Russell who? George Lamb is the future of radio
Even before Manuelgate, George Lamb had been marked out for greatness. But as Ross and Brand fall from grace, he's suddenly the on-air apparent. Is Britain ready? Tim Walker meets the BBC's rising star
Wednesday 05 November 2008
George Lamb is having a bad show. Some days, very occasionally, things just don't quite click – the banter's not as funny as usual, the guests don't really "get it", the Lambinator and his team come over a tad tetchy – and today is one of those days. It all started with the "Rainbow Game", which Lamb devised on the hoof during the previous day's broadcast. This consists, if I have it right, of asking a celebrity guest to name a colour of the rainbow. Whichever of the seven they choose, they get a raspberry-like sound effect and Lamb telling them he's terribly sorry, but it's the wrong answer: "No! It's indigo!," and so on. Today he arrived at the studio to find that his on-air posse, Marc, Mickie and Ellie, had banned the Rainbow Game, it being nonsense – and, crucially, unfunny nonsense. It was all downhill from there, apparently.
Yet despite the odd off day, Lamb, 28, loves the microphone. His television career may be gathering steam (last week, at the height of the "Manuelgate" controversy, it was reported that he was being lined up by the BBC to replace Jonathan Ross) and, on screen, he can flaunt one of his great assets, those damnable good looks (a lean 6ft 5ins in perfectly judged smart-casualwear, with perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect stubble – no, not a face for radio). But it's here, from 10am till one every weekday, in the modest BBC 6Music studio two floors up from Terry Wogan, that he can really be himself. Sure, the girls might fancy TV George, but fans of radio George follow him. On radio, he's not just another pretty face; he's a cult hero.
Between tunes, his show is a primordial soup of apparently aimless chat, out of which wade fully formed feature items. Lamb says "ladies and gentlemen" a lot, and "good times, good times", and his best-loved tongue-in-cheek catchphrase "Shabba!" All of which may leave the passing listener baffled. But stick with it; once you get the hang of the thing, it's extremely funny and – whisper it – rather smart, too.
"In television, you can't do it your way until you get to the top," he says. "The beautiful thing about radio is that it's on our terms. Why on earth would you want to go out and do anything generic and box-ticking? Our show is chaotic and spontaneous, and a bit of a scramble sometimes, but I like that. I love to experiment. I love being edgy. Sorry," he checks himself, alert as ever to cliché. "'Edgy' is such a wanky word."
There has been talk of Lamb moving to Radio 1, most of it from his detractors, who find his style unsuited to the rarefied airspace of 6Music. But analogue radio, like TV, would be restrictive – to the show's content, if not to its presenter's finances. While there may be no such thing as free rein in a corporation the size of the Beeb, 6Music's playlists are famously broad and deep. "If you took away a degree of control over the music, it wouldn't be the same," says Lamb. "The music creates the vibe in the room. Sometimes I come back on the air after a tune out of breath because we've been jumping around and having fun. And I wouldn't be doing that to Basshunter."
Today's live session in the cramped 6Music "Hub" is from Montreal natives The Dears, whose sound resembles Damon Albarn singing along to The Smiths. Lamb listens respectfully to the band play, then interviews them – not by asking them who their influences are, or where they recorded their album, or how long it took, or blah blah blah – but by setting a short quiz about Manchester. They get most of the answers right. They are, after all, Smiths fans.
This sideways approach to the serious business of music caused controversy when Lamb was first given the prominent daytime slot last year, in place of the popular Gideon Coe. "Because I was on 6Music, people expected me to have an endless knowledge of the history of music," he explains. "But that's not my bag. I've got reasonable ears. I probably like Fleetwood Mac and Peter Gabriel too much, but there's a lot of snobbery around music. Fleetwood Mac is genius, Peter Gabriel is a genius, and some Hall and Oates tunes are unbelievable. And there's about 200 million people out there who'd agree with me."
There are at least 4,000 people who vehemently disagree with him, those who've signed the online petition to have Lamb removed from the radiowaves at www.getlambout.org.uk. For a while there, he was known as the most divisive DJ on radio; Nicholas Lezard, of this parish, described him as "possibly the worst DJ [he had] ever heard." But 6Music's listening figures haven't dipped (in fact, they're more than 550,000 and rising); his former boss, ex-Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas, bravely weathered what Lamb calls the "shitstorm" following his arrival (before Manuelgate cost her her own job); and his fellow members of the 6Music family have taken him to their hearts.
