John Peel had the ordinariness of true celebrity

The quality of being both distant and approachable is the holy grail of the personality business
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The Independent Online

A terrible gloom will settle over much of middle England at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. It will be the moment for Home Truths, the Radio Four programme which has become a weekly celebration of the oddness and strength of family life, and, in kitchens across the country, mums and dads and even a few kids will be missing its habitual presenter John Peel. For many, he was more than just a voice from the radio: his presence was that of a fantasy family figure, a knackered but still oddly groovy uncle who was always ready to share his enthusiasms, insights, confessions and jokes with the rest of the family.

A terrible gloom will settle over much of middle England at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. It will be the moment for Home Truths, the Radio Four programme which has become a weekly celebration of the oddness and strength of family life, and, in kitchens across the country, mums and dads and even a few kids will be missing its habitual presenter John Peel. For many, he was more than just a voice from the radio: his presence was that of a fantasy family figure, a knackered but still oddly groovy uncle who was always ready to share his enthusiasms, insights, confessions and jokes with the rest of the family.

As we've been reminded this week, Peel's achievements as a champion of unfashionable rock music and as a broadcaster were significant and long-reaching. All the same, I wonder if they quite explain the intensity of many of the expressions of personal loss that have accompanied his death. The music that he loved was, for many people (myself included), often so strange and hideous that one was tempted to think that the DJ was having joke at his fans' expense. For others (myself included), Home Truths was rather too smug in its celebration of domestic life, too full of those cute, we're-a-mad-family-we-are contributions from listeners, to be bearable for more than five minutes.

So what did Peel represent, in himself, that made him such an object of affection that even the profession reputation-demolishers within the media treat him with respect? Somehow, in a way that was both accidental and unselfconscious, it seemed that he benefited from a yearning for authentic ordinariness, for celebrity that was built on not behaving like a celebrity.

This quality of being both distant and approachable is the holy grail of the personality business. In an age of spin and tinsel, celebrities who want to remain on the visible front line of public life are encouraged by those in the fame business to be "grounded" in their interviews, to convey a sense of normality behind the talent, looks and wealth. According to the same folk wisdom, domestic life provides an essential component of the PR image. Punters like to believe that, deep down, those who are famous are often not that different from the rest of them.

Celebrity ordinariness is a more difficult trick to pull than one might think. Sometimes the domestic set-up is too perfect to be convincing. The cosy little anecdotes are too self-serving to have the ring of truth. Many public figures who serve up their family as part of publicity package discover that, by some mysterious process, something has to give, and usually it is their private life that buckles under the strain.

The smarter, older hands - Paul McCartney, Michael Palin, Jonathan Ross, Joanna Lumley - have acquired the knack of providing a close enough imitation of ordinariness to keep interviewers and fans happy.

Here John Peel was unusual. So far as one could tell, his own home truths were not manicured, shaped and edited for public consumption. He had never had any concern for creating an image, whether it was virtuous or sinful, and so, at various points in his career, he blurted out stuff which, under all known rules of public life, should have been professional suicide.

In his early days, he blithely confessed on air to having suffered a dose of the clap. His spell as a DJ in America brought with it the interest of teenage girls, some so young that, he later discovered, they were illegal. "Girls used to queue outside," he cheerfully reminisced in 1989. "Oral sex they were particularly keen on, I remember." Another confession revealed a joyless one-night stand with Germaine Greer.

Yet there was also something touchingly nerdish about Peel, as he changed from being the kind of drippy hippy who played the records of the Incredible String Band, to the hero of student bedsits as a champion of punk, through to family life, finally becoming a model, stolid citizen of Radio Four.

Changing with the times, often making a fool of yourself as you blunder onwards: these things are the stuff of growing up and growing old, but they sit uneasily with celebrityhood. The myth of fame requires dramatic highs and lows, moments of joy and tragedy, adversity followed by triumph, breath-taking turns in the road rather than a shambolic, accident-strewn trudge towards a kind of maturity.

There was something reassuring about the way Peel's apparently messy life had finally led him towards the kind of old age of which many dream, with a loving wife, children and grandchildren, a job he seemed to enjoy, enough enthusiasms to keep cynicism at bay. By some miracle, people responded to this progress; it was the kind of raffish respectability which suited a Sixties groover who had played in the court of misbehaviour, and had finally found his own domestic version of peace, love and understanding.

At a time when all kinds of weirdness attends those who are famous, it is a strangely encouraging story: a celebrity who, over four decades, avoided pretence and pretentiousness, was simply himself, and was widely loved for it. I'm afraid it will never catch on.

Terblacker@aol.com

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