Getting into a London black cab can be a fascinating experience. You might hear about the history of the Thames or how much a new set of brake pads costs. Or you might be treated to a 25-minute, X-rated tirade against Jeremy ‘*******’ Vine and his ‘*******’ cycle lanes. Jeremy, you may remember, made the headlines last year, after he filmed his encounter with an irate, abusive motorist as he attempted to cycle through the capital.
When the taxi driver asked me why I was going to the BBC’s Broadcasting House, I happily told him I was interviewing Jeremy, thinking he might be one of the seven-plus million people who listen to his Radio 2 topical phone-in show.
When he finally dropped me off, his cheery wave was accompanied by, ‘Tell him he’s a…’, but I didn’t quite catch the last bit.
I have been invited to sit in with Jeremy as he broadcasts his award-winning weekday programme, deftly fielding some ‘emotional’ calls about the Facebook controversy and NHS pay deals. It’s a full-on couple of hours, but Jeremy barely seems to break sweat and, after handing over to Steve Wright, he comes bouncing into his office with an enthusiastic handshake and a huge coffee.
He’s tall and gangly, all knees and elbows, and is dressed in a casual blue blazer-jeans combo. I tell him about the cab driver as he’s getting settled on the sofa.
‘Ah, yes,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘Here we are, in the 21st century, breathing in all this filthy air, polluting the planet, and I finally decided to say something about it. Who’d have thought that cycling to work would cause such a fuss. But that’s how we seem to communicate with each other these days. Everything generates an argument.
‘We had a thing on the show the other day about lollipop ladies and callers were saying, “They get in the way of the cars”. There was a real sense of outrage… about lollipop ladies!’
Jeremy, who turns 53 this month, fell in love with broadcasting after a visit to London’s Capital Radio as a boy, watching the late Kenny Everett in action. He joined the BBC as a trainee in 1987, appearing on flagship radio and TV shows such as Today, Newsnight, Crimewatch, the General Election coverage and, for the past ten years, hosting the popular BBC TV quiz show Eggheads. And he was a game contestant in 2015’s Strictly series.
He took over the Radio 2 lunchtime slot from the legendary Jimmy Young in 2003. It’s hard to imagine JY getting a no-holds-barred earful about cycle lanes right after ‘What’s the recipe today, Jim?’
‘When people stop me in the street, they always ask me why people get so angry when they phone the show,’ says Jeremy. ‘It’s as if they’re talking about another country. But this is us! This is Britain in 2018. It seems to be part of our culture.
We shout at each other.
‘And this is a really interesting point for Saga Magazine readers. The linchpin for so many discussions on the show is intergenerational conflict. You’ve got younger people saying that the baby-boomers have taken all the houses, pensions and jobs, plus they’ve destroyed the NHS and the planet. They feel robbed.
‘Then you’ve got the older generation saying that they didn’t buy a house until they had the money. They had to put up with an outside toilet, they had two jobs and they would never get a flat-screen telly if they couldn’t afford to put food on the table. They say the reason younger people can’t afford a house is because they’re always buying the latest gizmos and going to Paris, taking selfies at fancy restaurants.
‘We had a 22-year-old ring up the other day and he said, “The reason I post selfies all day is that I can’t actually afford to do anything. My generation can’t afford the real thing, so we do experiences and post photos about them. Snapchat is all we’ve got left.” You can hear the massive gulf between the two age groups on almost every show!’
I can’t resist asking him whose side he is on, but he just wags a finger and laughs. ‘I’m supposed to be impartial. I can’t have an opinion. Look what happens when I do. Cab drivers start swearing at me!’
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He grew up in Cheam , in southwest London (remember Hancock’s Half Hour on the Light Programme?), then a leafy Surrey suburb. Jeremy doesn’t recall his parents being ‘rich’ (his father was a maths lecturer), but he admits that they must have had money because all three children – Jeremy, younger brother and comedian Tim, and younger sister Sonya – went to private school.
The Vines were dedicated Anglicans and life revolved around the local church, which didn’t seem to be too much of a problem until young Jeremy hit his teens and discovered punk rock.
‘I was an awful teenager. Spiky, miserable and angry. Angry at everything and everybody. I’m not quite sure why I was angry… maybe it was all the church stuff. I did eventually make it up with the church [Jeremy is still an Anglican], but back then I needed something to kick against. Unfortunately, my parents were the only ones in striking distance and they bore the brunt of my ire.
‘I don’t think I really started to “grow up” until I went to university and discovered learning… poetry and books. And, of course, I realised how much I loved my parents.’
He pauses for a few seconds. Maybe I imagine it, but his eyes seem to be on the verge of tears. His chin dips and he stares at the floor.
‘This is something I have mentioned on the show, so I don’t mind talking about it. My father is very ill at the moment. The kind of illness that makes you realise that this person might not be around for ever. He’s got Parkinson’s and, over Christmas, he got sepsis.