"At first, some people were resentful that Gideon had been moved off that slot," admits DJ and singer-songwriter Tom Robinson, one of 6Music's elder statesmen. "But the reason George came to the station was to broaden the wide church that is 6Music. We'd established an audience that liked the music we play, but there were a lot of people who would like it but didn't know about it. George – or Russell Howard or Adam and Joe – brings them in, and people like what they hear on the playlist so they stick around."
Luckily for Lamb, when things go a bit Pete Tong, they can be turned into a feature of the show. Hence the theme of today's broadcast is just how badly it's all going. Off air, the jocular recriminations continue, only with added swearing. Lamb is blaming his colleagues, they're blaming him and each other. Mickey, the Canadian producer, is being ribbed for his unfashionable outfit. Beks, the intern, is getting a light-hearted bollocking for her failure to find a butcher in Rotherham willing to be interviewed on air – it's a long story. ("I'm a fair boss," Lamb later explains. "If you work hard for me, I'll reward you. If you don't work hard for me, I'll encourage you. And if you still don't work hard for me, I'll give you shit. I haven't got time to pussyfoot around." Beks's treatment probably falls into the "encouragement" category.)
Meanwhile, Marc Hughes, Lamb's best pal and radio partner, short and spiky and clad in some sort of trendy tartan poncho, is occupying an armchair at the back of the room, chucking caustic barbs every which way. Hughes is the George Lamb show's secret weapon. He brings the musical nous that Lamb lacks, including, says Tom Robinson, "some very interesting takes on black music that wouldn't normally be heard on 6Music outside the funk and soul show". A major club DJ in his own right, he and Lamb both grew up in Fulham, south-west London – Lamb at the rich end, Hughes at the poor end – but only met in the summer of 2000, when Lamb was assigned to be Hughes's driver for Ministry of Sound in Ibiza. They've been friends ever since, and, says Lamb, the show's signature brand of banter "is the same schtick we've always done. The show's been going just over a year, but it's been going off-air for the best part of a decade."
It's tempting to compare Lamb's output to Chris Moyles's Radio 1 breakfast show. It is, after all, "posse radio" in the same vein as Moyles, Chris Evans and the style's originator, Steve Wright. But Lamb is less mean than Moyles, his humour less broad and more rewarding. His may be the most highbrow lowbrow show on radio. Take the awareness of words and language. One recurring riff from recent weeks was the phrase, first plucked from the air in a Ringo-esque moment of clarity by Hughes, "People love people." After much cackling, it became a commonplace response to any snippet of conversation verging on the inanity of generic talk radio: "The thing is, George. People. Love. People."
Then there's the breadth of pop cultural reference the team employs in its chat. One minute they're bemoaning the fate of Iceland's banks, the next they're recalling the Profumo scandal. A lot of conversation time is expended on actor Kevin Bacon's band, The Bacon Brothers, which he fronts along with his more "wafty" (meaning "rubbish") siblings. B-movies of the 1980s are a favourite theme, including Best of the Best, starring Eric Roberts (brother of Julia) and Chris Penn (brother of Sean) – two more wafty sib-lings. Current affairs, high and low culture all blend seamlessly.
"I'm not an academic," says Lamb. "Can't tell you about Chaucer, but I read Marquez and Murakami, contemporary writers who'll stand the test of time. My father's an actor, so I've spent a lot of time in theatres; we have a lot of theatre guys on the show. I don't know everything about art, but I'm a member of the Tate, I go to Frieze, I go to little openings in town to see this, that and the other.
"I like the arts, I'm interested in them and I think they're important. We recently had an amazing street artist called Jose Parla on the show, who grew up on the streets of Miami and Puerto Rico and is now very successful. He's gone from painting on trains to showing with Damien Hirst. I'm not particularly interested in what's trendy right now, in the banal stuff. I like things that are challenging and creative, and I want to champion them. I don't want to talk about OK! and Heat magazine. That's not my world. I'd much rather talk about something more interesting.
