Mike Read: Wilde man

He's written endless poems and books (34 and counting). He's penned songs and devised musicals - including the just opened 'Oscar Wilde'. And still everybody thinks of him as the Smashey and Nicey DJ who got booted off 'I'm a Celebrity'. What does a fellow have to do to be taken seriously? Well, perhaps start owning up to your real age for a start...

One of the remarkable things about Oscar Wilde, Mike Read tells me, is the way he became a legend on the basis of "so little output".

"You say 'little...'" I suggest to the former DJ.

"Very little output," Read repeats, steering his Porsche through Soho.

Many people - I'm one of them - consider Wilde's legacy (one classic novel, two volumes of fairytales, four comedies, five tragedies, the best part of 100 poems, the critical essays, the epigrams and the 1,200 pages of his extraordinary Collected Letters) to be fairly good going: the more so, given that the bulk of the Irishman's work was completed before he was 40.

"Well, you look at all of those people," Read replies, "I mean, Keats wrote nearly all his best poems in one year. These days, if a poet wrote loads of poems in one year everyone would say: 'Oh, it's a bit fly-by-night really.'"

I'm not quite sure what Read is getting at here. Is Keats celebrated merely because he lived in the early 19th century? I suspect that when he talks about modern writers being denied fair recognition, Read (who tends to evaluate literature by the Ernie Wise equation of productivity = quality) isn't thinking about the author of "Endymion" at all, but about his own prolific career, which has produced 33 books.

At least 33 is what I had in my original notes. A couple of hours before I set out to meet him, I get an e-mail from a fellow journalist who has closely followed Read's career.

"It's 34 now," the message says. "Another one arrived this morning."

Read's Musical Reciter, a pocket-sized volume of pop anecdotes, is in the vein of much of his earlier work. Many of these books, notably the Guinness collections of chart statistics, which he co-authored, have been highly lucrative, and helped him to live in a manner envied by many of his former BBC colleagues. He has also written four volumes of poetry, eagerly commended to me by his enemies, dozens of pop songs and several musicals. They include Oh, Puck!, his adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Cliff, a tribute to his friend and fellow-bachelor Cliff Richard, in which "Mike himself", to quote the press release for Oscar Wilde, starred.

"Mike Read," the press sheet continues, "made history by being the only person to have presented the breakfast show on three national radio stations" - a phrase which, could he read it, might make Christopher Columbus regret that he wasn't born in the days when immortality could have been secured without all that sailing.

Read, who worked for Radio 1 and Capital before moving to Classic FM (which he left in 1999), has four new books on the go. They include a novel, his autobiography and a history of the FA Cup. He's also composing a musical about the Village People. I tell him I've always admired men of versatility.

"Hilaire Belloc," he says, "wrote 110 books, or 120 - anyway, a lot. He also wrote for children and he was an MP. Henry Purcell," he adds, implicitly associating himself with the inspirational creator of The Fairy Queen, wasn't just a serious composer. He wrote bawdy ballads."

"Bawdy?"

"You know - rude," Read replies, as we near our destination, a flat belonging to his fiancée Eileen Johnston, in Maida Vale. "Naughty, rude songs for men to sing. But this is the balance, isn't it, to your serious side."

I first met Mike Read earlier in the day at the Players' Theatre by Charing Cross station, where I watched him take rehearsals for Oscar Wilde - a musical he wrote in 1990, and has revived to coincide with this month's 150th anniversary of the writer's birth. There was a lot of laughter - something you don't always hear so close to an opening night - from Read and his impressive, mainly young cast. He was generous and considerate towards the actors when they dried. Improvisation is difficult, because the dialogue is in rhyming couplets.

"It's like King Lear only worse," Deborah, his prompter, said. "You can't busk it."

The lyrics include:

"There is still a chance that he'll be a man.

I hope he'll show the English that he can."

And:

"Down in Atlanta

My light-hearted banter

Is still on their minds."

I have to declare an interest at this point. I spent three years researching a PhD on Oscar Wilde; I never finished it, but I knew all that time in the library would come in handy one day. While Read's taste in librettos is not necessarily mine, I had more fun watching an hour of Oscar Wilde in rehearsal than I've had from a lifetime's exposure to the finished works of Read's good friend Andrew Lloyd Webber. At one point Wilde, hallucinating in his prison cell, is revisited by the labourers he met on his 1882 visit to the Rocky Mountains. The tango which accompanies what Read calls this "fantasy sequence" ("He Drank the Miners Under the Table in Leadville, Co-lorado") has remained indelibly fixed in my mind.

