As Alan Partridge, North Norfolk Digital's premier mid-morning DJ, walked down the red carpet in Norwich last week at the premiere of his new film he was accosted by a middle-aged man clutching a foam microphone. “Welcome to Norwich, Alan,” he said. “From the real North Norfolk Radio.”
That man in the sports casual turquoise T-shirt was Graham Lewis, 45, programme manager at North Norfolk Radio and popular presenter of its drive-time show. As the pair chatted about Cromer pier, it was a scene that fans of Partridge had long dreamed of. Was this, finally, the meeting between the fictional DJ and the man who inspired him? The writers, including Armando Iannucci and the Gibbons brothers, have long avoided naming their real-life muse. Richard Madeley, Michael Aspel and BBC Radio Norfolk's Wally Webb have all been mooted. According to Steve Coogan: “We're all three steps away from being Alan Partridge.”
Lewis is a step closer than most. The two DJs share strikingly similar biographies. Partridge began his career on hospital radio, moving on to Traffic Buster on Radio Norwich before becoming a sports reporter at the BBC, reaching a career high with his chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You. When that was axed, he went back to Radio Norwich and then North Norfolk Digital, the setting for Mid-Morning Matters and the film, Alpha Papa.
Lewis began his career on student radio at UEA. Halfway through his first year studying electronic engineering, he spent two weeks as teaboy at Radio Broadland (now Heart Norfolk) and didn't leave for 11 years. “I announced the start of the first Gulf War in 1991,” he says. “And the closure of the Nestlé chocolate factory in Norwich. That was a massive story.” After that he went to Anglia TV as a “jack of all trades” for nine years. Then, six years ago, faced with the choice between a transfer to national news at ITN or North Norfolk Radio, he chose home. “Everyone said, 'You're mad'.” Why did he do it? “Because it's my area. It's local. I have regulars who ring up and I don't even have to ask their name. I know their voices. Debbie from Field Dalling, Jax from Blakeney…”
Despite biographical similarities, Lewis denies that he is the real-life Partridge. “The inspiration is no radio presenter in Norfolk,” he says. “So North Norfolk Digital is nothing like North Norfolk Radio? ”It's not,“ says Lewis. ”Coogan came up with the idea and then stuck a pin in the map.“ So Norfolk is irrelevant? ”Yep. But it does work well.“
It does. And when the producers of the film needed a little local knowledge for their script, it was Lewis they called. Similarly, when Lewis and colleagues went to Cromer Pier for the Alpha Papa shoot, they were waved on to the set, having been taken for cast members by security. There was even a plan to shoot at the NNR studio. “But then they didn't because we're too remote.”
North Norfolk Radio broadcasts from a farmyard on the 4,000-acre Stody estate, 45 minutes from Norwich's pedestrianised city centre. The studio, in the farm's former milking parlour, is the only one in the UK to have a thatched roof. Outside, Aberdeen Angus cattle graze in the fields. Once they escaped and laid siege to the studio. “The newsreader was on and you could hear these moos,” says Lewis. “I'm sorry to say the DJ didn't come off the back of it and say 'Thank you Sophie, for the moos!'” The only signs of a broadcaster are a green placard painted with the station slogan – “We Love Life Round Here” (“Actually that's the old slogan,” Lewis points out. “The new one is 'Just Great Songs and Local News for North Norfolk.'”), a branded Jeep and a big mast. In the winter, when snow blocks the track, Lewis and his team will sleep at the station toensure business at usual. “We start getting tinned food in November and we have two emergency sleeping bags,” says Lewis. “It's when local radio comes into its own.”
North Norfolk Radio is a local life-line. It broadcasts 24 hours a day and serves seven towns – North Walsham, Cromer, Sheringham, Aylsham, Holt, Fakenham and Wells-next-the-Sea – and their 91,000 residents. Since its first broadcast on 10 November 2003 it has increased its reach to 21,000 listeners a week. Their target listener is early 40s but the reality is a bit older, says Lewis. In the five years he has been in charge, numbers have gone up by 33 per cent.
