It's poptastic to be back

After 16 years away, Tony Blackburn has returned to the BBC. Ian Burrell meets the iconic DJ
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The Independent Online

For a disc jockey who launched the nation's "favourite radio station", and prided himself on his fine taste in music, cueing up "Nellie the Elephant" was not part of the broadcasting career plan.

But, at the age of 37, Tony Blackburn found himself presenting BBC Radio 1's Junior Choice, and grinding his teeth as he steeled himself once again for the chorus of the continually-requested kiddies' anthem: "Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk and trundled off to the jungle/ Off she rode with a trumpety trump, trump, trump, trump."

More than two decades later, it was the DJ who packed his trunk and trundled off to the jungle, for a television experiment that has changed his life.

After an absence of 16 years, Blackburn returned to the BBC last month to present The Soul Show on BBC London. It is a homecoming for a presenter whose departure from the corporation was mercilessly lampooned by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, who used him as the inspiration for Whitehouse's caricature of a has-been DJ, Pete "Smashey" Smash.

Blackburn puts the transformation down to his appearance, two years ago, on the television reality show I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. He says the experience left him with a "terrific inner peace" that has helped him to be at ease with his past.

"The jungle experience changed me as a person totally," he says of the time he spent with nine other contestants in the Australian jungle. "I found this calmness and I thought: 'I wonder how long this is going to last for.' And it has lasted. I'm totally different now, much calmer than I used to be, and people treat me totally differently now, for some reason," he says. Blackburn was named "King of the Jungle" by the viewing public, who admired the considerate nature and good manners of the former Sixties icon.

At the age of 61, Blackburn has now found himself with programmes on four radio stations and appearing on two television shows. His fame now is as great as in 1968, when teenage fans requested the Tony Blackburn Annual for Christmas and he released an album called Tony Blackburn Sings.

His workload is phenomenal. On a typical Monday he awakes at his Hertfordshire country home at 3.15am, and drives to studios in Dunstable, where he presents a three-hour breakfast show for Classic Gold that airs between 6am and 9am. Blackburn then heads into London, to make a four-hour music show for Jazz FM, which he finishes doing at around 4pm. He then moves on to BBC London to prepare for his new Soul Show, which he broadcasts between 8pm and 10pm.

"It's a lot isn't it? I just love working, actually. When you enjoy doing something, it's not hard. After this show I get back at 11pm and I have four hours sleep until I get up again," he says.

Blackburn now gets bookings from the Balearic super-clubs. "I have done Ibiza for the last three years. In the most trendy clubs we do the Village People song "YMCA", and they love it. I get them doing congas and things like that and they thoroughly enjoy it," he says.

Thanks to the Smashey character, Blackburn is stuck with a cheesy reputation. But he has chosen to embrace the lampooning of Whitehouse and his comic partner Harry Enfield. "Pop-a-doodle-doo mates," he says, mimicking Smashey. "I always found Smashey and Nicey funny."

Blackburn learned the truth about the inspiration for Enfield and Whitehouse's DJ relics when he appeared on a television programme with the comedians along with his former Radio 1 colleague Alan "Fluff" Freeman. "I asked Paul: 'Who is this modelled on?' He said: 'Well, I'm you, really'. I said: 'Why have you got the fair hair?' He said: 'Well, we didn't want to make it you totally'."

He may claim to find the sketches funny, but he also has to concede that the portrayal of himself and his peers as being washed-up and out of touch with modern music has been "damaging". "A lot of the programme controllers at the time thought 'We're employing dinosaurs here - people that they are laughing at and not with'.Dave Lee Travis didn't like it. It wasn't actually modelled around him, although he always thought it was. It was modelled a bit on Noel Edmonds, and I could see the 'Fluff' Freeman. The 'poptastic' bit is me."

But then there was the sketch that depicted Smashey playing Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey" on a continuous loop, as he pined for his departed wife - a cruel parody of Blackburn's 1977 marital break-up with Tessa Wyatt, which left him inconsolable and sobbing on air. "I heard Paul Whitehouse say in an interview that they were wrong to have done that. They shouldn't have, either," he says. "But it's given me a stage act because I model myself on them."

After the heady days of the Radio 1 Breakfast Show and The Golden Hour, Blackburn was eventually shunted onto Junior Choice. "I was at Radio 1 doing children's programmes, playing "Nellie The Elephant" - which I hated, incidentally. I didn't like the children's programmes, oh no. The funny thing is that so many people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed the programme. I really hated it."

In 1980, Blackburn moved to BBC London, where his Soul Show gave him the chance to indulge his love for the music of artists such as Bobby Womack, Alexander O'Neal and Luther Vandross. He describes the eight years the show lasted as his greatest in radio. "I have this cheesy image, but I've always loved soul, and always chosen my own music." he says. The show was aimed at broadening the audience for black music - "I was going for the cabbies" - by mixing it with "racy phone-calls".

He left the BBC to join Capital Radio in 1988, and remained with the commercial station for 14 years, until I'm A Celebrity presented him with new opportunities.

"When I was at Radio 1 in the Sixties, I wanted to change the world. I was critical of things. I was a bit over the top. I probably said things I shouldn't have done," he says. "I think the truth of the matter is that if I had kept my mouth shut, I would probably have never left the BBC. I would have been Terry Wogan."