Actually working in radio stations as I went on to do in the 90s was frequently fun. This was local radio: a strange world of larger-than-life DJs, magnified in their own self-importance by the adoration of the audiences.
The star turns often had seaside postcard showbizzy names left over from the 50s and 60s. Danny Dazmore was one DJ I remember particularly well. He had been a Butlins Redcoat and was probably quite dishy as a younger man. Now past sixty it was all wearing a bit thin but he still had a massive following; a bevy of ageing female fans would often loiter in reception to catch a glimpse of him. His real name he told me was Reginald Oakes. I liked Danny a great deal; he might have been a relic but he had a gift for telling an anecdote and was gentlemanly and generous.
My favourite anecdote was from his Butlins days about a club singer who was too big for his boots. Danny was the compere for the show, but after each obsequious introduction would try to distract the singer on stage in a series of outrageous ways. His favoured method was by mooning from the wings with a “W” drawn in marker pen on each buttock. This particular singer’s specialty was The Searchers’ Wow Wow Baby and Danny in the wings would bend over every time the lyric came up, his bum displaying the word. It’s a story Danny would mime, cigar in mouth, although he kept his trousers up in the telling.
Phone-ins were another source of enormous fun for me in my early career.
Hard-core listeners to radio are often, to be frank, a little bit odd. The boundaries of reality are rendered somewhat fluid when you have a disembodied voice urging you to get in touch. Now! Phonelines are free! The whole transaction is necessarily weird and this is something to which most radio stations are sensitive. Generally due to the number of security doors between studio and street it rarely comes to anything more than some extremely odd mail. As a more general happy consequence, regular super keen listeners can be relied upon to be encouraged to participate/take the bait for most phone-in topics and thus ensure a lively amount of programming.
The best fun, however was always when there were insufficient callers to a show and members of staff had to fake being members of the public.
Gifted with an ability to lie at will and a keen ambition to progress I was often enlisted to help by pretending to be a phone-in caller. I was pretty young; my experience of life was fairly narrow but my imagination already flying ahead of me.
“We’re doing pregnancy cravings Nic – anything you like… three.. two… one…”
“Well of course no one believes me but I really did like fish and ice cream.”
“Yes. Cod with vanilla ice cream, it had to be the own brand one from Somerfield though. Ice Cream I mean.”
Another time it was winter memories of Bristol. At the time I hadn’t set foot in the city so I asked the DJ for a bit of help.
“What’s a big hill in Bristol?”
“I dunno… St Michaels Hill?… ok three.. two… one…”
“We used to love sliding down St Michaels Hill on tea trays. Dad was too stingy to buy us sleds.”
I don’t think I’d ever actually seen someone using a tea tray as a sled in fact but it sounded plausible enough. I’d chat away to the random presenter about my imaginary dad and his imaginary tea trays sliding down a hill I’d never seen, grasping an imaginary childhood out of the air. The stories, oddly, felt like they’d been there all the time and I could see how psychics and mediums believed their own hype. My imagination which would become a leaping tiger was already a fairly lively cat and the lines between reality and imagination tended to happily blur. My conjurings came to an abrupt end a couple of years later however and it was all thanks to a pensioner called Elsie.
Things became a little more complicated when it came to a love and relationship show I wasn’t particularly coy and certainly not inexperienced but coming up with believable sex confessions was more of a challenge.
“Shall I say I can’t get enough sex?”
“Nah… we’ve done nymphos a million times, anyway it can’t be slutty.”
“What if… um I was an eighty year old woman who was still a virgin?”
The producers liked that. It had a certain poignancy to it: a warmth. So I faked being Elsie, an eighty year old lady, with a feisty edge who’d lived a full and satisfying life as a teacher and then working in the social services. She enjoyed tennis, could still play a short game on the right surface, had always had a few good friends, but never married and she was sad about never having had relations. I assumed a quiet voice as I channelled this fictitious senior citizen. The presenter asked gentle questions about lost opportunities, we shared a joke or two; the presenter suggesting I try the lonely hearts advertisements in the paper, Elsie laughingly appalled at the prospect, saying she’d got a plumber from the local paper once and he’d made a mess of her kitchen so she wasn’t about to risk her heart or anything else the same way. And so it went. A sympathetic portrayal I felt and one which might just connect with a real listener. Had I known just how resonantly it would connect with a particular listener I might have thought again.
I didn’t think too much about it after that, until the producer phoned.
“You’ve had some fan mail.”
I could hear laughter in the background. It had a hysterical edge to it.
“What does it say?”
“It says… it says…”, he couldn’t finish the sentence as giggles crowded out his words.
“Why are you reading my mail anyway you bastard?”
“It’s not yours its Elsie’s.”
“I’ll have to join a line”, again he dissolved into giggles.
“Well darling “fuck you” is pretty much what 76 year old Don would like to do actually… and 68 year old Tony, and about fifteen other randy pensioners.”
I put the phone down, nauseous. It rang again.
“Don would like to… what does that say Kate? Kate – read it out… ‘initiate you into the pleasures of the flesh.. and delve’. Is that delve? Yeah DELVE into unimagined intimacies… Gosh this paper is ever so creased, his hands must have been well sweaty.”
“Fuck you.” I put the phone down again then lifted it off the hook. Unfortunately in an open plan office with well-ordered telephone extensions the next phone along merely rang and my friend proffered the receiver to me.
“He says he can be ‘the rudder to steer you through the unchartered waters of passionate love’.”
“Ugh! I don’t want to have anything to do with Don’s rudder. And fuck off.”
I thought on this occasion perhaps even I had gone too far and from then on refused any requests to roleplay. It had however, been fun whilst it lasted. They sent me the letters for Elsie in a jiffy bag which was bad enough but Don in particular was extremely persistent and continued to write for several months and every time a new letter arrived from my ancient suitor a cheer went up around the office.
In the end someone else had to lie on my behalf and claim Elsie’s death – momentarily saddened at this news, it was hard for me to remember that she wasn’t actually real.