Ray Gosling: The outcast

Ray Gosling was once the BBC’s greatest chronicler of the lives of ordinary people. But he will more likely go down in history as the man who spuriously confessed on air to killing his former lover. Why did he do it? And what has it cost him?

Robert Chalmers
Sunday 30 September 2012 01:33

Perhaps those 2010 headlines such as "BBC Man Admits Murder" somehow passed you by. It's equally possible that his age (73) and recent inactivity have left you unfamiliar with the work of one of the most uniquely talented figures in the history of British broadcasting. In which case, mention of Ray Gosling, what with his unfashionable first name and the ornithological associations of his second, might cause you to assume him to be a fictional character; maybe one of the aliases contemplated, then rejected, by Steve Coogan, before he finally settled on Alan Partridge. That, or a misprint of his namesake Ryan, Canadian star of such films as Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Ray Gosling's great gifts are fearlessness, curiosity and an intuitive ability to connect with interviewees from any class or ethnic background. His distinctive intonation (suggestive of a kind of baffled awe, rather like a blind man glimpsing the world for the first time) renders his enthusiasms strangely contagious. His influence was acknowledged by John Peel and is also detectable in the work of Peel's late producer John Walters and their former colleague Andy Kershaw, as well as in the voices of many other broadcasters, including Jon Ronson.

Even as a young man, Gosling displayed a total indifference towards celebrities, but had an extraordinary talent for evoking empathy with what some in the media still refer to as "ordinary people".

He is, I suggest to the broadcaster, the polar opposite of Louis Theroux. "Absolutely," says Gosling.

In the mid-1990s, he was still presenting major series for BBC2 and ITV. By 2000, he was bankrupt; a process captured in the award-winning film Ray Gosling OAP (BBC4, 2006).

Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago-based radio presenter who shared many of Gosling's instincts, notably an attraction to the seemingly banal, remained a revered broadcasting voice into his nineties. Gosling, on the other hand, lives in a small flat in sheltered accommodation in the centre of Nottingham. He spends his days tinkering with ideas for films which never get made, working on a memoir, and encouraging young film-makers. There is no discernible interest in him at Radio Four, where he did much of his greatest work. This was the channel whose distinguished former controller Michael Green lauded Gosling as "one of those singular and particular voices that we need to cherish".

There is a particular irony to the way that his talent has been jettisoned in that, even as a very young man, Gosling was fascinated by previous generations. Whatever his faults, ageism was never among them. But then, throughout his 50 years in broadcasting, he has always been sailing, with dogged perversity, against the wind.

Sitting in his local pub in the early afternoon, Gosling recalls his first experience of presenting an outside broadcast, for Granada; a pioneering 1960s roadshow programme called On Site. "They had a presenter in the Manchester studio, talking to authority figures, while I was out in the street with the people," he recalls. "The first one was from Bolton. There was an outdoor stage. We had 2,000 people there. It had not been done before. It was live. I was nervous."

One of his interviewees in Bolton, Gosling recalls, was one Mrs Taylor, an elderly woman in a wheelchair. "The council had refused to give her a ramp to get her chair from her drive to the pavement. This councillor said, 'If we give her a ramp, everybody will want one.'" At which point, Gosling tells me, "I had the producer's voice in my earpiece, saying: 'Move on. Move on.' I remember thinking, 'Fuck you.' I knelt down beside her and said: 'Could I make you a ramp, Mrs Taylor?' The producer was in my ear again: 'Move on, move on.' Then the councillor started again: 'We can't let you make a ramp for her…' It carried on for quite a while like that."

Afterwards, Gosling remembers, "I went back to the outside broadcast van that was supposed to drive me back to the Manchester studio. And the producer said, if I recall his words exactly, 'Where the fucking hell did they fucking find you?' I said, 'I'll get the bus.' I caught the number 8, then a train from Manchester to Nottingham. The next morning I got a call from the main editor at Granada. He said, 'Get back to Manchester now. We were inundated with calls last night. We're going to do this every week.'"

Going back through his broadcast archives, which cover such apparently unstimulating subjects as women guinea-pig breeders, Barnstaple, windmills, and the huge industrial estate formerly sited at Manchester's Trafford Park, you're struck by the way Gosling seemed to have arrived fully formed. No broadcaster has ever been more skilled at exploiting silence in order to encourage interviewees, but this never seemed to be manipulation; fascinated bewilderment is central to his interaction with the world.

I tell Gosling how I remember Studs Terkel explaining he'd decided, at an early age, that the orthodox technique of interviewing, involving a notepad containing meticulously phrased questions, was useless. "And you, like him," I suggest, "always seemed to operate entirely by instinct."

