Profile: A curious chameleon: Ray Gosling: He may be a 'personality' but the presenter of Adultery keeps his own under wraps

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RAY GOSLING is a slight man in his early fifties, known chiefly for radio programmes (This Island Now, A Taste of . . .). You probably would not automatically pick him out as an agony uncle - let alone a television star. But then again, Mark's wife walked out after 15 months, Lee caught her husband and a mutual friend in the act, Claudette's partner was unfaithful for 21 years, and all of them told Gosling about it, at great length, for the current BBC2 series, Adultery. So he must have something. Unless he is faking it - unless he is just dressing the part.

Adultery - a set of programmes about sexual infidelity, why we do it and how we react to it - has been remarkable for many reasons, not least that, while the adulterers and the victims have openly aired their skeletons, Gosling has raided his own closet for some of the worst clothing seen on television since Perry Como's Christmas Special in 1973.

For an interview in a pigeon loft, he crammed on a daft woolly hat and some bright red gloves. Wherever possible, he has shown us a succession of agonising shirts. ('I guessed that the editor of Penthouse would be in a buttoned-up shirt. And he was. It's so nice when you get them right.') It was almost a relief when we got to the meeting in the bathhouse, where Gosling wore nothing at all.

In the final programme next Tuesday - for Mrs O'Hare of Wolverhampton, who, at 78, is the series's oldest adulteress - Gosling will break with a firmly held personal code and put on a tie. Predictably enough, it is fat and stripey. But it has the desired effect. 'When you married your first husband, Mrs O'Hare, how long was it before you had an affair?' And away she will go, like the others, abandoning discretion, opening herself to the nation, as if she's known Gosling for years, as if he really cared, which he says he does.

Adultery has rewritten the book on Ray Gosling - or so fans of the series reckon. You thought he was an old- fashioned radio man - a presenter of programmes about guinea pig breeding and allotment sheds and all things British and curious. But all along he was the next Alan Whicker - a probing, socially flexible interviewer with an eye for hidden eccentricity and a brilliant grasp of the possibilities of silence.

Meanwhile, his critics write him off as cheap and shifty. ' 'Patronising' I've been called on the Anne Robinson show,' he said, evidently aggrieved. 'I've written a letter. I normally take no notice, but being called patronising was very hurtful to me. I go out of my way not to be patronising. I'm on the same bus as everybody else. I lead an ordinary life. I've been hurt just as much as anyone else.'

WE MET over a cup of tea outside a cafe in Northampton town park. Gosling has a place with a landlady in Covent Garden, but he was born in Northampton and keeps a room in a house there and goes back to visit his stepmother and his father, a retired motorbike mechanic. Around the corner from their bungalow is the small semi-detached house Gosling grew up in. 'You have a dream that you are working class for all of your revolutionary youth and suddenly, at middle age, you recognise that you were lower middle class - your working-class friends tell you the truth eventually.'

He went to Northampton Grammar School at the same time as Jeremy Seabrook, the writer, and then Leicester University, where he got involved in running a rock 'n' roll youth club and never finished his course. After that, he helped set up a tenants' association on a Nottingham estate. The details are in Sum Total, the autobiography he wrote, somewhat precociously, at 24.

'I was the first articulate Teddy boy. I was taken up politically by Stuart Hall, who was editor of New Left Review, and socially by Colin Macinnes, who is dead.' We can blame Macinnes for the woolly hat and the awful shirts, because it was he who taught Gosling how to dress.

'He said that if you dress smartly you must wear one article that is not smart. And if you're not smart, wear one article that is. So he would wear a suit with white plimsolls. Or jeans and the equivalent of an immaculate Paul Smith shirt. It throws people, you see.'

Gosling published pieces about contemporary life in the Listener and Anarchy, and began doing radio programmes. The first person to give him extended exposure was Tony Gould, who produced the series Town Talks. Gould thinks the 'patronising' label is 'an understandable misunderstanding' since Gosling is 'naturally chameleon-like. He is unusual among professional television people in that his feeling for people and their diversity is utterly genuine. He once wrote a piece in the Listener saying that what attracted him about people was the surface things, because deep down we are all the same. Surface differences are much more pronounced.'

