Headphones clamped to his ears, finger on the fader and walking stick close by, Brian Matthew looks more like a cricket commentator than (probably) the oldest DJ in Britain – or even the world.He’s 85 and the congregation who turn to his Sounds of the ’60s every Saturday morning on BBC Radio 2 – nearly four million of them and mostly baby boomers – start 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 at the very centre 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. Saturday Club is the best-remembered show, but no sooner had he finished introducing it than he was off to Birmingham to host Thank Your Lucky Stars for ITV, and then rushing back to the BBC in London for Sunday morning’s Easy Beat. And in between? He managed to squeeze in shows on Radio Luxembourg.
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 landed a job as an assistant announcer with British Forces Network, still in uniform, putting on records for Two-Way Family Favourites, a big contrast to his boyhood in Coventry. ‘My father was a Morris Motors mechanic and played in the Salvation Army band. He was a marvellous musician and could play any instrument in his band.’
Brian’s ambition was to be an actor, and after National Service he got into RADA with a 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 1951.
‘Acting is a hard life, and when the parts began to grow thin I got in touch with the English-speaking part of Hilversum, a radio station in Holland. I went there for two years.’He was offered a promotion but Pamela wanted their son Christopher to grow up in England, so it was back to Coventry looking for a job. ‘Jaguar were interested; I had three languages by this time. But they couldn’t see where I’d fit in. Then, leaving the interview, I saw a dairy across the road with a sign on the door: “Wanted – roundsman and pasteuriser”. I went in, got the job and started the next day.’ And thus he became a milkman. ‘But I kept writing off for other jobs and six months later the BBC took me on as a trainee announcer. It was 1954. 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 BBC work was varied. One day he might be presenting Sir Malcolm Sargent at the Proms, the next reading the news. But when he was asked to introduce a show called Saturday Skiffle Club in 1957, his life changed for ever. The listening figures were huge, and as skiffle faded and pop began to dominate, the show was renamed Saturday Club, with the ever-enthusiastic Brian in charge.
Cliff Richard failed an audition, but he was soon back, to be followed by just about every chart-making British pop act, and as there was a 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 fact, The Beatles’ On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2 (out November 11) includes Brian chatting with the Fab Four.
During the Saturday Club years, and later with My Top 12 andRound Midnight, he met just about everyone in British pop and jazz music, as well as most of the American acts who toured the UK. He recalls an interview with Bill Haley: ‘We were talking about his favourite records and he was keen to tell me about his background and heavy drinking and how he regretted it. Suddenly he burst into tears. He felt he had to tell somebody. It just happened to be me.’
As to why Sixties records remain so popular, he’s not certain. ‘I suppose overall it was much more varied than the music of any other period, 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.’
And what about retiring? ‘I honestly think if I did, I’d die. I’ve seen so many people who couldn’t wait to finish, and, no sooner have they stepped off, skipped off. So I want to stay doing this.’
Recently Paul McCartney was in an adjacent studio and was told that Brian was close by. ‘Paul burst into the room and threw his arms around me and said, “Let’s do it again, Brian!”’
Tears fill his eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says quietly. ‘But that was special.’ For some reason Brian has never appeared on Desert Island Discs. He’d be delighted to be asked. Hint!
Ray Connolly’s eBook novel about the Sixties, Sunday Morning, is on Amazon
Poptastic! Other Oldies and Goldies
Tony Blackburn, 70
A former pirate radio broadcaster, was the first presenter on Radio 1 when it launched in 1967. He now presents Pick of the Pops on Radio 2.
David Hamilton, 75
Fondly renamed ‘Diddy’ by Ken Dodd, has had a long career in television as well as radio. He now has a daily show on the internet-based station, The Wireless, which is operated by Age UK.
Annie Nightingale, 73
Annie is the longest-serving disc jockey on Radio 1, with a programme that she warns has ‘strong language and adult content’. She began her career as a columnist for the Daily Express and Daily Sketch.
Johnnie Walker, 68
Virtually an adolescent in this company, now hosts Sounds of the ’70s on Radio 2. An adviser on the film about pirate radio, The Boat That Rocked, he also plays the records between acts on the main stage at Glastonbury.