This is not material that's necessarily bound for Broadway. That said, Oscar Wilde (which will be introduced on its press night, this Tuesday, by the playwright's grandson Merlin Holland, who has praised it) is a show that should be regarded as unmissable, both by Read's fiercest critics and his devoted fans. Whichever of these camps you belong to, go - Oscar Wilde will be your best night out this year.

When we reach Maida Vale, Read leads the way into a basement flat furnished by Eileen, an interior designer who publicly consoled him after he became the first contestant to be ejected from the Australian jungle in I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, in January. His extensive collection of books and rock ephemera (slightly less extensive since Eileen, who he met in 2001, took him on Life Laundry last year) is in his own house in West Sussex. He seems a little disoriented here, in this sparse living-room, with spotless cream sofas, impeccably arranged flowers and just one book - a collection of photographs by David Bailey. He makes himself a plate of buttered oat-cakes and - as many longstanding bachelors might - sits down and begins to eat before he remembers to ask if I want anything.

Beneath the unforgiving overhead electric light, he looks much as he ever did. He's traditionally compared to Cliff Richard, but his face, with its deep laugh lines and narrow eyes, also reminds me of Arsène Wenger, except of course that the Arsenal manager's hair has turned grey, a fate Read has been fortunate enough to avoid. Wenger, at 55, is three years older than Mike. Or at least I think he is.

"I have your date of birth down as 1 March 1952, is that right?"

"Yes."

There is a Mike Read who resembles him in every detail and was interviewed by the Daily Mail in 1997, but this poor devil was born in 1950, meaning he's been eligible for Saga motor insurance for almost five years. A Michael Read is also registered on the Friends Reunited website. He attended the same schools as our Mike Read, and his FR page redirects you to the former DJ's internet site, but Michael Read has given his date of leaving secondary education as 1966, at which time my interviewee would have been just 13 or 14 and consequently, by this reckoning, could have attended nursery school while still in the womb. We press on.

His voice seems to have become permanently programmed with bass range echo set at seven. Is this deliberate?

"Your voice," Read answers, "is your voice. You can't go round in life trying to be something you're not. It's just..." For a moment he sounds like the man he refers to throughout our conversation simply as "Oscar": "too tiresome."

When he was approached to write his autobiography, says Read, a man not normally plagued by self-doubt, he initially resisted. "I felt I couldn't do warts and all," he explains, "and all the sleazy bits."

It's true that an unusually high percentage of cuttings from his Radio 1 days include unflattering testimony from young women. Read emerges from these articles as an uncompromisingly direct ladies' man with little taste for commitment. There is very limited information about his early life. All I really know is that his father ran a pub in north Manchester.

"I was born in Manchester."

"What was the name of the pub?"

"My father didn't have a pub in Manchester. My grandparents had a place there... a hotel..."

"And its name was?"

"The Bay Horse Hotel."

"Did it cater for overnight guests at all?"

"No."

"It was a pub."

"Yes."

An only child, he was still an infant when the family moved to Walton-on-Thames, where Les Read kept The Kiwi (now The Wellington) on the high street. Read got his first paid job in broadcasting at Radio 210 in Reading in 1976; he joined Radio 1 two years later. *

In the early 1980s, he presented the BBC1 programme Saturday Superstore although Read now sounds circumspect about the benefits of children's broadcasting.

"For parents to ignore their kids and stick them in front of the TV," he says, "is crazy."

There speaks a man who's never lived with young children. If you got woken at 5.30am every day, I tell him, you'd be as glad as I am to leave them in the care of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

"Parents," he replies, "have to set the rules."

When I ask what his father was like, Read, who has a tendency to deflect such enquiries into a sporting arena, replies:

"He was a keen golfer, a keen footballer..."

"I'm more interested in what he was like as a man. Was he like you?"

"No... well... yes. He was easy-going. A great footballer. And a golfer..."

"Was he strict?"

"Fathers were then. I don't think that's a bad thing. I deplore the nanny state."

"Were you smacked?"

"Everybody was then. But that didn't bother you," says Read, diving for the anonymity of the second person. "It's a corrective thing. Animals do it in the wild. Quite correctly."

