Monday 25 April 2011


Busy old time this week, I must say. What I laughingly describe as my "career" has been generally fairly low-key to invisible over the years with many false dawns.

My favourite was being told I was all set to take over a travel show and the next week switching on and hearing Bill Oddie presenting it! Still, I have not done badly so I can't complain; listening to some of my colleagues railing against being passed over for another big gig or being ignored by the management in favour of yet another TV face does strike me that that way madness lies.

Having said that, I can't take the moral high ground on this and over the years I have done a fair bit of feather-spitting, I will admit.
So it was with great delight that I snapped the arm off the people at BBC London when they asked if I would like to spend a week co-presenting the breakfast show with Gaby Roslin whilst Paul Ross was on holiday.

This was a show way out of my comfort zone and nothing that I had done in a few years, but it is these sorts of challenges that keep the mind fresh and the enthusiasm coursing through the veins. I have seen many old and embittered people going through the motions over the years and hope never to be like that.
So for a week when I finished the BTOTD show at 5am, it was a quick whiz round the corner to the big new BBC Broadcasting House which is home to the capital’s BBC radio station.

Security - as you would expect, particularly in this day and age - is very tight and you can't go anywhere easily. So having had a couple of days the previous week (where I went to "shadow" the show) and having been unable to gain access due to my security pass not being validated by the big central computer, I was assured all was going to be well for the big day.

Day 1 Gained access to main building but pass invalid for inner sanctum

Day 2 Gained access to main building but pass still invalid for inner sanctum

Day 3 Pass now invalid for Radio 2, main building and inner sanctum

Day 4 Pass now working for Radio 2, main building but not inner sanctum

Day 5 Gave up worrying, phoned the producer who came and collected me as he had done previously.

It used to be many years ago when I started at the BBC that you were given a pass that just had your picture on it and relevant information such as name and staff number.

I have long been freelance but back in those heady days of the late 70's I carried my name rank and serial number with pride.

Alex Lester 222227N.

On one occasion when the management were railing against the length of my hair, I said that I would have it cut providing they paid for it. They agreed upon production of a photograph. So once the deed was done I repaired to a "PhotoMe" booth and proceeded to have my picture taken, convict-style, from different angles whilst holding a piece of card with the number 222227N writ large upon it. It worked. They stumped up the petty cash.

Before the security became electronic and, as you read above, more or less impossible to crack even if you have a valid reason for entry, we used to rely on the pass being checked on entry.

They also had an expiry date. Unfortunately, I never bothered to check and so blithely kept going in and out of the building showing my pass and no one said a word. It was only when I realised that document was out of date that, upon next attempting to enter the building, the security staff - trained to spot a guilty face at a hundred yards - would pounce and I would be dragged away to explain myself. In order to get a new document you had to be inside the building where the security office was. You can see the good old Catch 22 coming here, can't you? So it was a bit of rigmarole if you forgot to get your accreditation renewed in time.

One guy I knew doctored his pass so that it showed him pulling a stupid face. No one batted an eyelid as he came and went each day. Not to be outdone, the next pass had him dressed as a woman with a gash of bright red lipstick and a red fright wig. He came and went each day without anyone batting an eyelid. He had planned to replace his photo on the next card with a picture of his cat.

However, for all concerned it was probably best that he left the Corporation’s employment at that moment.

Meanwhile, back at BBC London everyone was very welcoming and helpful as they coaxed me through a week of three hours of all-talk. What was also nice is that - due to the earliness of the hour (comparatively) - they listened to the BTOTD show on the way in to do theirs; they obviously have excellent taste.

It is a very different beast doing a news and current affairs show after three hours of tunes and fooling around.

It wasn't dull, though, as there were a fair amount of lighter items to mess around with. Those of you who made the switch from Radio 2 at that point commented on how grown-up I sounded.

Recovering from my real-deal man-flu, I was a little wheezy, so I reminded myself a little of the late great Sir Robin Day. Not in my interviewing skill nor gravitas. Purely in the chest area (he suffered in the bronchial department. Don't think the cigars helped!)

"So tell me Prime Minister...wheeeze"

"The World at One,40 minutes of news and comment this Wednesday NO Thursday lunchtime..wheeze bubble"

"Koff choke wheeze you are looking radiant if I may say so Anna Ford...koff bubble wheeze"

It was a fun week although pretty tiring being up at 1am and doing two very different shows. Hope to be invited back but it may be they would prefer someone who sounds like they will live to the end of the show. We shall see.