"I think I did," Gosling replies. It's not the only time that he'll slip into the past tense when describing his career. "The week after Bolton, we went to St George's Hall in Liverpool; that incredible, beautiful building. We were talking about housing conditions. Before the transmission I met this guy from Toxteth; a man who, in those days, would have been called a 'half-caste'. He said, 'Ray. I've got something in my pocket.' I said, 'Oh, really? What?' And he pulled out a dead rat. So I said, 'Put him back. His moment will come. When we're on air, I'll give you a nudge. Then get your rat out, and dangle him in the face of the director of housing.'"

And? "And I nudged him. He took out the rat – this is live, remember – and said to the director of housing: 'Now this is what we have to put up with, in Toxteth.' And that," says Gosling, "is how I began."

We have met once before. It was in London, 22 years ago, in the first months of what was my first proper job in newspapers, as radio critic for the short-lived Sunday Correspondent. I remind him that, as an interviewee, he was something of a handful back then – mutinous might have been a better word – but endlessly patient with strangers who stopped him in the street.

Even then, I tell Gosling, I can remember being worried about how his headstrong temperament might affect his professional longevity. ("I'll do this till I get booted out," he'd replied. "Everybody has their day.")

He's aged with a sort of crumpled elegance since then, though you can still see traces of the teddy boy he once was: a period of his life described in his precocious autobiography Sum Total, published when he was 23. (And reissued in 2004.) He still gets recognised, often by a new generation who saw documentaries such as OAP. "It's interesting," says Gosling. "People only ever want to shake my hand. They have never, ever, asked for an autograph. Because they know that I am not like Jeremy Paxman. They see me as being as stumbling and unsure as them. That's why they never ask for my signature. They only shake my hand."

His fame these days, it has to be acknowledged, derives partly from the events of February 2010, when Gosling claimed, on camera, to have smothered to death Tony Judson, an ex-lover who was dying from Aids-related causes. After it was proven that he was abroad on the date of Judson's death in London, Gosling was found guilty, in September of that year, of wasting police time, and given a 90-day suspended sentence. Friends say that the international publicity he received as a result of this false and mystifying claim has taken a punishing toll on Gosling, and increased his appetite for alcohol. In the four or five hours I'm with him today, he has only a glass of red wine, a coffee and a couple of post-lunch brandies.

This is the nearest pub to Gosling's current address in the sheltered housing unit. A compulsive hoarder, he was forced to sell his three-storey home, after his lover Bryn Allsop died of pancreatic cancer in November 1999. His monetary difficulties are chronicled in the documentary Bankrupt, shown on BBC4 in 2002.

Gosling's ruin was the consequence of a single £5,000 tax debt which he could have paid but somehow didn't, so that, over years, it accrued massive interest. Before he moved house, Nottingham Trent University had the initiative to buy his vast library of rare cuttings, correspondence and ephemera (including an application to join the Marilyn Monroe fan club, several plastic spoons and a letter from a Woman's Hour listener describing him as a "slimy toad"). The university has indexed each item and maintains the Ray Gosling Archive. Had they come a week later, everything would have gone into landfill.

What I find perplexing, I explain to Gosling, is the way the BBC has a proud history of persevering with mature broadcasters, from the last days of Alistair Cooke through to the hallucinatory but magnificent sports commentaries of Stuart Hall. My first call to Radio Four, seeking to secure Ray Gosling's entire audio catalogue, went unanswered for six weeks. Does he think the Corporation's seeming indifference may be a consequence of the court case?

"There were," he replies, sharply (it's the only time he will sound rattled when addressing this delicate subject), "no consequences of the court case."

So what went wrong? "I think mainly two things. I am not an establishment person. Which makes me difficult to deal with. It's quite cheap to get four people to talk in a studio. But the way I worked – to go to a town, Blackpool in winter, say, and spend maybe two weeks there – that's expensive. And that sort of documentary, where you go out and meet people in the street, never being totally sure of what you are going to get, has almost disappeared."

He's right, of course. And whereas in the United States great documentary-makers tend to be remembered, even revered on the level of film directors, the British have struggled to commemorate such high achievers, especially in radio. Gosling worked with huge talents such as the great documentary producer Denis Mitchell, whose films, like Morning in the Streets (1959), have an poignant sensibility to rival, say De Sica's classic film Bicycle Thieves, even if Mitchell's name is now largely forgotten. Radio, by its very nature, is even more ephemeral.