"Did you have a happy childhood?"

"It was fantastic. We played tennis..."

"And your mother?"

"She taught me chess."

"But her character..."

"I'm trying to build it for you."

"Where was she from?"

"Lancashire."

"Where, precisely?"

"I haven't got a clue. That's like asking me if I was breast-fed."

Read insists he has no idea where his widowed mother, Beryl, was born because he has never asked her.

"What does she sound like?"

"She doesn't have a Northern voice," he replies. "It was probably educated out of her."

If Read has one defining enthusiasm, it is a profound affection for a kind of Home Counties Englishness: a landscape which is peopled by John Betjeman and Rupert Brooke (whose biography he wrote); it's a place where you find cream teas, croquet and hotels rather than pubs. I feel sure that he won't mention Beryl's birthplace because it's somewhere such as Bury or Wigan, whose name might coarsen this idyllic vision, but he insists he simply doesn't know (and in a subsequent telephone conversation adds that "I've asked friends where their mothers were born and nine out of 10 of them aren't sure either").

One image which recurs in his 1996 volume of poems, A Room Full of Books, is that of a clean girl playing tennis. I found my copy in a second- hand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. It's inscribed: "To Simon."

"Who hocked it: Bates or Mayo?"

"Neither."

Read is chairman of the Rupert Brooke Society, whose members include Mary Archer.

"Would it be accurate to say you are a friend of Lord Archer?"

"It wouldn't be accurate, no. But then again," he adds, in a phrase worthy of the peer himself, "it wouldn't be inaccurate, because they have both been very kind towards me."

Read traditionally does a musical turn at the Conservative Party Conference and has been informally mooted as a parliamentary candidate.

"Going back to your childhood," I ask him, "do you have any memories that aren't great?"

"Well, I was just telling you about the great ones... the tennis... I'd organise Olympic Games for my friends."

"Any sorrow at all? Any distress?"

"Not really."

Read says he suffered from agoraphobia briefly as a young man, but that this was caused by football ("I was kicked in the head") and cured when he forced himself to play in a cricket match.

He concedes less than anyone I've ever interviewed in terms of his own vulnerability.

"I'm not going to sit here and talk about vulnerability," he says. To do so, he insists, is un-English. "It's like when I came out of the jungle in Australia. Everybody tried to get me to say I was angry, and that it was judicious editing."

"But isn't that precisely what you did say? Didn't you complain [Hello!, February 2004] that the show was "a farce", edited to portray you as 'a boring old git?'"

"I never said that."

"I can't understand why you went on that show in the first place."

"I loved the adventure. I went in the helicopter, which I'd never done," replies Read, who says travelling to Sydney overcame a fear of flying. "You did things you'd never done; sleeping out at night. Washing in the river."

Alone with John Lydon, he adds, "We talked a lot about Keats and Byron and Shelley and punk and flora and fauna and that."

Read, according to one former Radio 1 executive who knows him well, "was always something of a loner. And he's always been fairly secretive - which used to be a very Radio 1 kind of a thing. Some DJs felt, as some pop stars do, that to discuss certain matters demeaned them."

Read went to Woking Grammar, then sixth-form college; he says he chose not to go to university "because I knew I wanted to write music".

He worked for a while as an estate agent, and recorded under various names, including Mickey Manchester. Read joined 210 after he met its controller at a cricket ground. By 1981 he'd taken over Dave Lee Travis's Radio 1 breakfast show, a slot he occupied for five years.

"When I arrived at Radio 1, I found that Mike Read, unlike one or two of the older DJs, was not aloof, patronising or an utter bastard," says Andy Kershaw, now of Radio 3. "He would take the time to talk to you in the lift, or to get you a coffee. I think he could see that I was enthusiastic about the music, and obsessive, and I recognised and respected both those qualities in him. Though I did ask myself," Kershaw adds, "how anybody could possibly become obsessed with Cliff Richard."

Read, like his most famous friend, likes to show a positive face to an ugly world. Which must make it all the more galling that his press archive is peppered with headlines such as "Read the Rat: Horlicks in Bed Led to Passion" and "DJ Mike Blasts Kiss'n'Tell Girls Who May Force Him to Quit Showbiz."

"All of that was pointless crap," says Read, who successfully sued one of his accusers, a model called Cindy Milo who, he says, never even met him. "I thought it was totally boring."

