Double yikes! I’ll baffle my US readers by delving into a fresh controversy of today; venerable BBC Radio 2 disc jockey Ken Bruce is leaving in a move freshly announced this week. No big deal, right? But times are always changing, and Bruce’s departure from his weekday show, which commands 8.5 million weekly listeners, marks the end of the culture of national radio. Given that licence payers were forking out nearly £400,000 a year for Bruce’s talents, and an extra £50 grand on top of the occasional use of the recently departed Steve Wright, it’s hard to get too tearful about goodbyes to people out of sync with the Covid-reduced world we live in, but it’s also worth looking back to see where this indulgent culture began.
This 1970 doc from the BBC’s Man Alive season is something of a time capsule, and if you can spare 50 minutes for a trip back in time, might just be the most British thing you’ve ever seen. The subject is the dangers of pop, and what the age of pop might mean for the staid old fuddy-duddies at the Beeb. A posho, plummy-voiced VO narrator informs us that these new fangled ‘disc jockeys’ once accepted low wages to work at the BBC due to the perks; scenes of Emperor Roscoe and groupies make it fairly explicit what these ‘perks’ are, although cardinal offender Jimmy Saville is nowhere to be seen. John Peel, Jimmy Young, Kenny Everett and other examples of ’theatrical, bouncing’ presenters are interviewed, while we contrast their forced jollity with the Nietzschean affirmation philosophy of DJ Tony Blackburn.
Blackburn was presenting the coveted morning show on the BBC Radio One at the time this film was made, and we’re given bona fides as to his good behaviour as he pretends to have a real dog called Arnold on air; he’s ‘the son of a doctor’, and he ‘votes Conservative’, so we know our nation’s youth are in safe hands. Less so the dark and maverick forces that lurk within the seemingly upright Jimmy Young, described here as ‘a lonely man’ who ‘peddles’ his music and chat show to the masses. ‘Is he over-cheerful?” is the burning, reductive question the narrator asks as Jimbo chats to Raymondo the Duck about todays recipe.
‘It was not so long ago that BBC announcers had to wear dinner jackets to work,; admonishes the judgey VO, but this film shows them as they guzzle coke, stripped to the waist, or taking part in such dubious extra-curricular activities as ‘judging a beauty content’. The culture of celebrity quickly tarnished the BBC’s image, leading to the kind of no mark presenter picking up huge wages today, a trend towards the dull that Everett describes as ‘porridge’. With the licence fee looking set to be abolished soon, the era of the household name has ended, and that’s probably a good thing; as with social media, if public trends go unheeded, the results are disastrous prove presenters and listeners alike.