Saturday early the Dark Lady and I were in the car heading up the M40 from London to Shrewsbury in order to take part in the Shrewsbury International Cartoon Festival. I have the enormous honour to be a Patron. This year I had been asked to chair a discussion with Andy Davey who does brilliant caricatures for The Sun and Peter Schrank who - in an equally varied career - is a regular in many publications from The Economist to The Independent. Both men have different styles so it was going to be my job to introduce them and then field questions from the audience.

I could do my David Dimbleby Question Time impression:

"Lady on the fourth row in the purple hat"

We were nearing Oxford when the DL's phone rang. Her face took on a very concerned look.

A close relative had been taken ill with a heart attack. So it was divert time and we headed into Oxford where she hopped on to a train back to London and I continued up to Shrewsbury.

Sad to say as a result I was only able to be there for the talk in the Old Market Hall a quick word with the ever excellent Clive Goddard, who does the brilliant cartoons for the website, and then it was back to London to be there to do child care and anything else that was necessary. So many apologies to everyone at the Festival that I wasn't able to stay longer and enjoy your hospitality. The meal on a Saturday night with a host of tipsy cartoonists is a sight to behold. Not an inch of space is left undrawn on.

I thought I coped pretty well with the crisis and the travelling and the fatigue from the extra work.

It was only on Tuesday morning I realised I had sent a "romantic" goodnight message destined for the DL to a rather puzzled Libido Boy

Don't forget to make a song request for the Listener's Library,visit here, I look forward to hearing your suggestions. And don't forget to add me to Twitter @alexthedarklord (click here to do so) and also use the same login to hear the latest Audioboo (click here).

Thursday 14 April 2011


Dark Lady and I went off to see hot ticket Rumer the other night.  Not the BBC Radio 2 special gig as that was a little late for me; being live on the Jo Whiley Show so it didn't start until 9pm, which was a bit of a shame really.


She has a gorgeous voice although some keep drawing a parallel with Karen Carpenter.  Still I have been told I sound like everyone from "Diddy" David Hamilton through to Ronnie Corbett to TV journalist Julian Warricker, so I suppose we all like to take refuge in comparisons.

The main trouble as that she only seems to have one speed and that is "floaty ballad". Norah Jones and Alison Krauss also having beautiful but light voices are rather hampered too, in this respect, as well.  The end result is that a little goes a long way.

She is an engaging personality without a lot to say and seemed a little shy and embarrassed at times but she does have a fabulous voice.  Trouble was we were just a teensy weensy
(this is a well know phrase used by music critics the world over incidentally e.g "The recitative was a teensy weensy bit rushed") bit, well, er, bored. Dr Strangelove my producer went to both gigs, the one at the Royal Festival Hall and the Radio 2 Abbey Road special. Rumer was far better with guests such as Rick Astley and Sandie Shaw so by all  reports it was a stormer of a gig.

Surprise hit of the night though was an act who blighted my Saturday nights as a teenager.

Many is the time we would as a family be sitting around the TV watching the big blockbuser variety show of the day, be it Morecombe and Wise or The Two Ronnies.  Suddenly it would be time for the musical interlude and, sure enough, a dark cloud would descend over the living room as a beaming man would ask us to "welcome...The Swingle Singers!".

There would then follow seemingly hours of beaming men and women ba-ba-doo-ing through their rictus grins as we concentrated on the food.

"Ba boo booo boo ba doo ba doo"

"Anyone want any more pork pie?"

!Oo oo oo oo oooo!" 

"Another slice here"

"Baa dooo baa dooo baaa dooo"

"Don't talk to your Mother like that. What do you say?"


"Biddly doo biddly doo biddly doo"

"Thats better"

"Woo whah woo whah woo whah"

Later on as perhaps they realised they were becoming figures of fun or maybe just that they began to realise that they sounded faintly ludicrous to us in the 70's Midlands unused to such sophistication they discovered....words!

"Ladeez and gennleman please welcome "Swingle II"

They would then proceed to murder a classic song all the while smiling.

"When I gayt older losing my haaaar...."

"Anyone want another slice of pork pie?"

"Many years from naaaooooowww"!

Since those days they have certainly dropped off my radar so when they were introduced - I will admit - my heart sank. However, they started with a Nick Drake song and sailed effortlessly through a selection of classic songs with the most wonderful harmonies.

We were captivated. They still smile a lot.  However, this old curmudgeon didn't mind (although I did think I could taste pork pie at one point for some odd reason).

As you will know by now - if you have been following these blogs over the years and months  - my permanent mid-life crisis has hit and continues to hit in a variety of ways;  be it the replacement of a car with a more powerful one when the previous version decided to burn itself to death at Oxford Services on the M40 about four years ago, or my decision (after being given a trip in one) that I should learn to fly a microlight.

