cilla Black song. But only last week, Jim of Mildenhall, 86 years young, chewed his ear off for playing an Elton John number and he was almost "booed off the air" after spinning a Spice Girls disc. "I got a lot of abuse for that," sighs the dapper, silver-haired DJ. "But, y'know, for the three minutes those records were on, they should have gone to make a cup of Horlicks. Good luck to the young generation, that's what I say. I was a rebel in my day."
When he took over the late-night slot at BBC Eastern Counties, he received stacks of hate mail from people not used to the challenging sounds of Cliff and Cilla. But once the abuse died down, he established himself as the voice of easy listening, protecting listeners from the hazards of "hooligan music" and, as Peel puts it, "discussing, at no little length, the merits and demerits of steel, as opposed to chipboard, shelving for the storage of 78rpm records."
"I think people take pity on me," he says. "Y'see I'm not married. I'm pretty useless at doing the housework and ... hang on ... stand by ...."
Expertly fading out "As Long as He Needs Me", he flirts with Doreen of Long Crendon, but turns down her offer to iron his shirts. Then he signs off with another sigh. "These two hours simply go by very quickly - don't they always? And if you are not feeling too well, may I, Keith Skues, wish you a speedy recovery. And if you are living on your own, good night - that extra special good night. God Bless. Keep warm, many hugs and lots of love."
The Keith Skues Show can be heard on BBC Radio Eastern Counties, Monday to Friday, from 10pm to midnight.
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