‘I was about to go and see a Chelsea game when I got a call from my mum – “You’d better come down to the hospital. I think we’re going to lose him.” There was me, my brother and sister, and we were all standing around. Dad was out cold, so there was nothing we could do.
‘He was a mathematician and, all of a sudden, my daughter’s homework popped into my head. I’d been trying to help her with it, so I asked him… “Dad, if two apples and two pencils costs 56p, and one apple and three pencils costs 50p, how much does one pencil cost?” I said it a few times, but there was no response. It was so painful, just watching him.
‘Anyway, about 15 minutes later, he slowly moved his hand and pulled away his mask. He looked at me and he was trying to say something. Mum leaned in and said, “Jeremy, he’s telling you he loves you”. But Dad was still looking at me, so I leaned in. In this croaky voice, I heard, “Eleven” – I quickly grabbed a pencil and worked it out. He was right! Ha ha! That was such a Dad-moment. He’s still very weak, but he pulled through and we’ve got him back. I look into his eyes and know he’s still there.’ Now we’re both welling up. Being blokes, neither of us mentions it, of course.
Jeremy became a parent relatively late in life. His first marriage ended in 2000 and he married fellow BBC journalist, Rachel Schofield, in 2002. They have two daughters, Anna, 11, and Martha, 14.
Like most parents, he found their arrival a challenge – ‘You might as well cancel everything else for the next seven years!’ – but also wonders if being on TV and radio helped him cope with those challenges.
‘There was one day when I sort of realised that being a parent – and I’m sure it’s the same for being a grandparent, too – is like presenting a show. I walk into the kitchen and I say, “Hey guys, it’s going to be a great day today. What shall we have for breakfast? Wow, we’ve got some Weetabix. How’s it going at school?”
‘No matter how crap you feel or how bad the morning’s been, you can’t sit down and say, “What’s the point? Sorry, but I just can’t be bothered today”. You’re always “on”.
‘Mind you,’ he adds with a laugh, ‘no matter how much performing I do, the girls are now at the age where they just take the p*** out of me. The other day I ordered pizza and got our address wrong. My eldest said, “It’s a good job Mum’s here, otherwise it would just be you failing miserably”.’
I ask him whether he thinks modern parenting is anything like the experience Jeremy’s parents went through? ‘Good question. When I was 15 and listening to the Sex Pistols, my dad used to say, “Turn that racket down and do your homework”. Now I’m in my fifties and, when I’m listening to the Sex Pistols, my daughter tells me to, “Turn that racket down, I’m trying to do my homework”.
‘My daughters both listen to a lot of rap and I am in a bit of a quandary about… some of the lyrics. Artists such as Kanye West. Great songs, but there are a lot of f-words. Should your 11-year-old child or grandchild be listening to this stuff?
If any readers have the answer, please get in touch.’
Despite the sometimes-distressing subjects that get covered on the show – not to mention the attacks via social media or the furious cab drivers – Jeremy seems genuinely chipper. He’s recently talked about being in a ‘happy place’ and most of the afternoon I spent with him was accompanied by a mile-wide grin.
‘Well, yes… I am happy. But we all know that happiness can disappear in an instant, so I am sometimes a bit distrustful of happiness. Is it the be-all and end-all? I prefer to say that I’m fulfilled. And, with that in mind, I do try to make sure I’m being creative. Doesn’t matter what it is. Just have a go at something.
‘Guess what I’ve just started building at home? A train set! What I love about it is that it’s analogue. It doesn’t involve phones or computers. Yes, we live in a digital age, but, fundamentally, I think we’re analogue people and we need analogue activities.
‘The happiest moment on my show happens every Friday when we talk to this guy, Terry Walton, who looks after the Radio 2 allotment. Listeners always tell me that he makes them smile. Why? Because he’s outside all the time and surrounded by fresh air and carrots.
‘The older I get, the more I realise that’s how we’re all supposed to live!’
Forever on our wavelength
Jeremy on radio’s enduring appeal
‘There’s a famous story about Terry Wogan being asked how many listeners he was getting on his morning show. That unforgettable voice answered, “How many? Just the one listener. That’s all I’ve ever had”. Radio is a friendship… it’s a simple conversation. When you listen to the radio, it’s talking to you.
‘Will we ever see another Terry Wogan again? No. He was… sui generis, unique. But we have still got some great radio voices: Ken Bruce, Chris Evans, Sara Cox. There are
a lot of great names coming up from TV – Graham Norton and Paul O’Grady.
‘I guess the difference with Terry was that, for him, TV was never more than an accessory.
‘Perhaps the most fascinating fact about radio in 2018 is that it’s still here. In this high-tech era, radio seems so last century but one. The onslaught of the internet is killing newspapers, but radio has not only survived; it’s thriving!’
The Jeremy Vine Show is on BBC Radio 2, weekdays from 12-2pm.
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