Having now incredibly passed the test and all but one of the exams, the only obstacle remaining was the Radio course.

You can of course fill in your own gags at this point: How embarrassing would it be for someone who makes his living talking on the radio to fail a course where you have to talk on the radio etc..

This, however, is a little different.  It is all about regulations, clarity and brevity.  This goes some way to explain the rather curious way that pilots speak when you are sitting on the plane as it heads to Tenerife.

There were two parts to the test.  The first being a written exam which I passed with a reasonable mark, for some odd reason only getting questions wrong that I had answered correctly in a mock exam a little earlier.

The big test was the oral.  Could I manage to work my way through the MATZ penetrations, the QDR, the PAN call and still remember the call letters of the aircraft and not mix my "Roger's" with my "Wilco's"?

I was surprisingly nervous as I sat in a tiny room with an uncomfortable seat and a view of a pile of rubbish on the grass outside.

The stress was obviously getting to me as my voice was growing hoarse and I was started to have trouble regulating my body temperature.      

It felt a tiny bit like being in the language lab at school. We had a rather rudimentary one at my school which, if I remember, had been bought in a box and installed one holiday period by the science master. He was a whirlwind of activity who one year built a science lab in the school gym during the summer holidays. They didn't exist side by side, I hasten to point out, as another better gym had been built elsewhere. Dances were held there and you can tell the period of history as there was a sign at the door which read: "No Stiletto heels allowed on this floor"!

Back to my Radio course and Andy, an impossibly young man who - when he is not flying for an air line and doing air traffic control - finds time to run this course as a certified instructor and examiner and also finds a little time to do aerobatics. I think he likes flying.

All went well and my responses seemed none too hesitant until this voice in my headphones said.

"Shouldn't you be lost by now?"

 Oops! One of the calls on my route was to ask the local air traffic here I was due to a "temporary loss of position". i.e. “You are in this tiny little aeroplane all by yourself flying around somewhere and you have not an earthly clue where you are in the world." This is when you are supposed to stay calm and check the ground features against your chart and then comes the awful realisation that none of them make any sense at all.

 A quick call to the relevant authority (Andy in the room next door) and he had triangulated my position and I was back on track.

 I passed although was "rather halting" at times. He should hear the show!
 By now the shivering and the croakiness was getting worse. It wasn't stress, it was…

 MAN FLU!!!!!


Actually to be frank I think it was proper flu as I have not felt as rotten in years, complete with comedy sneezing which - had I not been carefully knitted together - bits of me would have flown off. I used to work with a bloke years ago who sported a rug, false teeth and lifts in his shoes. He was known as "The Kit"!

 Being the trouper I am I soldiered on and merrily hockled, wheezed and coughed my way through the next few days shows.

 Luckily by Friday I had recovered enough for the Dark Lady, Jamie (her birthday boy son, who was 12 that day) and I to pop round for the first BBQ of the season with our friends, Fran and Greg, and their children, Theo and Hannah.

This was hardcore BBQ. There was shrimp and there were the best steaks I had ever eaten.

What was even more impressive than this was the team work. Big food and big drinks were seamlessly passed from indoors to out and empty plates and glasses were passed from outside to in.

Greg was IC BBQ. He has lived in the USA so has a good grounding in "big food". Watching his expertise was a delight.

I have never worried about being IC BBQ. The Dark Lady is a terrific cook and if she wants she can do as much cooking as she likes. I am a willing dustbin.

We sat outside in the garden in the gathering gloom under the Heathrow flight path and yarned.
As we talked I watched the planes coming in to land and wondered if any of the pilots were wondering if the radio call they were about to make was the correct one, or would it send Air Traffic Control into a blind panic.

There was cake too. Wonder if the crew could see us as they passed overhead.

"Speedbird 452 to Heathrow approach. Birthday cake, 6 o'clock low"

We sat out in the gathering darkness by the candlelight and talked until nearly midnight.

It was only on the way back I realised something.

Greg had managed to BBQ for seven whilst still maintaining the conversation and had done it all without the need to wear a comedy apron which made him look like he was wearing women's underwear or a French Maids outfit!

Don't forget to make a song request for the Listener's Library. Think of a track you haven't heard in awhile, a track that is special you would like to share, or a song for Feelgood Friday. Visit here, I look forward to hearing your suggestions. And don't forget to add me to Twitter @alexthedarklord (click here to do so) and also use the same login to hear the latest Audioboo (click here).