"Then again, The X Factor is about as High Street as you can get, but it's fucking funny. So we sometimes end up talking about X Factor and people say, 'How can you talk about X Factor on 6Music?!' I don't want to do lowest common denominator, but I also won't rule it out. There's a way to negotiate it." Lamb's lack of snobbery is one of his show's most refreshing characteristics. He doesn't sneer at The X Factor or Fleetwood Mac, as some of his Radio 4 counterparts might, but nor does he sneer at high art. Try to imagine Chris Moyles discussing the Francis Bacon exhibition.
This inclusive attitude extends to the show's regular contributors, an eclectic mix of straightforward professionals and decided amateurs. "Ernest Hemingway" (journalist Alex Heminsley) talks books every week. Julia Raeside reviews television. But then there's the blonde, boyish Rowan Da Riddim, radio's least likely Jamaican dancehall aficionado. Or Barry Lally, a TV repairman with whom Lamb discusses current affairs. Or "Philippe de Barnsley" (real name Phil), a bloke from Barnsley who does DVD reviews.
Today, the team is relying on its most popular amateur contributor to rescue a disastrous morning. Mr Eken is a kebab shop owner who somehow became the show's resident agony uncle, with his regular slot "Mr Eken Solve It". Is Lamb deliberately democratising the role of the radio "expert", or did it just happen that way? "We originally called Mr Eken about something else, some stupid bit about rubbing kebabs in your face, but Ellie [the producer] has a wonderful knack of finding people. If we ask her to find a kebab shop owner, she'll ring 10 kebab shops and find the one with the funniest voice and the best spark. It's our job, after we've spoken to him, to say, 'That guy's great, let's make him a regular contributor.'
"With Mr Eken, a lot of it's a joke, and the comedy comes from miscommunication. But the spot wouldn't work if he wasn't a dude who set up shop in the UK with nothing, built a business, brought a family up and put all his kids through college. He's a lovely human being, and he has a strong moral code. If he didn't have that, all the guffawing and misunderstandings and language barriers would get tired after a while. He might not tell you the best advice from a psychologist's or a relationship counsellor's point of view, but what is a relationship counsellor? They're just someone who sat and read some books and analysed them and made their own interpretation of it. Well, here's another dude's interpretation."
Today's big interview is with Reverend Run of hip-hop pioneers Run DMC, who'll be presenting the Mobo Awards in the evening with former Spice Girl Mel B (who was a guest on Chris Moyles' show earlier). George ends their conversation with a question he's been asking all his guests this week: "What percentage of Val Kilmer's head is whale blubber?" (In later days, this will metamorphose into "What percentage of Steven Seagal's hairpiece is wire wool?" Lamb and friends have a real thing for Eighties film stars.)
Run bats away the question gracefully, but Lamb's interviewees aren't always so poised. In September, he managed to rile Ray Davies with his unconventional technique. "He's renowned for being a miserabilist, and everybody had warned me to be careful," says Lamb of the incident. "I said, I'll be charming, everything will be cool. He went with a couple of the stupid questions, and I thought everything was going great. But then he said the line was bad, so we put on "Waterloo Sunset" and called him back, and we got the press lady saying Ray didn't want to talk to us any more.
"I tell every guest that they can skip over the silly questions. You'd think a 60-year-old man who's travelled the world as a massive international pop star would be able to deal with a few uncomfortable situations. Apparently not. I just started singing along to the end of 'Waterloo Sunset', and I haven't heard it since so I can't remember exactly what I sang, but it was something like 'he's a moody old git'."
That was about the size of it. "Perhaps," says Tom Robinson, before continuing (ominously, perhaps, in light of the firestorm that was about to engulf Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand) "George wasn't aware of where Ray Davies stands in the pantheon of world global songwriters. He oversteps the mark sometimes, but who doesn't?"
Lamb, however, is unrepentant. He grew up around fame – his father is the actor Larry Lamb, most recently seen in EastEnders and Gavin & Stacey – and is not impressed by it. "I don't expect anybody to be nice to me because I'm George Lamb. I meet people on face value, if we have a nice rapport, great. Denis Norden came in today and I'm full of respect for him. I'm not a big fan, but he's a very respectful old dude and I was nothing but polite. But I'm not going to respect him just because he's Denis Norden. I'm not buying into any of that shit."
That's not to say he's casual about interviewing. Toby Dormer is the joint MD of Remedy Productions, and gave Lamb his very first broadcasting job on E4 music, the same stable that has since produced Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw and TV presenter Zezi Ifore. "Of all the presenters I know," says Dormer, "George is the most conscientious. He puts in a huge amount of work. I remember him going to do a half-hour T4 special on Gwen Stefani. He had a stack of articles a couple of inches thick that he read on the plane. When he came to interview her, he knew more about her than she did, which is a measure of how much he prepares.
"There was genuine warmth between them, which is another of his skills. He's a very likeable, genuine person. People warm to him. I remember him walking into the room to interview P Diddy. George stepped straight up and shook his hand, and you could instantly see Diddy switch on, put his BlackBerry down, take off his sunglasses and engage. George has the confidence to walk in and own a room."
While many of his televisual contemporaries spend their evenings partying in the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs, Lamb is remarkably restrained and, by all accounts, hard working. The previous evening he had hosted a minor awards ceremony; for the cash, sure, but also for the practice, in case the Brits should come calling. "I had a crack at being a success when I was younger and it didn't work out. I don't want to waste a second chance. I don't want to go out and get drunk all the time, that's probably what messed it up in the first place! Work is where it's at for me now. The rest of the kids that you see in London Lite every day have time on their sides. Good for them; I hope they're having a lovely time. But I'm yet to find the answer to my sorrows in Bungalow 8."
Lamb's first career was, his critics may be surprised to discover, in music. At college, he was friends with the dance double-act Audio Bullys, and became their first manager. In Ibiza in 2000, while working for Ministry of Sound, he met a young Lily Allen and agreed to manage her, too. He touted her album – already including seven of the 11 songs from what eventually became Alright, Still – around the major labels in vain, and was eventually forced to sell his house and give up on success. By the time the record execs finally saw what he'd seen in Allen, Lamb had changed tack, and become a broadcaster.
This year, you might have seen him on screen as the presenter of Big Brother's Little Brother, or fronting ITV2's The Fashion Show alongside delectable WAG Abbey Clancy. He's just started on the new series of Celebrity Scissorhands, (like The X Factor, but for hairdressing celebs) in aid of Children in Need. He had three days off all summer, yet none of the above are, I suspect, his dream job. Still, he says, "If I get the next five years right, I'm on my way."
His role models are people that, like him, generate admiration and bile in equal measure. "All the best people polarise. Chris Evans and Jonathan Ross are the two best broadcasters of the last generation. Chris Evans is a fucking genius. Culturally, we haven't had anything else like TFI Friday or The Big Breakfast. But some people can't stand the geezer.
"People attack Jonathan Ross, but I've watched him for years. He is a master. If I could get even close to what he does, I'd be the happiest dude on the planet. But not everybody likes you if you don't do things the conventional way."
To those who dislike him, Lamb can show off his "Rising Star" gong from this year's Sony Radio Academy Awards. Or perhaps, wave a copy of the Fabulous magazine 2008 'FabuLUST' list. He occupies the number one spot, which he's happy about; although, he says with a grin, he's really angling for GQ Man of the Year. "I'm the vainest of the vain. Always have been. I like to take care of my appearance, what I wear. My granddad wouldn't leave the house without a pair of Church's brogues on, an Aquascutum suit and a hat. I think there's a lot to be said for that. I got lucky. I got to be a fairly handsome dude. And it's opened doors for me, I won't pretend it hasn't. But then, I'd much rather a girl was listening to my show because she thought it was funny."
Taking care of his appearance stretches, for Lamb, to an investment in a Mayfair tailor, soon to start its own line of made-to-measure suits, which he'll be wearing. He tried for a while, on the show, to institute 'Cravat Wednesday' and get everyone wearing cravats one day per week, but "creating national trends isn't as easy as it might appear." He also keeps countless emergency photos of himself on file, just to ensure that nobody ever sees his bad side in the images that accompany articles such as this one. "I got bullied by Virgin Records when I was a manager, into making calls that went against my gut. I was thinking go left, they were saying, no, go right, we know best. We went right, and it all went wrong. If I want something done now, I'm going to do it my way. Because nobody cares about the product – me – more than I do."
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