Is this the One to wake our souls?

John Walsh meets... Mark Radcliffe
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The Independent Online
"Wikey wike..." yelled the radio behind my ear, "... High!" A tinny backbeat started up, like the "Tssst... tssst" noise that snakes from the personal stereo beside you on the Tube. A cacophony of wacky recordings assailed me like a blizzard, and a voice intoned the words "Good morrow, waking souls" like a town crier in a Restoration comedy. Without preamble, I was suddenly listening to Kula Shaker playing "Hush". The time was 7am. The last time I'd heard "Hush" ("I thought I heard her calling mah name now..."), it was by Deep Purple, circa 1968. The words "Wakey wakey", or at least a mangled variant of them, used to be the call-sign of Billy Cotton, the rubicund impresario of the 1950s. The "Good morrow" was nearer the 1650s. Into what retro hell had I awakened?

Then I remembered. I was doing some elementary research before meeting Mark Radcliffe, the new man on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show. For the first time in a decade or two, I was deserting Sue McGregor and her attendant lords on Today to check out the wacky, zany voice of Radio Yoof. He is, let me remind you, the man who took over from Chris Evans five weeks ago, the man on whom the fortunes of Radio 1 depend, the man in whom Matthew Bannister has placed his most sacred trust, the man who can change the listening habits of millions of 18-25s...

All are important reasons for meeting Mr Radcliffe; but there's one more. Radcliffe has Added Value. As people went out of their way to tell me, he is not as other DJs. He is a Radio 4 sensibility in a Radio 1 playsuit. He is a man of learning and discernment, who introduced serious poetry and arty discussions into the evening slot on Radio 1, a chap who could hold his own with George Steiner and Christopher Ricks - and who, by virtue of his ease with both nob culture and slob culture, will become the bridge by which Radio 1 listeners will gravitate, in time, to Radio 4.

The only stumbling block to this exciting theory is Mr Radcliffe's show. It is hard to listen to its combination of yapping Mancunian cross-talk and idiotic quizzes without feeling your brain starting to leak out of your ears. And there is the problem with Mr Radcliffe's partner and comic foil, Marc Riley, invariably known as "Lard". His function in the show is inscrutable, beyond uttering wholly phatic observations such as "Did yer?" and "Really?" and shouting "Good call!" (after a furious riff from Radcliffe) or "Doreen from Bradford, get the bus!" (in answer to a reader's request that he helps to hasten her daughter's departure). Despite assurances that the show is "chock-full with quality items", the prevailing tone is of slightly desperate self-deprecation. "We're the eejits with yer eggs and the morons with yer muesli," observes Radcliffe with pride, "the tosspots with yer toast and the wazzocks with yer Weetabix." The co-presenters reflect on items in the paper, complain about shoddy workmanship, the decline in public services (because nobody has come to remove a blue plastic bag from the tree outside their window) and the flagrantly mendacious promise of "freshly cut sandwiches" on post-BR trains. They argue about these crucial topics in voices of mounting hysteria, an act clearly deriving from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer though rather closer to the pub just before closing time. Signs of cultural "crossover" are disappointingly few, beyond a squib of verse from John Hegley and the Busy Buzzy B competition in which all the answers begin with "b" ("Whose catchphrase is `What's up, Doc?'?").

Is Mr Radcliffe, then, adjusting his discourse for an audience of epsilon-minuses? Or biding his time until he knows his listeners well enough, upon which he will bombard them with lectures on Hegel or Connexity or Gender Quake? What, in other words, is he up to?

"One of my favourite compliments," said Radcliffe when we met, in a Manchester restaurant, "was from a guy who works as a roadie for a symphony orchestra. He said, `I like your show, because it's just like an ordinary bloke 'avin' a go". It was a real backhanded compliment, but I thought it was a compliment nevertheless. It's like all the people in the past, who said about DJs, `Oh anyone could do that'. Well yeah, but you have the confidence to keep talking when you've got nothing to say."

Not everyone has welcomed their ordinariness with unmitigated joy. "We got a lot of southern hate mail, initially," said the breakfast champion. "A barrage of faxes from the South, saying, `I don't pay my licence fee to hear scummy northern bastards'. Some of them even accused us to trying to be `too East End', which I don't understand. I think people misinterpret what we do as striking a blow for the North, because we chose to do the programme from here. But it's not about saying `Manchester is great' or anything. It's just that this is where we live and it's great we didn't have to move. If you're just playing records and talking crap in between, you can do it anywhere."

All the self-deprecation - was it to stay one jump ahead of the hate mail or did they mean it? "It's just honest, isn't it? We're just chancing our arm, doing what we do. But it's a defence mechanism. If you set yourself up as fantastic, you're easy to knock down. Of course we think we're absolutely fantastic, really..."

The listening figures that will declare the Mark 'n' Lard show a hit or a scummy fiasco will not be out for another couple of weeks. They're expecting a ratings drop of about 10 per cent from the Chris Evans heyday. "Everyone seems happy about that," says Radcliffe cheerfully. "Whatever the relative merits of me and Chris Evans, when you make a change from something people are used to you always get a drop." Did he know what Evans made of the new show? "I've no idea. I used to work with Chris at Piccadilly Radio. He was just helping out, answering the phones and doing what he could. And we were in this band together, Frank Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band. I played drums and organ at the same time, and he used to sit on the side of the stage and read the paper. I haven't seen him for a couple of years. But he's supposed to have recommended us to Bannister when he walked off the show, so in a sense he elected his own successors."

