Michael George Smith: Popular radio and television presenter who was Princess Diana’s favourite DJ
Tuesday 05 August 2014
Polite and highly presentable, Mike Smith, who has died from complications following major heart surgery, was something of a golden boy in British broadcasting of the Eighties. His bright, enthusiastic but calm voice woke up millions of listeners during his two years as host of Radio 1’s Breakfast Show (and made him Princess Diana’s favourite DJ), and he and his wife, Sarah Greene, made a handsome, trusted couple, ideally suited to children’s and family entertainment. Very much a product of Middle England, he was decidedly and deliberately mainstream, disliking those broadcasters of today who seem “to talk to themselves or to an inclusive group” rather than connecting with an entire audience.
Michael George Smith was born in Hornchurch, Essex, in 1955, and attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford. From an early age he was fascinated by motorsports as much as pop music, and as well as hosting a school disco, at seventeen he took up motor-racing and rallycross. He presented on Broomfield Hospital Radio in Chelmsford, then joined Radio 1 in 1975 to work on promotions and as a standby DJ. It proved a valuable apprenticeship, and three years later he became a presenter on Capital Radio, London’s first commercial radio station.
Despite the station frequently (and secretly) being in danger of collapsing under the weight of the financial crises in Seventies Britain, Capital at this time was a vivid operation that expressed something of the London buzz through the eager, busy style of presenters such as Kenny Everett and Roger Scott. Smith took over the station’s Breakfast Show in the summer of 1980, while kick-starting his television career with the Thames children’s show CBTV (1981-83). In 1982 he returned to Radio 1 to host the pre-breakfast slot from 6am.
He moved to lunchtimes on Radio 1 in 1983, and then the following year onto BBC1 as one of the hosts of Breakfast Time (at that point trouncing its rival, Good Morning Britain, thanks to its winning blend of cosy jumpers and coffee-morning chat). He was also a part of the channel’s Saturday night line-up, co-hosting The Late Late Breakfast Show (1984-86) with Noel Edmonds.
He began hosting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show in May 1986. “I love great pop music” he said in 2010, “but there would be weeks when we were machine-gunned with stuff by Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Half of the top forty would be by them… ” (All the same, his wholesome style led him to ban The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Some Candy Talking from the airwaves, suspecting that the lyrics smacked of heroin flirtation).
A helicopter crash in 1988 left him and Greene seriously injured, but they recovered and married shortly after, having been a couple since 1981. Smith was shrewd enough to now sense the tide turning in radio, and moved back to television, where there was always room for his style of presenting, and where he was firmly established, having also presented on Live Aid, Top of the Pops and Comic Relief.
He fronted Railwatch (1989), a week-long vigil from York railway station, and after his wife hosted the subsequent Hospitalwatch (1991), they were perfect choices for Ghostwatch (1992), an electrifying BBC film that imagined a live television investigation into poltergeist activity in a London house. Vivified by the casting of real presenters (that also included Michael Parkinson, after an even more devilish choice, Nick Ross, refused) Ghostwatch was an exciting exploration of public perceptions of the media (on the front of the final draft of Stephen Volk’s screenplay was typed a quote from Terry Waite’s brother David, who upon hearing rumours of his brother’s release from captivity said “I won’t believe it until I see it on television”), but the programme caused a media circus of its own when viewers believed what they were watching was real (thanks to how well Smith and his co-stars imitated themselves, something television is traditionally atrocious at doing).
Ghostwatch was a skeleton in the cupboard for the BBC in the years that followed. Smith had tried to warn them that steps should be taken to ensure viewers were not deceived, but instead they underestimated the power of the programme (or overestimated the discernment of the audience, depending on your point of view). Many years later when Smith was in hospital for a shoulder operation, an anaesthetist gleefully wielded his needle and told him that this was his revenge for Ghostwatch having traumatised him as a child.
He maintained his passion for motorsports, participating in many British Touring Car Championship races, and in 2004 merged his broadcasting and aviation skills by founding Flying TV, a company that shot aerial film sequences, and for which he himself often acted as cameraman.
He never missed television, even though he could have easily found a home there again. He did miss radio, however. Smith was certainly in the right place at the right time in the Eighties, and was deft, reassuring and without cynicism, before such traits became decidedly unfashionable.
Michael George Smith, broadcaster, racing driver and cameraman, born Hornchurch, Essex 23 April 1955, married 1989 Elizabeth Sarah Greene; died 1 August 2014.
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