George Webley: Maverick radio presenter, musician and composer of the theme tune for 'Have I Got News For You'

Pierre Perrone
Tuesday 17 May 2011 00:00

In its various guises – GLR, BBC London 94.9 – the BBC station for London has been the home of maverick radio presenters such as the late Charlie Gillett, Chris Evans, Danny Baker, Norman Jay and Mark Lamarr, as well as "Big George" Webley, the larger-than-life broadcaster who, five nights a week, hosted the 2am to 6am show beloved of cab drivers, night workers and insomniacs. Never short of an opinion, Webley and his dedicated callers, texters and e-mailers put London and the world to rights, and formed a strong bond, as demonstrated by the tribute 300 taxi drivers paid him. Four days after his death they gathered on the steps of All Souls Church, near Broadcasting House in central London, and held a minute's silence in the presence of his partner and fellow BBC London 94.9 presenter, JoAnne Good.

Webley previously presented music programmes on GLR, BBC Three Counties Radio, where he won a Sony award in 2002, and the Buckinghamshire station Horizon. "I got my break in radio after jamming the signal for Horizon Radio in Milton Keynes, in protest at their lack of local music commitment," he told the Radio Times in 2009. When Horizon was bought by the GWR group in 1995, and Webley was asked to play Phil Collins, he resigned after a very 'Big George' last stand. "Instead of playing the housewife's favourite, cuddly Phil Collins, I played progressive jazz-funk Phil Collins – wall-to-wall tracks by his band Brand X, which is even more unlistenable than his wine-bar favourites."

Webley also appeared on myriad radio and television programmes as a musicologist, the self-styled "Quentin Tarantino of musical appreciation", where he made the most of his exhaustive knowledge and the unique insights he had acquired in his parallel career as session musician, bandleader, arranger and composer of television themes. Most famously, he composed the slamming intro and outro for the long-running panel TV show Have I Got News For You, showing the same ability to think on his feet that characterised his radio work after the original tune he had written was ditched the day before the recording session.

"It was too late to cancel, the players had been booked, so there was nothing for it but to pen another theme," he wrote in his column for Sound On Sound, the music recording technology magazine he contributed to. "I knew the opening title sequence was 32 seconds long, but that included the four-second tympani drumming and Big Ben boinging sequence already completed in conjunction with the animator's storyboard. I knew the piece had to be manic, with a big kick at the end, and have a few demented twists and turns in the middle. So that evening I fixed a tempo (192bpm) and charted out the right number of bars. Next, I structured the piece – chord patterns, drum fills, stops, and so on. Then it was up again at 7.30 am. I scored the parts out on the train journey to the studio. It was recorded in one take, live, during a one-hour session in the depths of a basement in Soho. I doubt if the sax player and trumpeter had their instruments in their hands for more than five minutes."

Born in Clapham in 1957, he seemed destined for a musical career when his aunt arranged for Frankie Laine, whose fan club she ran, to be his godfather. An appearance by Donald Swann, of Flanders and Swann fame, at his primary school in 1963, confirmed this. "From the first moment he lifted the piano lid, I knew the direction my life was going to take," he recalled.

Webley saw the Small Faces at Streatham Top Rank when he was nine and, having learned piano and guitar, joined a covers band in the early '70s. He began writing his own compositions and in 1977 formed Blitz, who became the house band at the Roxy Club, the short-lived temple of punk in Covent Garden. He acquired a "leopard skin" haircut and met his future wife there but, despite contributing "Strange Boy" to the Farewell To The Roxy live album, and touring with UK Subs in 1978, Blitz remained a footnote in the history of punk.

He wrote to the renowned session bassist Herbie Flowers to ask for advice and was invited to a studio where he was recording a Justin Hayward album with the producer Jeff Wayne. Webley began accompanying Flowers to sessions, and occasionally depped for him. he became a session regular too, not only playing bass with Sally Oldfield, JB's All Stars – the short-lived group assembled by Specials drummer John Bradbury in 1984 – and The Big Heat, but also writing advertising jingles and and acting as bandleader. In 1989, he was hired as the musical director for Jameson Tonight, a daily chat show on Sky. Modelled on David Letterman, broadcast from Paramount City, Paul Raymond's rebranded Windmill Theatre in Soho, and presented by Derek Jameson, the show called for Webley and his musicians to accompany guests as diverse as Chris Farlowe, Humphrey Lyttelton, Alvin Stardust and Hinge and Bracket, and ran to 350 editions.

The prolific Webley composed the themes for Room 101, for TV shows presented by Jo Brand, Rory Bremner and Graham Norton, arranged the Mike D'Abo composition "Handbags and Gladrags" which book-ended The Office and produced incidental and play-out music for another of the UK's best-loved sitcoms, One Foot In The Grave. In the late '90s he presented the award-winning BBC educational series Music File on BBC 2.

However, he became incensed by the complexities of the royalties system and the sleight-of-hand production companies use when accounting for repeat fees, video, DVD and overseas incomes, and started campaigning on behalf of other TV composers.

"I've earned more from the one track I did for One Foot in the Grave than I have from 16 Have I Got News For You DVDs and videos," he said. "I just don't feel I'm being fairly treated. We work in an industry where you can get shafted all the time, but what you should be doing is the gentlemanly thing."

Webley suffered a heart attack while broadcasting on GLR in 1996, but returned to the airwaves three years later. He enjoyed juggling his media and music-making commitments and also gigged and recorded with his trio, The G Spot. In 2008, he wrote a newspaper column for the London Daily News.

"When George first arrived at GLR we didn't know what to make of him," says Gideon Coe, a colleague of Webley's in the '90s and now a stalwart of BBC 6 Music. "But it soon became clear that those of us who thought we knew about how to put together a properly eclectic, engaging and brilliant music programme had much to learn from George. He believed passionately in good music radio."

George Webley, broadcaster, composer, musician and bandleader: born London 29 May 1957; married (two daughters, two sons); died Milton Keynes 7 May 2011.

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