"Boring? Don't you mean distressing?"

"Well it was, back then. I mean - if you [he means "I"] just had 34 books out. If you'd only written eight musicals, and were only a songwriter, then you would talk just about that. But everyone seems to go immediately to: 'Were you distressed?'"

There is one of these red-top stories that sticks in my mind, I tell Read; it concerns Maria Taylor, a 16-year old waitress from Hastings.

"She says that you exploited her; that you seduced her when she didn't realise what was about to happen."

"I don't remember that."

"She claims you approached her with the words: 'You look like Janet Street-Porter.' What young woman could resist flattery like that?"

"Oh, don't."

In his days at Radio 1, according to one contemporary, "Mike would tend to hang around with women of the kind my mother used to call 'an obvious blonde'. Once they'd left, he'd recount in detail what had occurred the night before. I'd find myself thinking: 'You know, I really don't want to hear this.'"

Read is naturally fatigued at revisiting this period of his life, and when I ask if his own discomfort at the hands of the press helped him empathise with Wilde.

"I ask myself: why me?" Read once said, in relation to these salacious headlines. "Why do they keep doing it?"

He had a point. History will not commemorate Radio 1's male DJs for their monastic restraint. One former presenter is rumoured to claim over 600 conquests and there's barely a hint of scandal in his back pages. So why does Read think he suffered so unfairly?

"Everyone in the media does, to an extent."

"But we're talking about you."

"To single myself out for self pity would be idiotic."

My own theory, I explain, "is that this happened because you didn't marry at 30 and have children, so you became 'different' and a potential object of curiosity. You became an enigma."

"Well," he replies, "I don't mind that. I don't mind being enigmatic."

There is a sentiment that recurs, in slightly varying forms, in several past interviews. "I am fairly raunchy," he told the Star in 1985. "I am a red-blooded, heterosexual man." Three years later, in Woman magazine, he declared that, "I have always been a red-blooded heterosexual." Speaking to the same periodical, he explained, in a quotation I repeat to Read, that: "In show business it's a million times more acceptable to be a bachelor than if I'd been an accountant or a solicitor. In those professions, eyebrows would knit, especially as I don't have a regular girlfriend. It would be assumed that I was - well... one of those! I am a Normal Bloke."

When I'd first read that, I tell Read, "I assumed that you were gay as a goose."

He laughs, good-naturedly.

"What they have done is, they have got me to say something - they were trying to push me, and... if somebody attacks you in an interview."

"Is that attacking you? To infer that you might not be heterosexual?"

"Well, I wouldn't say that now."

"But I'm right in thinking that you're not secretly having a fling with an HGV driver called Brian?"

"You are."

Read's single most publicised action at Radio 1 was his prohibiting of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" from his show.

"'Relax' is openly flaunting gay sex," he told the Express. "The video has them performing obscene acts. It was all too much."

All of which makes Read - who once publicly voiced his irritation at the possibility of people speculating about his being "a poof or a sex maniac" - an unlikely chronicler of Oscar Wilde; a man who, in certain moods, was both.

Has he read Teleny, the explicit, unsigned novel of which Wilde is believed to be one of the authors, and which makes "Relax" sound like "Paint Your Wagon"?

Read knows the work, but says that banning "Relax" was his producer's decision. "The video did have that big fat Buddha bloke urinating from the balcony into somebody's mouth. Even now," he adds, "that's not terribly good."

If Read's public profile is not quite what it was, he still has a considerable number of fans. "Mrs Blue Tulip Rose Read," one of his more mature admirers, and self-proclaimed wife, has been stalking him assiduously for years.

"Is she still out there?"

"Somewhere," Read replies, with a glance towards the window.

On a recent documentary, she boasted that she was Mr Read's number-one fan ("Surely," Victor Lewis-Smith wrote in his Evening Standard review, "that distinction belongs to Mr Read himself.")

If Blue Tulip now has fewer opportunities to see Read on television, on every other front his adult life seems to be going just as well as his childhood did. He is affluent, owns solid German cars and has applied his talents to diverse branches of the arts.

And yet, even now, you sense a frustration in Read. I think it's to do with his belief that he's excelled in so many disciplines - songwriter, poet, biographer and producer - but not been taken as seriously as he'd wish in any of them.

