John Walters

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Walters, broadcaster, producer and musician: born Long Eaton, Derbyshire 11 July 1939; married 1966 Helen Gallagher; died Oxted, Surrey 30 July 2001.

One day in 1971, John Walters was waiting at Broadcasting House for his artiste to arrive to record the latest edition of Radio Flashes, of which he was the producer.

The Radio 1 series starred the pop legends Keith Moon and Vivian Stanshall. Walters had encouraged both men to develop their comic talents as writers and performers. The programme was a hit, but proved increasingly difficult to produce. Moon and Stanshall would often turn up the worse for wear, carrying bags full of clanking bottles. On this occasion the Who drummer was raring to go, but the former Bonzo Dog singer was two hours late. Walters recalled: "When he finally turned up and got settled behind the microphone I told the engineer to start recording. But then Vivian turned to me and said 'Hang on mate. I've got to write the script first.'"

It was his unerring ability to spot talent and fight for its voice to be heard that made John Walters much loved and respected in a competitive field. A wry sense of humour, blunt manner and willingness to suffer fools at least some of the time, meant that he could motivate and get results. Walters often displayed a somewhat sardonic attitude towards pop and abhorred its cultural pretensions, but this was leavened by a warm enthusiasm for those artists and performers he most admired, who included his great friend the Radio 1 DJ John Peel and, of course, the late Vivian Stanshall.

As a former art student and musician, Walters had the right stuff to help radio get to grips with rock music in the Seventies. Eloquent, witty and down to earth, he was also just the man to deal with the most recalcitrant egotist. Born in 1939 in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, Walters had begun his career teaching art at a Newcastle comprehensive. He also played trumpet and flugelhorn in semi-professional modern and traditional jazz bands and got to know the local band The Animals that included Alan Price and Eric Burdon.

"Eric Burdon used to sing in one of the bands I was in," recalled Walters after he joined the Alan Price Set in 1965. "I always wanted to play professionally and Alan's band was as near to jazz as you could get and still make a living." John met his future wife Helen Gallagher when they were both teaching at the same school in Newcastle. Her brother was the guitarist Micky Gallagher who played with Skip Bifferty and was later a member of Ian Dury's Blockheads. Helen recalls:

John was at Durham University. We didn't meet during that time but he had been teaching art at Kenton comprehensive for a couple of years, when I arrived there as another young teacher. John had an Honours Degree in Fine Art and had worked under Victor Pasmore. He was a very talented guy. He gave up teaching to join the Alan Price Set. I was at the Club A Go Go in Newcastle when he was playing and during the interval John got my phone number and within a year we got married.

The couple married on 1 August 1966. They moved to Purley, in Surrey, and Helen continued teaching until 1970 when she joined Dick James Music where she was press officer for Elton John until 1973. Meanwhile her husband gave up work as a touring trumpet player and decided to try his hand as a radio producer for the BBC. Helen Walters says:

He thought they would give him a form to fill in and they'd let him know. But they were setting up Radio 1 and he was in the right place at the right time. He often said they probably thought "Well this guy's got a degree so he can read and being a musician he'll know how knobs work" which to be honest, I don't think he did! But they offered him a job.

Walters hooked up with Radio 1's top progressive DJ John Peel and from 1969 Walters became the producer of Peel's long-running show Top Gear. The pair formed a great partnership, to the point where their banter and wordplay became interchangeable. However Walters' love of music didn't blunt his judgement when it came to choosing material for his shows, as Glen Colson, a plugger for Charisma Records, discovered. Colson said:

I had to plug an album by The Nice called The Five Bridges Suite which they'd recorded with an orchestra and was all about Newcastle. We were sure they'd want to play it on the John Peel show. After all the Top Gear show used a piece by The Nice for their theme tune. I knocked on the door and said "Mr Walters, I've got the new Nice album for you." And he looked at the LP and said "If I want any classical music on my show I'll have Mantovani." And he gave me the album back!

The Radio Flashes show was devised after Vivian Stanshall had successfully "depped" for John Peel when the latter was on holiday in August 1971. Walters said, "We used to do spoof adverts for products that Viv invented, like 'Repel-E-Phant, the aerosol answer to today's pachyderm problems brought to you by the makers of Rhi-No the revolutionary rhinoceros repellent'."

Walters's partnership with Peel continued for 12 years and they remained firm friends. Only last week Peel wrote in the Radio Times that "the relationship between us is that of a man and his dog, each believing the other to be the dog". His thoughts on Walters were sparked off by a Radio 4 producer who asked him if he had a best friend he might like to talk about. Peel recalled that Walters was the best man when he married, was his Radio 1 producer for 20 years and "was sustained in his retirement by his determination to deliver the eulogy at my funeral. This eulogy will be unbelievably long and more about Walters than about me!"

Walters was a consummate broadcaster, with an easy charm and sparkling humour, much appreciated on shows like Start The Week and Woman's Hour. He had his own Radio 1 series called Walters Weekly and another Radio 4 series, Idle Thoughts. He appeared on BBC TV's Northern Lights and in 1990 he had a Radio 4 series called Largely Walters, in which he covered everything from train spotting to cannibalism. Walters Beside the Seaside took a dryly laconic look at the traditional British holiday.

John Walters never lost interest in his first love, however, and still liked to play the trumpet, often jamming with BBC colleagues at his "lunch time o'blues" jazz sessions. Walters officially retired from the BBC in 1991 and then went freelance. Most recently he had been doing a series for Sky TV called Cinema Nation in which he visited old cinemas around the country.

He recently sold a vast record collection of LPs, which he had stored in the basement of his Surrey home. Walters sometimes felt that his generation had maintained too strong a grip on pop music. Symbolically he decided to sell the collection of LPs. He wrote later "We hugged the music so close to our bosoms that we smothered it. Perhaps we should have let go of the string sooner."

Chris Welch