Matthew Norman: A true hero and his fan in Burma

Why bother with that costly journalism when the BBC World Service could revert to Reithian values and fill the airtime with Kajagoogoo?
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The Independent Online

Yesterday morning, the most surreal story in memory obliged millions of radio listeners, having apparently woken in 1973, to ask the question posed by John Simm at the start of Life On Mars. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?

The answer, it transpired, was weirder than that. Dave Lee Travis was back in his old breakfast slot – not for long, admittedly, and on BBC Radio 4's Today rather than Radio 1 – to discuss the least likely personal tribute since Nelson Mandela told the Spice Girls: "I don't want to be emotional, but this is the proudest day of my life."

Don't mention it if you bump into Gerri Halliwell, but some wondered whether Mandela may have been flirting with irony. Happily, no such suspicion devalues Aung San Suu Kyi's revelation, confided to Radio Times ahead of her two Reith Lectures. "I used to listen to all sorts of different programmes, not just classical music," the Bach-loving pianist told Eddie Mair of her World Service addiction. "I can't remember the name of that programme... Dave Travis?"

Asked if she meant Dave Lee Travis, the great Burmese democracy campaigner and Nobel peace laureate replied, "Yes! Didn't he have a programme with all sorts of different music?" Indeed he did. A Jolly Good Show. "I would listen to that quite happily because the listeners would write in and I had a chance to hear other people's words. It made my world much more complete."

I now ask all of you to take a break from this column. Readers unfamiliar with DLT will spend the next 10 minutes googling him, while those requiring no help in appreciating the oddity may do the Sudoku until the shock begins to fade. I use that "begins" advisedly. It is six years since Richie Benaud, whom I had worshipped for decades for his austere good taste, marked his final Test match commentary in England by expressing a passion for the teenage soap Hollyoaks. The trauma may have worn off, but not long ago and not entirely.

Right, now we're all back, two points in Suu Kyi's defence. First, what with being under the house arrest from which she was released only months ago, she was a captive audience for the "I'm totally bonkers, me... crazy, barking doolally!" brand of wit that made DLT the Dorothy Parker of Wonderful Radio 1, that Algonquin round- table of the 1970s and '80s.

One might glibly wonder whether a woman in perpetual peril of a trip to the interrogation chamber was using exposure to the Hairy Cornflake to raise her pain tolerance levels, on the lines of "Oh death, where is thy sting?" (or as she doubtless muttered whenever DLT played a hideous, early Police track, "Oh Sting, where is thy death?") Given the choice between a short, sharp shock to the genitals, or an hour of Mr Travis playing his "quack, quack, oops" jingle to mark a misguided quiz response, many would scream: "The electrodes. In the name of mercy, give me the electrodes." Yet Suu Kyi seems sincere in her gratitude for the link with life beyond her homely prison.

And second, without knowing the facts, she may osmotically have gleaned that the two have something important in common, both having made heroic sacrifices for points of principle. Suu Kyi famously refused to leave Burma to be with her dying husband, lest the military regime refuse her re-entry – and what an Our Tune that tale would have made for Simon Bates.

As for former Pipe Smoker of the Year DLT, his refusal to stay at his post was an equally magnificent act of conscience. Who can forget his on-air resignation in 1993, shortly before he was scheduled for incineration in Radio 1's bonfire of the inanities?

"I have the greatest admiration for what the BBC has stood for," he told his domestic audience that day, "but nothing stays the same. Changes are being made here which go against my principles, and I just cannot agree with them." Could Suu Kyi have captured the essence of the struggle against oppression more pithily?

All that said, it may be true that DLT is no more certain who Aung San Suu Kyi is than she is of him. Yesterday he described her as her country's leader, though this may have been a coded rebuke to the dictatorship for ignoring her National League for Democracy's thumping election victory in 1990. You don't have to be mad – bonkers, doolally, loopy loo! – to underestimate him as a global political commentator. But it helps.

If not, however, DLT's ignorance of his new fan suggests he regards her as a McGuffin... a plot twist designed to shine attention on his own maltreatment by the BBC. "Suddenly the World Service decided they wanted to be a bit more serious, and to do rolling news a bit more," he told Sarah Montague of the 2001 decision, regretted by Suu Kyi, to drop A Jolly Good Show. "I was peeved beyond belief. The one thing the BBC has... is the respect of people through the World Service, and to mess with that is very self-destructive." Something there for those fretting about World Service funding to ponder. Why mess about with all that costly journalism when they could revert to Reithian values and fill the air time with Kajagoogoo?

To Mr Travis, the entire Burmese democracy struggle – all those who have died and endured more conventional forms of torture than his broadcasts – has existed to prove that a BBC personnel decision taken in 2001 was as misguided as its 1993 predecessor.

There was a time, 24 hours ago, when this might have seemed comical, and even retrospective justification for the Beeb ditching a bunch of superannuated DJs whose interest in music barely matched their fascination with geopolitical affairs.

Yesterday, one would have blithely dismissed DLT and the rest (though not John Peel and Diddy David Hamilton) as narcissitic dimwits who viewed the world beyond the studio as nothing more than a potential vehicle (sadly, as it would prove, a hearse) for their driving ambition to be forever centre stage.

Now we know of Dave Lee Travis's part in sustaining Aung San Suu Kyi through her years of isolation, this reading must be reviewed. Indeed, the potential for developing the Radio 1 Old Boys-freedom-fighting interface is hugely exciting. Might Mike Read turn The Lady's life story into a musical, possibly running to a record-breaking second performance, to focus world attention on her struggle and sweep away the Rangoon regime at last? Could DLT build on his Burmese efforts with an undercover mission to North Korea, to rally resistance to Kim Jong-Il, with help from Tony Blackburn and Arnold the dog?

At the very least, is there any reason Smiley Miley shouldn't round up the old gang – the Cornflake, Batesy, Ready, Nolly Edmonds, Mike Smith, and last and by all means least Andy Peebles – and take the Radio 1 Roadshow to Tripoli, Bahrain and Damascus? Worlds have collided as never before, the kaleidoscope is in flux, and while nothing makes one whit of sense, all things suddenly seem possible.