You may have heard the stunning documentary on Woody Guthrie by the producer Peter Everett, on Radio Four three months ago. But how many people remember Everett's classic montage of voices, The British Disease, a series running over six hours, and which, with its ambition, insight and wit, bears comparison with any production I have ever heard, in any medium? The days when you got that sort of time, Gosling says, are gone. And, he adds, "as with any job, you need a little luck. I had my share of luck. But things never came that easily to me."

If you had to choose just one adjective to describe Gosling, unbiddable would do as well as any. He was born, and grew up in Northampton. I tell him how I have a friend who is a songwriter from that town, who once told me he loves Northampton because "It's a place where people have learnt how to say 'No.'"

"Oh, I like that," says Gosling, who produces a notebook, and writes it down. "That's wonderful."

His father was a mechanic; his mother he describes as "a Cambridgeshire peasant girl". He disliked his time at Northampton Grammar, and his schooling was seriously disrupted: doctors reset a broken arm several times before they realised he had bone cancer. Spending long periods in hospital, "I thought, 'I belong down here, sitting and waiting. I don't belong up there at the school, where they're all laughing and don't give a damn.'"

He dropped out of Leicester University, where he was reading English, and began running a club for disadvantaged youths, who rewarded him with savage and ritualistic beatings.

Gosling, who was aware of his own sexual orientation from an early age, was one of the founders of the campaign for homosexual equality. "I fought the fights," he says. "I helped change the law."

He got his start in radio after he was interviewed as a tenacious and articulate campaigner for tenants' rights in St Ann's, one of the less affluent areas of his adopted city of Nottingham. "I tried to improve the lives of people. I failed."

His first radio commission was on the BBC's Third Programme, giving interval talks in classical concerts. "The same qualities that make him an outstanding performer," warned his then-producer Tony Gould, prophetically, "also make him a very big risk."

"I was brought in by the station controller," Gosling says. "He said, 'Could you do 16-minute talks in the concert interval?' I said, 'What about?' He said, 'Have you been to Rochdale?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Well, talk k about Rochdale.' So you had this symphony from the Royal Albert Hall, and in the middle I talk about Rochdale."

"I suppose," I tell him, "it's no more bizarre an idea than a baritone in a bow tie and dinner jacket singing about the joys of ploughing."

"Absolutely. All the BBC knew was that I was interested in people and places. And that I was always arguing."

Gosling, never one to squander time on needless civility, drains his glass.

"So," he says. "What you gonna do now?"

"What do you want to do?"

"Go home and have a nap. What else do you want to ask me?"

Almost all of the articles in his file of press cuttings, I tell him, relate not to the great programmes he made, but to the consequences of his suggestion that he asphyxiated a dying man; a false confession made during an East Midlands documentary series called Inside Out. What came over you? "Oh. That. That is ever so easy to explain. I don't like to, because it hurts other people. Anyhow. We had done this simple little regional film. It was part of a series. I'd done one on gnomes. One on caravans. Then my director said, 'Shall we do death?'"

He filmed a scene with members of the University of the Third Age, Gosling says, at a house in Leicester. "Several said they would like to go to Dignitas if the need arose. Afterwards, there was just me and one woman left. And her partner, who was not speaking. Just shaking. She said, 'I don't know what to do. Sometimes he just hits me. And he doesn't know.' We didn't film that. Then we went to Derbyshire, where people were burying relatives in woodland, with no gravestones. One woman there said to me, 'That's my husband. I helped him to go.'"

At the end of the day we went to what will be my plot, where my partner Bryn is buried. I talked about how this person, who shared my life for a long time, had died in terrible pain from pancreatic cancer. Then I thought of Tony, who had been my lover in London. I remembered how we talked several times, when he was dying of Aids, how he'd said: 'If it gets any worse… you will, won't you?'"

For the first and only time, Gosling shows signs of emotion. "I get very close to people. And I suppose my tenses got a bit mixed up."

Between the past and the conditional? "Yes."

His actual words, in the broadcast, were: "I killed someone once. He was a young chap, he had been my lover and he had got Aids. In hospital, the doctor said, 'There's nothing we can do.' He was in terrible pain. I said to the doctor, 'Leave me just a bit.' I picked up the pillow and smothered him until he was dead. The doctor came back and I said, 'He's gone.' Nothing more was said."

When filming ended, Gosling says, "I thought nothing of it. It was a regional film. But the BBC had clips of it and everybody who wanted it got a copy, from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires." The next day he travelled to Television Centre in London, where he had been asked to appear on the breakfast show. "And they had the clip, which they played. So what do I do then – deny it? I knew I was stuck then."

