Obituary: Monty Modlyn
Saturday 14 May 1994
MONTY MODLYN was BBC Radio's original chirpy cockney, the market trader turned broadcaster whose down-to-earth questions and forthright comments made him loved or loathed, and the title of his 1971 autobiography, Pardon My Cheek, was a reflection of his attitude to life, brushing aside with a laugh those who did not appreciate his brash, daring manner.
He found his greatest success on the Today programme with Jack de Manio, after experiencing difficulty in getting his distinctive accent accepted by producers on national radio. His forte was interviewing ordinary people, but he also had a knack of greeting royalty or aristocrats with the words 'Ullo, darlin' '.
Born into a London Jewish family who owned two gown shops and a market stall in Lower Marsh, outside Waterloo Station, Modlyn began his working life as a hairdresser but later switched to his parents' business. While serving with the RAF during the Second World War, he was granted leave to present Down Lambeth Way (1942), a radio show whose idea he had submitted to the BBC. It followed an audition at which the producer asked Modlyn which drama school he had attended, to which he replied that he had received no training. Modlyn would broadcast from different places in the region and talk to locals. It was here that he gained his reputation as a master of vox pop, getting people in the street to talk spontaneously about anything and everything.
The show was a forerunner to Down Your Way, although Modlyn was not chosen to present that programme. Throughout the Forties and Fifties, he battled to get on BBC radio, bombarding the Corporation with programme ideas. Occasionally they let him loose, presenting the shows Cockney Cabaret (1949) for the General Overseas Service, featuring records by stars such as Tommy Trinder and Flanagan and Allen, and most famously Cockney Capers (1954-56) which reappeared in the programme Turntable (1959-60).
By this time, the BBC believed that these cockney-orientated shows were no longer ideal for national consumption and that record programmes were moving into a new era, but Modlyn bounced back on the Today programme, making his debut in 1964 and becoming known for his interviews with eccentrics, such as a woman who kept a crocodile in the bath and another who talked to birds. At the same time, he worked by night as a proofreader on the Daily Mail.
Then, after success with a show for Tyne Tees Television, the ITV company in the North-east, Modlyn moved to Thames Television, with a regular spot on the regional news magazine Today and his own programme, A Town Called . . ., which repeated the Down Your Way format. His travels were not confined to Britain, however. He even secured an interview with Idi Amin in which he discarded his agreed questions and asked whether the Ugandan dictator slept with all of his four wives at the same time and whether he castrated his enemies. Amin denounced him as cheeky and took a shine to his interviewer.
Modlyn was also one of the original team on Capital Radio when the independent local radio station started broadcasting in 1973, most often found out in the street asking people's opinions on different issues, and he hosted a phone-in show on LBC, the London news and information station.
Endless work for charity, especially the RSPCA, led to Modlyn being appointed OBE in 1983, but he was plagued by ill-health during his last 10 years.
'Monty was the epitome of the fat, jolly man, a bit of a Danny Baker of his generation,' recalls the disc jockey Dave Cash, who worked with him at Capital Radio. 'He was the vox pop king. If we wanted anything, however bizarre, he would always say , 'Yeah, I can do it]' '
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