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Friday, July 20, 2007

My Life And You Are Welcome To It

By Ian Skidmore
I won a Golden Microphone after thirty years as a ‘celebrity’ presenter on Radio Wales and a fortnight later they dropped me because I was English.
I took the BBC to a Race Tribunal and there was quite a lot of fuss about it. I had been rewarded with many by-lines on the splash of the Daily Mirror over the years. Now I was the subject.
The Head of BBC Wales told the paper I was a Victor Meldrew figure and the editor said I was too old. He didn’t say the same about Jimmy Young, Humphrey Lyttelton or Alastair Cook, to name but a few.
But the BBC gave me a few grand to keep quiet and I did.
Within a month both the Head and the Editor had been sacked.
But as I sit by my pond, keeping herons off my koi, I do ponder a bit. My Manchester accent has softened on account of marrying above myself and marinating the throat muscles in the benevolent sweat of the juniper. But I hope and pray I have not lost it.
At the time I had 26 million listeners worldwide to my rants. Plainly my bosses at BBC Wales were not among them. Or they might have noticed that I seldom said Yachi dda (I didn’t even know how to spell it).
The best editor I had in my years of Taff-railing was called Bob Atkins. He was an Englishman too, so he was scuppered from the first day.
He called me to Cardiff and said he enjoyed a programme I was doing at the time.
It was called Skidmore’s Island and how it worked was a producer called Jack King knocked at my door with his tape recorder playing and for the next half hour I talked. About books. About neighbours. If anyone knocked at the door I interviewed them and I played music on my radiogram. No scripts; no conception of what was going to happen.
Unfortunately Bob, who liked a drink, took me to the BBC Club in Cardiff and as he carried me out and poured me into a taxi he said, ‘I won’t ask you to explain how the programme works now…’ (which was just as well; it took me ten minutes to tell the driver where I wanted to go).
‘…Do me a memo.’
I didn’t remember that until I was back home in Brynsiencyn on Anglesey and, still pissed, typed out the following:
Radio Brynsiencyn -
‘This is your smallest outpost. In the customary fashion of BBC bosses I have slept with the entire staff. But since we have been married for ten years it may not count. Our Uher tape recorder is so old it has a pebble glass window and a thatched lid. Our music department is a wind-up gramophone and our record collection includes Teddy Bears’ Picnic and In A Monastery Garden. In fact that is the extent of our collection.’
Then I sealed and posted it and it wasn’t until I sobered up that I realised I had probably dashed the prospect of a glittering career with an audience of sheep and men who wore clothes that looked as though they had been made from the covers of old prayer books.
What happened was that I got a letter from Bob: ‘Forget Skidmore’s Island. I want a series of twenty Radio Brynsiencyn.’
The trouble was I had forgotten by this time what I had put in the letter.
But… I had a title for my programme, twenty slots at a peak listening time, and a Uher tape recorder I bought for sixteen quid on the same stall at Llangefni market where I had found the wind-up gramophone that was my music department. I had an outside broadcast unit, a sit-up-and-beg bike with an errand boy’s basket on the handlebars. I had a wife with a posh voice… and not an idea of what to do with any of them.
It struck me that was par for the course in my ‘parent’ BBC, and decided to do what they did in similar circumstances.
Surround myself with a staff.
Anglesey being an island I needed a Foreign Editor to handle matters in the dark lands on the other bank of the Menai Strait. Fortunately a chap I had first known on a Bangor weekly paper had just retired. His name was Angus McDairmid and he had some experience of the role. After brilliant coverage of the wrecking of a sailing ship in the Menai Strait he was poached by the BBC and went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent, covering Washington at the time of Watergate and various wars for the BBC.
Eminently suitable to look after Bangor.
Angus had interviewed world leaders but remained obsessed with his home town, where he was still ‘Gus’ McDermott (his name before being swamped by the Celtic Renaissance of the Sixties).
He used the job to indulge a secret vice. Wherever he had been in the world, however great the crisis, he always found time to visit any town called Bangor. Every week on Radio Brynsiencyn, until his sad death, he told an eager world about them.
