IT IS hard to believe, but there are people who do not like Margaret Howard. Huge numbers of us think she is wonderful, and have not forgiven the BBC for summarily sacking her from Radio 4's Pick of the Week in May 1991 - she has the letters to prove it - but there are those she irritates, and she thinks she knows why. 'People complain that I am middle class and I am,' she says, 'Why should I pretend to be otherwise?' adding cheerfully, 'If they don't like it, it's just too bloody bad.' But she suspects that what really annoys her critics is a certain precision in her voice, a fastidiousness of articulation that has its roots not in any kind of snobbishness, but in a chronic lung problem that can make her sound wheezy and breathless if she fails to control every sentence.
It has bothered her all her life. When she was little, she was often confined to bed by her disorderly chest. She dutifully listened to schools programmes, longed to be the person who read the stories on Children's Hour, and developed an addiction to radio which she has happily indulged ever since.
At first, she wanted to act. As the leading fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream at school, 'I flapped on in a bit of old tie- dyed muslin, and I was good'. Better Shakespearian roles followed, but at her Sunbury convent in those days (the Fifties), acting was not a career option. You could be a nun, a nurse or a secretary, and that was that. Luckily, her older sister had blazed a trail in to the Civil Service, opening up heady new horizons, but Margaret failed the exam and found herself trying for the BBC 'as a compromise between the Civil Service and the stage'.
It was not hard to get in - 'The woman pulled down a book full of jobs' - and once started, she moved rapidly. Long before her 17 years on Pick of the Week began, she was introducing Proms, chairing international phone-ins and reporting for The World at One. At one time she was a presenter of TV's Tomorrow's World, though she can recall not one invention featured on the show that was ever marketed. Once, in 1971, she was sent to Portsmouth to demonstrate a prototype speedboat, cunningly designed so that its propeller would not get entangled in the weeds of the Louisiana bayous. At the last minute she admitted that she couldn't swim and was given a huge life- jacket and ordered to zoom off into the sunset. It was less dangerous than she had feared, because the propeller at once became inextricably entangled in the weeds of Hampshire.
What she really wanted was to read the news. Women, however, were not considered suitable for such weighty responsibility, so she resigned on principle and went to spend a happy year at Indiana University where, among other things, she read the news and presented a programme of classical music on the radio. She is about to do the same again. She is the shiningest light of Classic FM, the first national radio network to have been introduced since the BBC itself began. Every evening, she will present an hour of news, music and interviews in a programme called Classic Reports. On Sundays, it will be operatic gems, broadcast live from the top of the London Hilton in Park Lane. She's looking forward to it. The informality and cheerful directness of Classic FM's Camden headquarters is, she says 'really delightful. I've never had a programme controller sit on my floor and take me through it before. The BBC, like any other big organisation, runs on meetings and memos. Here, we're all pulling together and everyone helps everyone else.' She is reluctant, now, to admit to bitterness about the famous sacking that left her stunned and feeling ill. The BBC has, after all, been her life. She lives alone in south London, where her great joy is riding her horse.
The new job is a little daunting. She is learning to 'drive' a vast bank of sophisticated equipment she calls her Mighty Wurlitzer. Its complications might well affect her breathing, 'so if people hear the odd gasp, they'll have to wait. I'll probably play all the wrong records'.
Her own taste is fairly catholic, but tends towards small-scale works rather than 'great thumping orchestral pieces'. She says the new station will sound more like Capital Radio than Radio 3, and will be for people who take life light-heartedly. She will certainly enhance it with the reliable, witty, intelligent charm that her BBC audience so enjoyed.
Presenting her carefully planned Pick of the Week's broadcasting, her own character surfaced only as she chose to reveal it. Now, interviewing the likes of James Galway, she will have to improvise. Michael Bukht, the programme controller, has been listening to some dummy runs and now he asks her to smile at her Wurlitzer. He's right. Even on the radio you can hear the warmth of that smile.
Classic FM will begin broadcasting on 7 Sept between 100 and 102MHz.
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