Gosling has never held a staff job, but he has never lacked work. He is almost permanently in transit around the country, occasionally making documentaries for television, but mostly talking on the radio in that tonally diverse voice of his, which can at random take a word with relish or curl a sentence up at the end. This hasn't always gone down well. Tony Gould remembers finding in a BBC file on Gosling 'a pejorative reference to his flat Midlands voice - which is really rich when you consider what he can do with it'.

Above all, Gosling's tone is of someone who is permanently curious. Indeed, on the walk from the park to the railway station he pointed out an inscribed cornerstone on Northampton's Pizzaland betraying its original life as a branch of Burton's, and explained the heraldry on the blazer of a passing schoolboy. Gould says Gosling's knowledge of Britain is 'encyclopaedic', and Tamasin Day-Lewis, who produced three of the Adultery programmes, said: 'Wherever we were, he could tell you something about the people, the industry, the buildings. He has this extraordinary sense of England and its regionalism.'

His radio programmes draw on exactly this, sweeping into under-

explored corners of British life. Recent topics have included a man who collects pieces of the earth's crust, someone who builds nests of tables - and guinea pig breeders. 'Did you know, men and women do different guinea pigs? Women do long-haired guinea pigs, men do short, skinhead varieties. The whole thing is to train them to sit still on this stand . . .'

But he does not want people to think he milks these topics for 'wackiness', which he regards as a contemptible American concept. 'I try to present them as things that John Smith should look at if he wants to revitalise the country. There used to be in this park an annual show where allotment people, jam makers, flower arrangers, guinea pig breeders would have a tent. The local authority this year have decided it's going to have a pop concert. It's absolutely appalling - I wish I wasn't presented every week with a reason for not voting Labour.

'They should be encouraging ordinary people to do things in their sheds and grow their own, put two fingers up to shopping and make your own bloody jam. Go to caravan rallies and see how well-behaved people are, with cans of lager. That's what they should be doing. There's nothing wrong with pop concerts at all, but why can't you have bloody both?'

He claims he treated the interviewees on Adultery 'as seriously as David Frost interviewing a prospective prime minister' and believes the people he interviewed got something in return.

'It's a two-way ticket. They were using the team, the experience. It was a sort of free, extremely lavish counselling session of a higher grade than you would get off any counsellor, because there was going to be no advice - just you, allowed to wallow through your story with a few sighs and grunts to egg you on and any best bits at which a counsellor might say, 'Come, come', I would just purr over those.'

The word Gosling chooses to describe a successful programme or interview is 'delicious' - which may imply that from time to time he takes a slightly naughty, savoury pleasure in his job. And, he admits, he occasionally finds himself chewing hard on his lower lip or biting on a cheek to contain his laughter. 'Sometimes,' he said, looking a little guilty, 'there's blood in my mouth afterwards.'

If Gosling does not pool his own experiences in Adultery, it is not because he has none to share. ('I don't think I've ever pledged myself to anyone. I've not been married in any sense. But I've been very close: it's been made very clear to me what adultery is.') But inclusion of personal material would not be his style.

'I did a fantastic local programme called Homo North Westus - about where the roots of Lancashire and Liverpool and Manchester people come from, why they're so brutish and so very, very peculiar, and it was important then to admit that I was not a Northener. But I'm sparse about using things about myself. I'm more interested in myself with other people, really.'

This determination to blend in is an old-fashioned virtue, more easily accommodated on radio than television, with its demand for 'personalities'. Television, you fear, could ruin him. Then again, if anyone is equipped to stave off self-regard, it is Ray Gosling.

At one point, he hunched his shoulders, lowered his head and said: 'I'm a man alone. I don't live in a stable world. I don't live anywhere - I live in small hotel rooms, where I wash my socks and underpants and go to bed.'

And then, barely pausing for breath, his tone brightened. 'You know drip- dry is one of the greatest cons in the world? Any modern shirt of a fairly cottony nature you can drip dry, as long as you hang it up right. The secret with drip-dry was to tell you to hang it up properly. Absolute con]'

(Photograph omitted)