Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Chris Evans has taken over Terry Wogan's place at the helm of the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show slot, and very well he did too on his first day. It was small change that he defied the bookies to start the programme with All You Need is Love, but far more significant that the show was preceeded by veteran newsreader Moira Stewart, who had previously been progressively sidelined by the BBC until she left in October 2007 in a row about ageism.
But for me the best part was when the mother of a girl called Emilia Copp texted in to ask for a request for her daughter, who had given up a hired clarinet for a bought one as a birthday present, the delivery having been delayed due to our sudden attack of winter: Evans got her on the phone and arranged for Philip Mercer, accomplished clarinet player and teacher, to play "happy birthday" to her.
However, Sir Terry's retirement and Evans' occupancy of the keystone breakfast slot has eclipsed an arguably more momentous event: the return of Mark Lamarr.
Perhaps a little recent history is germane here.
In October 2008, unstable shock-jocks Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were due to interview actor Andrew Sachs on the latter's show. When he failed to answer and an answerphone kicked in, Ross shouted "He's [expletive deleted] your grand-daughter!" and various rephrasings thereof down the phone. (The grandchild in question being Georgina Baillie, a burlesque performer also known as Voluptua.)
Over the next couple of weeks the BBC went into lockdown and even resorted to telling the lie that Sachs had not made a complaint, until Daily Mail columnist Melanie Philips penned an explosive article that blew the whole affair open.
Where Lamarr comes in is that when controller Lesley Thomas was fired for giving the pre-recorded Ross-Brand show her approval despite not having listened to it, Bob Shennan - whose strength lay in talk radio - replaced her at the helm of this specialist music station. One of his first acts was to axe the inoffensive Lamarr's three shows, which covered rockabilly, alternative 60's music and a show comprised of his pick of the last 70 years of popular music called God's Jukebox. He is a dedicated hunter-gatherer of the best not-well-known sounds and, as one music blogger says, expends a vast amount of time and effort hunting down music that is not heard anywhere else. The only complaint I ever heard about him was that he played too much reggae.
And there's the irony of the diversity-ridden alternative universe in which the BBC lives, moves and has its being. Lamarr, like DJ legend Alan Freed, is a white enthusiast for black musical culture, although unlike Freed his favoured ground is ska/rocksteady/reggae as opposed to rhythm'n'blues. He seems to have come under the same suspicion as Madness, a ska/rocksteady band (and favourite of Maxima's) who were accused of being racists because they were all-white, a charge not levelled at the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Oasis and all the other white bands who reap fields sown by Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry et al. When Mark Lamarr was sent packing, Radio 2 lost a whole lot of its black music output, probably over half, while the chances that you'd get two white blokes talking when tuning into this specialist music station rose exponentially.
Two of those blokes are musician and DJ Mark Radcliffe and music journalist-turned-DJ Stuart Maconie, who jointly present a 2-hour show on four weekday evenings per week. Great things were promised and great things delivered, initially; now, apart from the odd coup like a recent interview with Danny Thompson, bass-player for Nick Drake, they play ping-pong with memories for longer and longer, and one wonders at what point they will find the cupboard empty.
Lamarr is returning, and not a moment too soon, and in another twist of irony is placed as favourite to take over from Jonathan Ross on his Saturday morning talk-show, whose contract involving astronomical amounts of license-payers' money is not being renewed. I wonder if, given Lamarr's already-proven prowess at interviewing (he's covered Ross's absences more than once), Lamarr's departure was insisted on by Ross? It fits the timescale at both ends.
Whatever, I will enjoy listening to Mark Lamarr, and hope that this specialist music station gives us the rest of our music back.
And I also hope that Emilia gets her clarinet.