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    Journalism

    Brian Matthew 1928-2017 An interview for Saga in 2012

    Category: Random Pieces
     

    (An interview from 2012)

     Leaning forward into his BBC microphone, headphones clamped to his ears, finger on the fader and a walking stick alongside, Brian Matthew at work looks more like a cricket commentator than the oldest disc jockey in the country – and, possibly, the world.

    He's 83 and the congregation who turn to his Sounds of The 60s every Saturday morning on Radio 2, are, for the most part, four million baby boomers - starting their weekend with him as many of them would have done half a century ago when he introduced Saturday Club on the old Light Programme.

    Now his shows are an exercise in nostalgia: back then they were the very epicentre of the early Sixties' revolution in youth and music. Only the records and Brian stay the same.

    It's impossible to exaggerate how familiar his presence was back then. Saturday Club is the best remembered show, but no sooner had he finished introducing it than he was scooting off to ITV to compère Thank Your Lucky Stars, before rushing back to the BBC the next day for Easy Beat. And in between? A programme on Radio Luxembourg during the week.

    Somehow his appeal and career have lasted. While other disc jockeys, often crazy, loony, extroverts, have blazed to glory before slipping to obscurity, he's still there, still the avuncular enthusiast who always seemed older and more grown up than the artists he was presenting.

    "I was older," he says over a coffee at the BBC, his weekly programme finished. "Ten years or more, and that's important at that time of your life. Sometimes the Beatles would get a bit out of hand in the studio and I'd have to tick them off, and people would say 'how dare you speak to the Beatles like that'. And I'd say, 'But they're only boys. I've been doing this for years'."

    In fact he'd been doing it ever since his National Service in the late Forties. Posted to Hamburg at 18, he decided to apply for a vacancy as an assistant announcer with the British Forces Network and found himself, still in uniform, putting on records for Cliff Michelmore on Two Way Family Favourites.

    He hadn’t planned to go into broadcasting. "I just felt it was something I could do and applied for an audition. I don't know what was special about my voice, it's not special now. It's croaky more than somewhat. But fortunately it was distinctive enough and they must have liked it."

    As a boy, music had played a large part in his home life in Coventry. "My father was a mechanic with Morris Motors and played with the Salvation Army band. He was a marvellous musician, loved all kinds of music from dance band to classical, as I still do, and could play every instrument in his own band. He tried to teach me the cornet, then I struggled with the trombone in the school orchestra. But I was never very good."

     His schoolboy ambition had been to become an actor, and after National Service he got into RADA with a government demob grant, after which came a spell at the Old Vic. He met his wife, Pamela, there, when they were both in a production of Henry V in the Festival of Britain year of 1951.

    "Acting is a hard life, it always has been, and although we did some rep around the country, when the parts began to grow thin on the ground I had a contact with the English speaking part of Hilversum, a radio station in Holland. So I went there for two years."

    He could have stayed longer, and was offered a promotion. But my wife wanted our son Christopher to grow up in England so it was back to Coventry looking for a job.

    "Jaguar seemed very interested in me, because I had three languages by this time. But they said they couldn't see where I would fit in. Then, when I was walking out from the interview I noticed a dairy across the road with a sign on the door: 'Wanted - roundsman and pasteuriser'. So I went in, got the job and was told I could start the following day." He'd become a milkman.

    "I was very grateful for it at the time, but I kept writing off for other jobs and six months later the BBC took me on as a trainee announcer.  It was 1954. There were other options for me. It was a different world then. Careers aren't planned. So much of what we do is because we happen to be in a certain place at a certain time and we get asked to do things. The kids of today don't have the options that I did. It's terrible for them."

    His first BBC work was varied. On one day he might be presenting Sir Malcolm Sergeant at the Proms and on another reading the news. But it was when he was asked to introduce a show called Saturday Skiffle Club in 1957, that year of Lonnie Donegan and Rock Island Line, that his life began to change. The listening figures were instantly huge, and as skiffle faded and pop music began to dominate the show was renamed Saturday Club, with Matthew like an ever enthusiastic young schoolteacher in charge.

    Although Cliff Richard failed his first audition, he was soon back, to be followed by just about every chart making British pop act, and as there was a 'needle time' limit on the number of records that could be played, the BBC built up a canon of live performances from some of the biggest stars in the world. Albums of the BBC's recordings of the Beatles and Dusty Springfield are still available.

    "I was devoted to Dusty," he beams sadly. "She was difficult sometimes, though not always, and criticised everything and everyone including herself. I knew her from when she was with her brother in the Springfields. I remember saying to the producer that she was a great solo singer and we should take her out of the group and use her on her own. And he said, 'We can't do that. It wouldn't be nice'.  No sooner had he said it, than she'd done it herself and gone solo."

                During the Saturday Club years, and later with his programme My Top Twelve and Around Midnight he encountered just about everyone in British pop and jazz music as well as most of the America acts who toured the UK. An early Seventies interview with Bill Haley was memorable.

                "It was extraordinary. We were talking about his favourite records and he was very keen to tell me about his background and heavy drinking and how he regretted it, and suddenly he burst into tears, sobbing. I suppose he felt he had to tell somebody and it just happened to be me."

                So the decades rolled by with the instantly recognisable voice of Brian Matthew never far from a microphone. He's interviewed all kinds of people from Muhammad Ali to Katherine Hepburn, but it's for bringing us Sixties music that he's best known. Quite why the records of that era remain so popular he's not entirely certain.

                "I suppose overall it was much more varied than the music of any other period I've come across, and, by and large, better, not necessarily than what came before, but what we've had since. But I don't really know anything about today's pop music so it's not fair for me to say."

                In conversation he's careful not to criticise or grumble or even admit to any regrets. "It would seem ungrateful when I think of how lucky I've been. But I do wonder from time to time what might have happened if I'd stuck it out as an actor for a bit longer. Pamela and I are both still very keen on theatre and go regularly to the West End.

    "Years ago we had a small theatre built on the side of our house in Kent and would put on productions there, dozens and dozens of plays and Christmas poetry readings, in support of a home for autistic people."

    And what about retiring? "Well, obviously it’s close to my mind some of the time, but I honestly think if I did retire I'd die. Not out of remorse, but I've seen so many people who couldn't wait to finish, and who, no sooner had they stepped off, skipped off. So I want to stay doing this."

    Then he remembers something. Just a few months ago Paul McCartney was in an adjacent studio and was told that Brian was close by. "Whereupon Paul burst into the room and threw his arms around me and said 'Let's do it all again, Brian'."

    Tears filled Brian Matthew's eyes. "I'm sorry," he says quietly. "But that was special."