What's the secret of its success? “It is north Norfolk. Heart covers the same area as us, plus Norwich plus Ipswich right down to Essex. We are the only station that talks constantly about north Norfolk. It's not talking about the Orwell Bridge in Ipswich on the travel. People in north Norfolk don't care about that. If you could put a drawbridge up and surround north Norfolk, the locals would love it.”
If hyperlocal is the watchword, then Lewis, one of three full-time DJs at the station, is its embodiment. Born and bred in Leatheringsett 10 minutes away, his mother worked on the Stody estate, nursing the mother of Adele McNicol, whose late husband was the station's first chairman. Now divorced, Lewis lives in the family home and has a partner, Christine. “Yes, she's a listener.” Does she give him feedback? “Oh yes. It's very good to hear from her because she's right on target audience. Well she's 50, but near enough.”
Inside the milking parlour, it is 3pm and time for Lewis to put on his headphones. The studio walls are covered with buzz phrases: “Sell the Music”, “Topical About Today”, “Locally Relevant”. Lewis' four-hour drivetime show is a masterclass of its type – traffic, weather and news bulletins broken up with pairs of songs from charts gone by. The playlist is pre-scheduled but Lewis can tweak it if he wishes. “If it's a really hot day and ”It's Raining Men“ is in there, I might put ”Walking on Sunshine“ instead. You adapt to suit.” It is not a talkshow but if listeners want to discuss hot issues – “Car-parking, double-yellow lines in Holt, or the closure of the crab factory in Cromer,” – he will take calls.
Signature items are quizzes, Home and Away (one question about Norfolk, one about national matters) and Anagrams (of local place names). Players can win Norwich City tickets, or go-karting sessions. “People love little prizes. If you offered a million pounds people would think 'I'm never going to win', and they won't call.” And after 6pm, it's Drive Time Anthems. Lewis' favourites are Tom Robinson's “2 4 6 8 Motorway”, Van Halen's “Jump” and anything by Blondie or Abba.
Unlike Partridge, Lewis has never made a gaffe on air. “Without being big-headed I'm local so I don't tend to get things wrong. I once left a letter out of my Anagram and, boy, did I get some flak! It was Glandford, and I missed out the D. The first two callers got the answer anyway. I just went on air and said, 'Hands up, I'm human!'”
In a corner of the studio, propped against the wall is a signed poster for Alpha Papa. Lewis says he will put it up at some point. So is he a Partridge fan? “Yes. I will go and see the film - no two ways about that.” Has Partridge had a positive effect for north Norfolk? “Yes. The only people who could be offended are people who are radio presenters in north Norfolk. And we all think it's funny. But I prefer Drop the Dead Donkey. That's my favourite comedy of all time.”
ONE-LINE WONDERS: GRAHAM OR ALAN?
1. Here’s Marc Almond. I heard an awful story about him the other day. I’m sure it can’t be true.
2. The row goes on about the wind turbine in Bodham. For those objecting: Why not move to Chernobyl? And this morning we’re talking spam – not the emails but the tinned meat. Love to have your recipes!
3.If it’s a driving anthem, it’s got to be Abba’s “Does Your Mother Know?” Which is a bit unique, actually, because the guys take the lead on vocals, not the girls.
4. The Swedish don’t have a bad life when you think about it. I mean, they get up in the morning, have a bowl of swede. Hop in the Volvo, whack on a bit of Abba and zip over to Ikea. That’s my Sunday. Apart from the swede. I have Kellogg’s Common Sense.
5. I have three rules – 1. Have a cup of coffee in the morning 2. Don’t trust anyone 3. Floss
6. I once won a space-hopper race. It was in Clacton in 1977. And I will I always remember it because it was also the day that Elvis Presley died.
Alan Partridge: 1, 4, 5. Graham Lewis: 2, 3, 6