Stuck? "Doomed."

Fellow broadcaster Sarah Montague asked what gave him "the right" to assist a suicide.

"Human rights," Gosling told her. "I'm sorry … if it happens to a lover or a friend of yours… I hope it doesn't… but when it does, sometimes you have to do brave things and say, to use Nottingham language, bugger the law."

The BBC were, he adds, "very good to me in other ways. They gave me a chauffeured car to Nottingham. I was driven," he adds, with a hint of irony, "all the way. I remember the driver, a Cockney guy, told me, 'I heard what you said on the telly. About time somebody said it, Ray.'"

And there are many – especially anybody who saw Callum Macrae's remarkable recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome – who will silently applaud the chauffeur's sentiments. "Nobody has ever given me a word of criticism for what I said I had done," Gosling tells me. "Nobody. People have come up and shaken my hand, privately. You asked me before about consequences. The only consequence was increased respect from people."

He was detained for 30 hours by the police, before he volunteered Judson's name.

Peculiarly, in a Guardian article of February 2010, Gosling's fellow gay rights activist Alan Horsfall observed that, "Ray told me about it a long time ago."

I have to confess to a sneaking and utterly unfounded suspicion that Gosling, who previously had been regarded as a person of truth and principle, might have witnessed the assisted death not of Judson, but of another dying man. He spent considerable time with his late lover Bryn, who was receiving large doses of morphine in his last hours.

The broadcaster says that the nightmarish situation concerning Judson arose because, "I'd said what I said, but I couldn't immediately say it was a lie."

"Why not?" "Because that would have made it sound as if the whole thing was some kind of a joke. It was not a joke. Because I would have [assisted Judson's suicide]. Or I like to think I would."

It's unfortunate that this affair, and not his tremendous professional legacy, is likely to dominate his memory. There are some clips of Gosling's work on YouTube. With some effort you can still get hold of his superb 1963 black-and-white homage to Leicester and Nottingham, Two Town Mad. The BBC website does not as yet allow access to his great radio series such as Who Owns Britain? (1988), which won awards in several countries.

One of the endearing things about Gosling, prominently demonstrated in Who Owns Britain?, is that he bonds as easily with a duke as with a chambermaid.

In one programme, he recalls, "We were recording near Kettering [with a titled landowner]. He said, 'You know… a while ago I looked out of the window and I saw a phalanx of police cars coming up my drive. I let them in. They said, Are you [name omitted]? I said, I am. They said, You are under arrest, sir. I said, What for? They said, Where is your mother? I said, In the wood. I buried her.'"

"You see," Gosling tells me, "strictly speaking, you are not really supposed to do that."

"Was she dead?"

"Dead? Yes. And in a coffin. But even so…"

I suspect that it's the absence of such maverick voices that has driven many listeners away from BBC Radio. As a listener – with no disrespect to either broadcaster – I would personally forego a few hours of the wisdom of Lord Bragg (who is also 73), say, or Victoria Derbyshire, if it made room for another series for Ray Gosling.

But in corporate terms, Gosling is now, as he always was, trouble. Rather than mellowing, he seems to see old age as an opportunity to behave with the kind of reckless irresponsibility he exhibited in his youth.

"It's odd, isn't it," I ask him, "that, with a few exceptions, the old are now considerably more subversive than the young?"

"But we are. A lot more subversive. I have started doing subversive things again."

Such as? "Shouting at people."

His friend the cartoonist Lord Biro arrives. Gosling wants to buy him a drink. "I've got £5 to last me till Monday," he tells the artist. "You can have that. No – hang on – I've got 15."

This man, I find myself thinking, is among the very greatest post-war voices in British broadcasting. If there were any justice, he should be in the Channel Islands with Alan Whicker, comparing yachts.

"At the BBC," Lord Biro tells me, "they don't even mention him. He was going to stand in the local elections here, but couldn't, because he has a suspended sentence."

When times were hard, Gosling says, he sold things to try to finance films. "Even," he recalls, "my shares in Manchester United."

"I know you have been working with talented younger film-makers, such as Leila Newton-Fox."

"Yes. The trouble is that everything has to be funded."

"And you're working on a new autobiography?"

"I'm trying. A memoir, I'd call it."

His loyal fans – and they are still many – can only hope that we will see some more of his truculent brilliance as a documentary-maker. Because, in Gosling's words, "I do have something to say. I did when I was young. I do now that I am old. It may be the same old song. But the song," Gosling adds, "is a good one."

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