How Suggs is taking the airwaves by storm

Suggs has reinvented himself as a broadcaster, proponent of long lunches and lover of exotic teas. Ian Burrell meets the ex-Nutty Boy
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It could be said that, whether in a hostelry on the Fulham Road at the culmination of a Chelsea game or during an afternoon of "research" in a cosy Soho alehouse, Suggs has been known to partake of the odd sherbet.

He was, he points out, frequently heralded by The Sun as Britain's "No 1 Caner", a tribute that would usually be supported by pictorial evidence of the Madness singer "falling out of various premises".

So Suggs – real name Graham McPherson – flipped the script, and is redefining his image around a warmer beverage.

"I love tea very much," he says. "A bit like my booze, I tend to mix it up a bit depending on my mood. I'm not averse to a bit of Lapsang souchong, if I could say it. Earl Grey is probably my favourite, though I do like a loose leaf Darjeeling."

On weekdays from 2pm until the brewing hour of 4pm, the one-time Nutty Boy presents Afternoon Tea with Suggs on Virgin Radio. He wants the show to reintroduce a traditional moment of respite from the media-driven swirl of modern life. "I'm sick of seeing people wandering the streets having Pret A Manger sandwiches," he says. "They should have a decent break. That's what we used to have. It should be part of the British constitution that we should have an hour or two in the afternoon dunking biscuits in tea."

Making the transition from pop star to broadcaster isn't as easy as one might imagine. Suzi Quatro, Tom Robinson and Clint Boon are among those who have moved successfully from stage to radio, but few former musicians have established themselves as television presenters.

Suggs, though, is making award-winning documentaries and is regularly employed as a presenter by the BBC and ITV. Seated in a studio at Virgin headquarters in Soho's Golden Square in jeans, black brogues and jean jacket, Suggs is modest about his on-air achievements.

"I've done a bit of broadcasting but I'm still relatively new to it," he says, admitting that radio presenting can be as nerve-wracking as preparing to open a gig. "It does compare. When you have to go on the radio and you are feeling a bit shaky you can get terrified by the whole process. There's the odd moment when you think 'Oh God, there's going to be a lot of people out there listening.'"

Last year Suggs won a Royal Television Society "Presenter of the Year" award for his work on the ITV show Disappearing London. Amidst the emotional whirl of accolades and popping Champagne corks, he used his acceptance speech to announce his retirement from TV. "I'd had a few, and I told them that was it," he recalls. "I was in my pomp and my work here was done."

It didn't turn out that way, of course. He has recently been in great demand, making a two-parter for ITV called Suggs in Soho – in which he was trounced at snooker by Stephen Fry in the Groucho Club – and a documentary on Wembley stadium for the BBC. Naturally, he also featured heavily in the recent BBC 4 retrospective on Madness, part of the Young Guns Go For It music series, in which he reminisced that by the age of 25 he had achieved pretty much all of his ambitions in life.

Now that he is getting older, is Suggs concerned about being typecast as a chirpy geezer, representing a London that – to quote the title of his award-winning show – is disappearing? "That's the whole problem with talking about London and being a Londoner – sliding into Dick Van Dyke," he acknowledges. "But I don't feel I do that in my own work."

He's quite aware, though, that for much of the public he will always be nutty Suggs, welcoming them to the House of Fun. So his weekend knees-up on Virgin Radio, Suggs Party Classics, is still a key component of his work.

The show was nominated for a Sony award in 2005. Though the presenter is sensitive about the terminology – "don't say oldies" – it has a tried-and-tested musical strategy. "It's like if you went round somebody's house on a Saturday night or if you went to a party after a wedding," he says. "We'll occasionally stick in a bit of Joe Dolce or some songs from Grease or some classic Fifties rock'*'roll, real out-and-out party music. Madness is a pretty good indication of the things I like. If you're playing records at home you can play a few obscure ones, but you've got to get 'Maggie May' out at some point. It would be a dreary evening otherwise."

Suggs's position at the heart of Virgin Radio's schedule has brought him into contact with some of the station's more dedicated listeners: the winners of competitions to accompany Suggs on weekends away.

"There was a man with a giant tattoo of Madness down his leg. He asked me to sign his arm, and I was aware of the fact that he was probably going to have it tattooed, so I tried to do it as neatly as possible – but it all went completely wonky. We had a girl who was a contortionist who did things on the dancefloor we really didn't want to see. Another man had trained for NASA and never quite made it. He was going to go on a flight to the moon, though he looked like he had already and didn't need to."

Suggs also fights to preserve sites of London's popular cultural heritage, such as Camden's Electric Ballroom and the Hammersmith Palais, the subject of another documentary he has made. But he is pessimistic about saving such venues. "You just end up going 'Well, that's that then.' It seems a shame there isn't a board of people's cultural entertainment who could say 'Well actually, if we can keep Drizzingford manor house going...'"

Then the thought of a brew cheers him up. "I'd like to organise a proper tea party in Regent's Park. Someone can bring buns, someone cheese, someone cucumber. Collectively we can make a tea party with some trestle tables and a bit of acoustic music in the bandstand. That'll be nice. I've got other ideas about things I'd like to do on the radio but ... one step at a time," he says – very nearly quoting a good opening line for a tune.