Radcliffe was born in Bolton, the son of a journalist on the local Evening News, then the Daily Mail and the BBC. His father reviewed classical music and took his son to orchestral concerts - enough of a grounding in the classical repertoire to land the future DJ a job, briefly, as Head of Music at Piccadilly Radio. At school he was "good at English, shit at Maths, not sporty at all, and always in a band, mostly as a drummer". His teen fascination for "prog rock" dinosaurs like Hawkwind, Gong and Amon Duul was overturned by the arrival, at Bolton Tech, of Dr Feelgood, the deeply wonderful Canvey Island pub rockers led by Lee Brilleaux. The young Radcliffe gazed in wonder at "these four blokes in ill-fitting suits and bad haircuts. We thought it was fantastic, because it seemed like a pretty realistic aspiration to be like that". Then punk, then Manchester University, then a radio career as producer, presenter, and - finally - Wake-upper General of the nation's somnolent youth.

Radcliffe in the flesh is less laddish and more self-contained than his radio persona might suggest. Sharply if monochromically dressed (Reservoir Dogs suit from Next, white shirt from Marks), sharp-featured and sideburned, he looks a good deal younger than his 38 years. You could mistake him for a popular-with-the-boys English teacher at a northern state school. What makes him an attractive DJ presence is precisely that air of decency combined with a readiness to say the unsayable. Such as the time on Channel 4's The White Room TV rock show, when Iggy Pop was grinding away on stage, naked of chest and transparent of trouser; "Iggy Pop," yelled Radcliffe to camera, "He's a legend. He's a star. But is he going to get his knob out?" On Radio 1, he is more circumspect, stopping short of the wildly tasteless. Discussing the Spanner consensual-sado-masochism case, Radcliffe mused, "Apparently this case was about these four men who nailed their bits to a table in a caravan." "Amazing that, in't it?" countered Lard. "Getting four men inside a caravan..."

"I was given a copy of the BBC's guidelines about taste and sex," says Radcliffe. "about 1983, I think it was. I've no idea where they are now, but I think we're a very safe pair of hands. It's a bit pathetic that people have this need to be shocking and controversial and push it too far. I don't think the barometer of whether a show's good or not is how many people complain."

He has been unimpressed by the reaction of the newspapers to the brouhaha over Radio 1 last year. "Increasingly, the broadsheets seem to be reflecting the tabloid agenda," he said in one of his odd periodic bursts of committee- speak. "It goes back to when Matthew Bannister took over. The Sun had a picture of him sliding down a banister and knocking his bollocks off on the - what d'you call the thing at the bottom? Newel post. But then you get The Independent and The Guardian leaping in and saying, `Bannister is ruining Radio 1', as if Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates had been paragons of culture in this country."

Speaking of culture, what was all this about him and poetry? How did the most recondite of literary forms fit in with the lowest common denominator of broadcasting? Radcliffe explains. "When we started the evening show, it occurred to me that poetry was something that could work because of the way pop radio is structured, in short bursts of speech." So he encouraged Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell to read their work. "But it wasn't a mission to take culture to the masses. I think lots of false boundaries get drawn. In Italy, there's deemed to be no difference between going to the opera and going to a football match. I think that attitude's starting to pervade English society. Poetry used to be a Radio 4 thing which Radio 1 couldn't touch. I don't think that's valid. It's all there, available to anyone who wants to try it."

Did he read poetry at home? "Yeah, I like poetry. Yeah I'll read it at home, although I might read, I don't know, John Donne and Loaded magazine in the same evening. I don't have a problem with that. We're not trying to occupy an intellectual high ground on the show, which is very knockabout. But the show's catch-phrase `Good morrow, waking souls' is an allusion to Donne's `The Good Morrow' - you know, `Bisy old foole, unruly sonne'. The best line from the poem - `And makes one little roome an everywhere' - is fantastic, the whole world being encapsulated in this one room, because you're so into what you're doing. Which is, basically, shagging."

Radcliffe's bracing perspective on literature extends to the whole business of populism. I asked him about the crushing phrase "dumbing down" that my Independent colleague David Walker had used about him (in warning that "popular culture is intolerant of idiosyncrasy"). Radcliffe speared a tube of penne al' arrabbiata. "I think there's a basic mis- understanding here of the words `dumb' and `fun'. Things like the Busy Buzzy B game on the breakfast show, it's a completely banal, stupid, crass game, right? But everybody participating in it is aware of the irony in that. To resent the fact that it's fun is a very snobbish attitude. If something's fun, taking the piss, having a laugh, then it's assumed to be dumb. I don't buy into that at all. Our agenda is just to get from one record to the next and have a laugh and I don't see any intellectual low ground inherent in that". Could he fit snugly into bed with a Radio 4 audience? "That'd be great. But the idea that the people who listen to the Today programme don't want fun is ridiculous. I'm sure they'd be delighted if they could win a van or a footbath like on this morning's show."

Radcliffe is interestingly critical of Melvyn Bragg, the doyen of smart debate, for what he sees as a failure of judgement. "I think Start the Week is rubbish. It tries to occupy an intellectual high ground and has to argue in a really combative way, which isn't necessary. Melvyn Bragg sometimes is just rude." Doesn't it make for more exciting radio? "No, it's unpleasant. What people want is to see things deftly manoeuvred."

At 38, he's about twice the age of his core audience of waking souls, but it doesn't bother him. What did he see himself doing at 50? "Broadcasting, I think, once a week somewhere, maybe. I've always done shows that were driven by the music I like and I don't know if that's possible any more. Or if it's possible to backtrack, once you've put your head above the parapet and gone into Today time. I'll probably finish up doing the mid- afternoon show on Radio Northwich. But I'm sure I'll still be broadcasting - just because I can't do anything else."