Tony Blackburn: A man unfazed by his own naffness
The veteran pop-picker returned to a regular slot on BBC national radio yesterday after almost 30 years. Matthew Bell meets Tony Blackburn
Sunday 07 November 2010
There is, at times, a touch of the Churchill insurance dog about Tony Blackburn. "Radio 2 is the station we all want to be on. Aowr yes," he says, nodding and bobbing with that gentle side-to-side motion. Has Radio 2 brought him in to calm the horses, after Jonathan Ross? "Aowr no".
Blackburn is a 67-year-old DJ. He made his first broadcast in 1965. Or to put it another way, in January he will be entering his sixth decade on air. And just when he thought he was destined to play out his days on far-flung twiddles of the dial, the BBC rings him up and asks him back. For two hours every Saturday lunchtime, Blackburn will present Pick of the Pops, a trawl through the golden favourites of the past 50 years.
Something of the spirit of Churchill, the other one, has enabled him to last this long. It's nearly 30 years since he was edged off his last regular slot on national BBC radio, for being too old. Back then it was Radio 1, when he was one of a cheeseboard of DJs such as Dave Lee Travis, Noel Edmonds and Alan Freeman, all caricatured by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse's Smashie and Nicey.
Some would find it hurtful to be depicted as a toothy, banal halfwit, but Blackburn has always been unfazed by his own naffness. He is perfectly aware of his cheesy image and couldn't care less. "I don't even know what cheesy means," he says. "I never wanted to be cool. I can only be what I am, and I'm not cool. There are a lot of people desperately trying to be cool. I don't see the point of that."
There is something refreshing about public figures with no interest in their own image, but his approach to music seems confused. Playing it, and "talking rubbish in between", is, he says, his life. He has no other hobbies. When we meet, in a rooftop bar overlooking Broadcasting House, he's been up since 2.30am, recording seven hours of back-to-back programmes for two local stations he still works for.
He is, he admits, a workaholic, but the music itself means little. "I don't take any music seriously," he says. "Music is there to be enjoyed and shared." His fervently populist approach, a kind of inverse snobbery, was what set him at odds with his Radio 1 colleague John Peel. The title of his autobiography – Poptastic – said it all, and it was here that he revealed the extent of their mutual loathing. "The music John Peel tended to play was almost without exception completely awful," he wrote. "I mean, ELP? Extremely Loud and Pretentious. Er, no thanks."
In the flesh, Blackburn is fawn-like and shorter than you imagine. Those who remember him from the 1970s associate with him with hair, and lots of it, but today there's just a salt and pepper thatch, and his chest is well tucked away. Most striking are the teeth, a great keyboard of ivories that look eerily well preserved.
He is a healthy 67: smoking, drugs and binge-drinking passed him by. The son of a Dorset GP, he won a sports scholarship to Millfield, the sports-focused Somerset public school, where he captained a cricket team that included John Sergeant. He hated it, and left two years early. While taking a business course in Bournemouth he taught himself the guitar and joined a band. An advert in the NME was his entry to the music industry, and he joined the pirate station Radio Caroline. But for a time, he harboured ambitions to be a singer himself. He made dozens of records, most of them – by his own admission – awful, though there was one song he says would have gone to No 1 had the pressing plant not gone on strike. "They couldn't get the record out. It was incredibly annoying. Dreadful! I would have been No 1! Aowr yes. Definitely."
Now he leaves the singing to his 13-year-old daughter Victoria, by his second wife Debbie, 50, a theatre agent. They live in a nice house in Hertfordshire; he drives a Toyota Prius – because it's tax-free – and he has enough money that he could stop working. Life, he says, is good, or as Smashie would say, "What a great day it is today, mate, and it's not as bad as it was yesterday, and not as bad as the day before that! Not 'alf."
"I'm very lucky," he says. "I'm not as bad as other people, so I'm very, very lucky." His relentless cheeriness comes, in part, from having a disabled sister. "I don't normally talk about my sister, but my sister has never been able to walk. So I am much luckier than her. She was born like that. You see, I wouldn't ever dream to moan."
He has had bad times though, such as when, in 1976, his first wife, Tessa Wyatt, left him, leading to a divorce a year later. He had begun an affair with Margo Webb, a married friend, whose husband, Roger, it turned out, was also having an affair, with Tessa. The ménage à quatre destroyed his marriage and he spent weeks moping on air, dedicating records to Tessa and begging her to take him back. The episode would later be parodied by Whitehouse, and was the beginning of Blackburn's wilderness years.
"I wish somebody had told me to shut up," he says. "That was a good example of the fact I am always just myself. I am not being anybody else. Now I have just grown up, like Chris Evans. He went slightly berserk and now he's back and doing a great job. I think we all go through that stage."
Today, Blackburn is happy just to wake up and be able to do what he loves. Below us, BBC staff are preparing to go on a 48-hour strike over pensions, but you're unlikely to catch him doing that. "I'm very aware that I can be replaced just like that. Do I honestly think that, if I got knocked down by a bus, there wouldn't be somebody else doing Pick of the Pops on Saturday? Of course there would."
It's there again, the whiff of Winston's wartime philosophy, of Keeping Buggering On, despite the brickbats. It's what keeps him going. That, and a Churchillian attitude to sleep: he never has more than four hours. "Sleep is a waste of time. We're going to be dead for a long time, so we might as well enjoy life while we're here."
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