I was about 25 and working in Selfridges' wine department, and loathing every minute of it. Little old ladies with umbrellas who couldn't get Harrods credit cards would poke you in the back and call you "young man", which would drive you crazy.
I hated it, so I rang the BBC and got through to David Lloyd James. He was one of those gentleman-broadcasters and the head of presentation, which meant head of announcers. I said I used to be a newsreader, which was a bit of a fiction - I'd read the news briefly when I was in Australia - and he said: "Come up and see me."
In those days, the BBC was quite intimidating. He sat me down and gave me a gin and tonic, which I thought was terrific. I told him what I'd done and he was absolutely charming, because I was a bit of a gauche idiot, really. He rang me about a month later, which was quite extraordinary, and offered me a three- month contract reading the news on Radio 4.
He was very high-flown so I didn't see him much, but at the end of the three months I said: "With all due respect, I never auditioned for you." He looked at me as if I was a fool and said: "Well, the people I rang in Australia said they knew you and that you were perfectly adequate. If you'd been terrible I could have put you in the typing pool."
He was like that; a truly good-humoured person who inspired confidence. Lots of people, then and now, don't do that for juniors. He believed profoundly in the English language as a form of communication; it didn't bother him what accent you had as long as you spoke with clarity. I didn't think my contract would lead to anything, but they extended it to a year.
He was an extraordinary man and I've never forgotten him. He was just a very down-to-earth and realistic academic who happened to work in the corporation, and who made the corporation work for him.
Simon Bates presents Classic FM's 'Breakfast Show', weekdays 7-11amReuse content