He's an unlikely icon, wandering into the art-deco grandeur of Broadcasting House in jacket and jeans, a heavy Goth ring on one of his fingers, and a lime-green hat, wet from the rain on his head; and while no one is more "insider" at the Beeb than Peel, he remains aloof from what he calls "all that showbiz bollocks", and admits that the BBC "feels a bit like North Korea". But in James Boyle's shake-up of Radio Four, Peel has landed the most prestigious slot of the week: Home Truths, first broadcast yesterday and intended for at least a year's run, has that Saturday morning hour between the Today programme and Loose Ends. Peel, following the Sony Award- winning Offspring, has stormed the bastille of what he calls "the senior service".
We are sitting in a caff round the corner from Portland Place, somehow a more suitable setting for Peel. "I look like a mini-cab driver," he says, settling down for a chat with his cup of tea. He has none of the airs and graces of a celebrity, the "crumbs from my table" delivery in response to questions. He exudes good-blokeishness. It's ten days before the first programme goes out, and nothing is yet recorded. "We did a pilot of it, which was just awful. The first programme is the problem one... it may be a bit scrappy." The idea is to follow people through the precious leisure time of their weekends: the sports, dog-walks, the divorcees gaining access to children, the lie-ins, the DIY, the shopping. It's tailor-made for Peel, the fly-on-the-wall recording grass-roots, people-centred radio.
Even the production values are democratic, done very much on the hoof. "A lot depends on the response of listeners, the mail and e-mails and phone-calls. You just react to the listeners and rather let them dictate direction... with of course a steadying hand on the tiller. I quite like that. As far as the Radio One programme goes, it's still a benign dictatorship. But if people do write or fax for a specific record, then I will try and play it" - he pauses for dramatic effect - "unless it's glaringly obvious".
No one could accuse Peel of being obvious. Born John Ravenscroft, he's a blend of the mainstream and the marginal: forever described as a "national institution" but never institutionalised. He was brought up in the Cheshire countryside and educated at public school at Shrewsbury, where he once shared the measles sanatorium with Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot, Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker. He remembers little of Michael Palin, "other than the rather galling fact that, like a lot of other smartarse kids, he went into the school higher up. I was amazingly stupid at school." (Palin in turn has recalled Peel simply as: "Lying on his back in his study, eyes closed, and nodding his head in time to the blues music.") So did Peel privately-educate his four kids? "Certainly not," he says with a chuckle, "it gives you too many interesting, long-standing hang- ups, although it does allow you to talk for a minute and a half on almost any subject before you start bluffing."
It was a skill he put to use a few years later. During National Service, he says, "I honed to perfection the skills of petty theft and evasion." The army agreed: "At no time during his National Service has this man shown any sign of adapting to the military way of life," his demob report read. After an assortment of other jobs, he ended up in 1961 hosting an R&B show in Dallas. As everything from Merseyside suddenly became cool (he recalls all the Canadians pretending to be Ringo's cousin), he changed his name, moved to KLMA in Oklahoma and then San Bernadino, before going back to London to work for the pirate Radio London and eventually nesting down at Radio One for 31 years.
Since the iconoclasm of the Sixties, Peel has kicked back into a comfortable rural existence, living in "Peel Acres" in Suffolk with his wife, Sheila (nicknamed "pig" because of her laugh), and four children, two now at college. "I get very fretful, very homesick, when I'm in London." The typical weekend in the Peel household revolves around his kids' "extraordinary number of friends. They're really funny and attractive... they have these huge sleepovers." An office boy until he was 26, Peel is "none too worried" about their careers: "I only have rows with them when they make extra work for their mum."
Despite this domesticity, Peel has constantly kept abreast of the music industry, transforming himself into an elder statesman of broadcasting who is yet more yoof than yoof itself. He introduces new bands but remains himself outside the limelight: "I'm always flattered by having a young audience, but I try not to hang out in the music business, or be a friend of the stars. I don't go clubbing, obviously, so I get baffled by the sheer number of categories. Mary-Ann Hobbes will come steaming into my studio before she goes on and say 'What was that great speed-garage record you played?' and I won't have known it was speed-garage."
Self-effacing, Peel is the opposite of Chris Evans's braggadocio: "I just like doing radio programmes. I've had my disagreements with Radio One over the years, but I'm a loyal kind of chap. People just want me to play the tunes, not have a posse shrieking with laughter in the corner." But he hasn't lost the will to dust down the cobwebs of British society; this summer, he follows in the footsteps of Elvis Costello to host the annual contemporary performance festival Meltdown '98 at the South Bank from 20 June to 5 July. His choices so far have been typically eclectic: showcases for some of the smaller record labels, world music nights, artists from Damian Albarn to Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, and a 23-piece Dutch ensemble playing music gleaned from Laurel and Hardy films.
So does he still feel as if he's storming the establishment? "God no, I'm too old for that. It's a case of grotesque self-indulgence, inflicting my taste on people: I love the idea of people from a high-art background accidently walking into an Extreme Noise Terror gig at the Royal Festival Hall." And as the gigs clash with some of the most vital matches of the World Cup, Peel - a footy fanatic who gave his children middle names of Anfield, Anfield again, Dalglish and Shankly - has arranged for giant screens in the foyers. If the games go into extra time, the concerts will simply kick off later.
"The constant new dawns at the start of each season are more than I can bear," he says of his beloved Liverpool. So I let drop that I'm an Everton fan to see his reaction, see what he's like when he's no longer an underdog, but part of the footballing aristocracy. He's suddenly mischievous, relishing the kicking of a rival club when it's down and dicing with relegation. From football, via Hillsborough, we're on to politics. "The Government," he says of Jack Straw's decision not to reopen the inquiry into the deaths of Liverpool fans, "seems to glory in not doing what they said they were going to do. I was jubilant when they were elected, but it's turned to despair." Peel recently reacted with dismay to possible war with Iraq: "We bombed them, bombed them again and starved them for years... " He first doubted the Blair project when Clare Short was "slapped down for trying to discuss drugs in an adult way. And instead of having Kissinger as a guest they should be stoning the fat bastard." I wonder how he will vote in the future then. "Well," he pauses as he pays for my drink, "I obviously can't vote Tory. Maybe I'll just spoil my ballot."
'Home Truths' is broadcast at 9am every Saturday on Radio 4Reuse content