Read says he feels stereotyped as a former disc jockey; there have been times when he has tried too hard to distance himself from the Smashy and Nicey caricature; moments when you can hear him straining to sound as little like a DJ and as much like - well, Oscar Wilde - as he can. Earlier, when he mentioned that a man shouldn't pretend to be something he is not, I tell Read, I was reminded of an interview he gave to Angela Levin some years ago. Levin invoked his reputation as a Romeo who had allegedly entertained more than one Juliet at once.

"One hasn't a reputation at all," Read told her. "One is as sociable as anyone else." Concerning women, he explained, "One thinks one has a type but in fact one doesn't." Money, he added, "is only important in so much as when one goes shopping one doesn't have to worry about whether one buys the small loaf or large loaf." (Unless of course one is in the gutter looking at the stars, having not eaten for three days.)

"Did you really say that to her?"

"I might have."

He hopes posterity may prove more generous than contemporary critics. Of Oscar Wilde, for instance, he says: "I would like to think it might still be performed in 100 years' time."

We've talked for almost three hours; as I'm packing up and getting ready to leave, I ask Read if he is absolutely sure that he was born in 1952, because this would suggest he has been somewhat rejuvenated since he talked to the Mail.

He switches the overhead lights off, leaving the room in darkness. "Well," he says, leading me to the front door. "You know the Daily Mail."

I've made him very late for his dinner appointment, but he doesn't complain. Paradoxically, I feel we're getting on better now than when we first sat down together. Read tells me how he could not possibly do my job, then satirically retrieves memories of catastrophes he omitted to reveal earlier. "I nearly died three times," he says. "Why didn't I tell you that?"

If we met "five or six times for dinner", he says, he would start to speak more frankly. I can see that he knows I'm not convinced.

"It's true," he says. "It often happens that I go round to a dinner party and meet someone for the first time, and I will be fairly quiet, especially if there are a lot of people there. Then, after we've seen each other a few times, they will say: 'We had no idea that you could be so witty, so funny and so entertaining. Now we know what you are really like.'"

For the record Old DJs, new careers...

Simon Bates (1976-1993, back row, far right) Bates's "Our Tune" slot, with its tales of listeners' romantic triumphs and traumas, epitomised old-school Radio 1's anachronistic side. Bates left in 1993, as the station's new controller Matthew Bannister arrived. He moved on to London talk station LBC and now anchors Classic FM's breakfast show.

Bruno Brookes (1983-1995, back row, far left) Stuck with the top 40 and the graveyard shift after Bannister's arrival, Brookes (real first name, Trevor) grumbled on-air until leaving in 1995. Is now chief executive of the lucrative production company, Immedia, self-described "pioneers of live tailored radio for retail". (That is, it does in-store stations for the likes of Dixons and Spar.)

Dave Lee Travis (1968-1993, back row, one from right) The "Hairy Cornflake" was relieved of his R1 role in 1993 after denouncing "changes... which go against my principles". Thankfully, those principles did not extend to refusing a World Service gig which continued until a couple of years ago. Has had a Sunday-morning slot on his local BBC station, Three Counties, since 2003.

Steve Wright (1979-1995, back row, centre) When Wright left for Talk Radio UK, he was still R1's most popular DJ. He left, dissatisfied with changes to his "working environment". Four years later, he found himself back presenting Steve Wright in the Afternoon on the nation's favourite station. Only these days, that's Radio 2.

Nicky Campbell (1987-1997, seated, wearing patterned shirt) Moved to Radio 5 and, in the late 1990s, presented television's Wheel of Fortune and Crimewatch. Has just published Blue-Eyed Son, about his search for the birth parents who gave him up for adoption.

Janice Long (1982-1987, not pictured) One of the miserably few female stars of Radio One's pre-Bannister heyday, Long hosted Live Aid and left in 1987 to have her first child (Fred, born the following year, already wants to be a DJ). Post-maternity absence, she discovered that her show had been handed to Simon Mayo (seated, wearing yellow). Her interest in music and indie-slanted tastes led her to the likes of London's GLR and XFM before she rejoined Radio 2, where she now hosts a midnight show on weeknights. Also hosts a nightly two-hour slot on digital station Radio 6. Peter Lyle

'Oscar Wilde', with book, music and lyrics by Mike Read, is at the Shaw Theatre, 100-110 Euston Road, London NW1, tel: 0870 033 2600 for tickets

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