The programme was beginning to take shape.
A cleaning staff is vital because broadcasters are a messy lot. Fortunately one was at hand: the love of my life, Rose Roberts, who already cleaned for us and ruled us with a rod of iron. I christened her Attila the Hoover and I was only partly joking. Dirt was terrified of her and dust disappeared at her touch.
Rose had a voice with the carrying power of a giant crane. She had appeared in the programme for only a few weeks when she took a day trip to London. She was queuing for the Palladium and passing pleasantries with her companions that could have been heard in Newcastle upon Tyne
‘Blimey,’ came a voice from far down the queue: ‘It’s Attila the Hoover!’
No Welsh broadcasting station is complete without a choir. At a lifeboat charity evening I heard a quartet called the Oscars, and immediately recruited them.
A pal of mine, Derek Jones was a bit worried about his teenage son whose singing voice had just broken.
He was keen on broadcasting so Derek asked if we would teach him the art of interviewing. I was a bit reluctant. Whenever I heard the lad sing, the hair on the back of the head lifted and I had a sense that he had been touched by God.
His name was Aled Jones. Done quite well since, but at that time his preoccupation was a sandwich toaster he had bought with his first earnings and he was forever thrusting toasted sandwiches at you.
But I thought, ‘Give the lad a chance’ and employed him at a fiver a week.
Aled did nothing by halves. He played tennis to county standard; a fine footballer, he was offered trials with professionals, and he was so keen to get his O-levels that in the interval of a concert before most of America in the Hollywood Bowl he sat in his dressing room swotting. Aled went out with my wife on a couple of interviews and picked the art up so quickly he was soon doing them on his own. His dad told me he nearly drove his parents mad practising interviewing on them.
A remarkable boy. Never a trace of nerves. Singing for the Royal Family he forgot the lyric and made up one as he sang along.
He went to record Memories for Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘Like to do a run-through?’ asked Lloyd Webber.
‘Can we go for a take?’ asked Aled.
They did and the first take was all that was needed.
‘Good God,’ said Webber ‘It took Barbra Streisand a week to do that.’
His Dad told me: ‘I didn’t like to explain he was in a hurry to watch Match of the Day.’
Aled has been blessed with three gifts. The voice of an angel and his parents, Derek and Ness, who kept his feet firmly nailed to the ground.
When he was awarded his first Gold Disc the BBC planned a huge reception in Cardiff for the award ceremony.
‘Out of the question,’ said Derek. ‘He would have to miss school.’ The BBC had to hire a helicopter for the ceremony; it landed on the playing field of his school in Menai Bridge.
The programme was beginning to take shape: a ‘pirate’ radio station that parodied the commercial radio of the day. We had a signature tune; a group of producers and broadcasters sang the jingles to announce the items; Celia [Celia Lucas, ex Daily Mail: Mrs Skidmore] did interviews and I headed the whole thing with a rant.
Wearing a dinner jacket, of course.
The BBC printed T shirts, ties and mugs with the station logo which started to appear in the oddest places all over the world. We had the highest listening figures on BBC Wales; a ‘club’ of listeners was formed in Boston in the USA and the daughter of a friend started a Radio Bryn fan club at Oxford University.
Islands can be dull paces in winter. Anxious to get away, a neighbour toured the Loire. By the river one day he switched on his radio as he unwrapped a picnic… and heard the signature tune of Radio Bryn doing an outside broadcast – outside his house.
Celia recorded the programme in our kitchen, rough cut it and sent it to Dewi Smith, head of light entertainment in Wales, for final polishing and transmission.
Then a funny thing happened.
Everyone was convinced it was a real pirate station and I started to get applications for jobs. WIs, youth clubs and at least one school asked if they could tour the studios and BBC Controller Ulster heard it while driving across Anglesey.
He rang my editor to ask ‘Do you have a studio in the cottage or does it come to you via landline?’
We were even a page lead in the Daily Mail.
The series ended seventeen years ago. It is still talked about in Wales.
Everything in what I laughingly call my career was an accident. This was the happiest of them all.

There’s more by Ian Skidmore on his own site: