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The Rochdale Cowboy bows out with guns blazing

The sacking of BBC folk radio DJ Mike Harding is a sad end for one of broadcasting's most tireless characters
  • @Simon_Kelner

One of the illicit thrills for a teenager growing up in the Manchester of the 1970s was to stay up late on a school night and listen to the James Stannage radio show on the new commercial station, Piccadilly.

We'd never heard anything quite like it: radio with an anarchic, subversive edge that, as well as some viciously satirical spoof telephone calls, gave an airing to local acts whose only exposure had, until then, been on the club circuit.

One such was singer and songwriter Mike Harding, pictured, whose folk/comedy routine earned him a cult following in the region. I particularly remember a sketch, which Stannage used to play regularly, that was an exhaustive monologue about the aftermath of a night out drinking. The climax of the story was his return home. "We've got a garden gate that tells the time," he'd say. "When I open it, the neighbours lean out of their window and say: 'Three o'clock in the bloody morning! What time do you call this!'"

He'd then explain that he had to use a funnel to get his door key in the lock, but would try very hard not to appear drunk in front of his wife. The best way to achieve that, he'd say, would be to sit on the sofa and pretend to read a book.

At which point his wife would enter the sitting room, take one look at him, and say: "You're drunk!" "What do you mean? I'm just sitting here reading," to which his wife replied: "Shut that bloody suitcase and get to bed."

Harding briefly grazed the national consciousness in 1975 when his song "Rochdale Cowboy" reached No 22 in the UK singles chart. And even though Harding has not stopped working since – writing songs, poems, books, even a stage play, and making a series of short films – he has lived on the shadowy outer shores of what might be called showbusiness.

But suddenly, the musician is in the news again, taking the BBC to task for unseating him from his Wednesday evening folk/roots programme on Radio 2, which he has presented since 1999. He says he was dumped by the Radio 2 controller over the phone in the first conversation the two had ever had, and pointed out that he had grown the audience from 70,000 to 860,000.

He emailed my friend Robert yesterday, with a barrage of criticism directed at the BBC. He contrasts, not unreasonably on the face of it, the indulgence the Corporation showed to Jimmy Savile with the brutal treatment meted out to him. "And it's me that's supposed to be the comedian," his email concluded.

Meanwhile, the Corporation said its decision to replace Harding with Mark Radcliffe was because it wanted "to bring folk music into the mainstream". Good luck with that, I say. I'm afraid that, when it comes to folk music, I'm inclined to agree with Sir Thomas Beecham's famous aphorism (only slightly corrupted): "Try anything once except incest and folk music."