12 March 2008
Nicky Campbell's Into The Night programme on Radio 1 was fantastic. It was an essential part of my adolescence, and although the man is a consummate speech broadcaster on screen and on wireless today, I still harbour hopes he may one day return to music presenting.
I've never met Nicky, and I've often thought I'd like to. But he was - along with Gary King - my biggest influence (or rather, inspiration) when I developed my interest in getting into broadcasting as a career.
Into The Night was deliberately marketed as the 'intelligent' show on the immediately pre-Bannister version of Radio 1 (or One FM, as it was ineffectively called by nobody except the people who were paid to say it). Four evenings a week, 10pm until midnight, it featured an eclectic but accessible playlist, high-calibre guests, cut-above competitions and Nicky.
Each night would begin with those Jamaican-produced muzac jingles ("it's Tuesday night, BBC Radio 1 presents the man with the musical plan - it's Nicky Campbell!") with Nicholas Andrew Argyll offering an immediate witticism on the Classic Album documentary which had just preceded him. Then it was, ooh I don't know, something by the Rolling Stones, or the Sex Pistols, or Aztec Camera...
Nicky was wonderfully unslick, and like Steve Wright (though with infinitely more subtlety) didn't pander to DJ-isms. He kept forgetting/declining to back announce records but before the 10.30 news ("with Brian Deacon") he'd suddenly give you a big list of everything he'd played since the show started. Unless it was XTC or Del Amitri, in which case he'd articulately tell you why you should immediately buy all of their records several times over right away.
Which brings us to a crucial aspect of the Campbell persona - his out and out hatred of dance music. I remember once he played Kirsty MacColl's marvellous Walking Down Madison and saying afterwards that he and his producer (probably Phil Swern) had argued the toss about whether the record was suitable for their programme because, although lyrically it was poignant and it was Kirsty, after all, it was also a dance single, albeit at the accessible end. But he was prone to those faux-raps, supposedly improvised, on the odd dance song which did, by accident or nay, get on to the show. You found yourself waiting for him to say "have you noticed that all these dance records sound the same?" which he invariably did even when he wasn't playing one. Ace.
Presenters are always told not to criticise the music they play. But Nicky did as he saw fit, probably putting a studioload of backs up in the process. Aside from the dance singles, I also remember him playing an old Queen record and adding "I'm not a fan. Well, they're okay, but the most recent stuff has been really, really poor". Controversial stuff? Yes and no - the most recent stuff was The Miracle, which was unarguably Queen's weakest work in the 1980s.
The quizzes, ah yes. The Wednesday Word Game. As I recall, he gave a dictionary definition and the starting letter of the word in question, and the prize was an ever-increasing number of record tokens (see also Simon Mayo's Identik-Hit Quiz) until a correct answer came in. Then there was Number 9, drop-inned by a casino croupier shouting, erm, "Number 9! Number 9!" as Nicky asked for a caller to come on and take on the less arduous task of naming nine songs by a certain artist or group ("in 30 seconds, give me nine songs by ... Paul Young!"). At least once a week, a human version of the Guinness Book of Hit Singles would nonetheless exclaim: "Oooh, I've gone blank!" Nicky would then, "miraculously", guess their star sign...
The guests, many political. Tony Benn ("Billy Bragg would always come to our events to play") and Denis Skinner ("I don't appeal to upper class people, I know that!"). Chris Patten and Edward Heath, Paddy Ashdown and, eventually, the Prime Minister John Major ("I'm not a total stranger to Radio 1 - anyone who has an 18 year old daughter and a 16 year old son can't be"). But there were other memorable visitors, such as Cilla Black ("everybody hated Yoko"); that sex therapist who gamely dealt with callers' issues about penis size and the "desire to sneeze at the point of orgasm"; and the frequent and absolutely wonderful visits in his last years by Frankie Howerd, which essentially consisted of callers ringing up to do impressions of the comic veteran down the phone. Then there was Ian McKellen, whose spiel about Nicky being a "wonderful darling" was used as a sweeper on the show for months afterwards.
Three Through Eleven. This was the late night precursor to the Teasingly Topical Triple Tracker, which became a millstone round Nicky's neck when he shifted on to daytimes (and was mercilessly parodied by Mark and Lard afterwards). But in its original late night form, it was a listener choice, untopical, and just three songs with a theme, obvious or subtle, running through it. This is where my only contribution to the programme was made (though I tried for months on end to get on Number 9 without ever coming close) when I wrote a letter to Nicky, suggesting he played Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Mama Used To Say and Look Mama one evening at 11pm. He did, about a week later, and used it as an excuse to sing bits of the operatic aside of Bohemian Rhapsody due to the 'mama' connection. There is a cassette in a carrier bag somewhere in my garage which has that bit of prized audio thereon.
The Theme Nights. Just occasionally, the whole show would be musically themed. He did 70s Nights, 80s Nights (sarky comment about extra-marital relationships prior to playing Saving All My Love For You) and a lot of nights which were initialled (there was a QED Night, meaning every third record was by Queen, though for the life of me I can't remember who represented E and who D). He'd invite suggestions and respond to them.
That last point, however, was my favourite thing about Nicky Campbell. I loved the fact that a) he answered his own phones, and b) he did so even when the lines hadn't been 'opened' for any reason. As the sad case I was, I wrote to him and thanked him for this selfless gesture, among other things, when he announced he was leaving the network to care for his unwell wife. Some presenters on Radio 1 at that time (or any time) wouldn't have 'stooped so low' as to talk to their own punters and would even instruct their lackeys not to take calls if the lines weren't 'open'. I remember once winning a prize on a Radio 1 show (can't remember which) and when they didn't ring back as promised the next day (they said 9am, I waited until 5pm), I dialled 071 637 4343 and it rang, and rang, and rang... and yet somebody would have been sitting in that phone room, staring at the red TBU flashing at them but choosing or being told not to take the call. Obviously I should have looked up the reception number but, well, you just didn't...
Nicky's handovers with Bob Harris were always good fun at midnight. Somebody somewhere used to tape every single one of them and made a compilation which he then sought out both presenters to hand copies to. Nicky referred to this when he appeared on Bob's This Is Your Life. Nicky Horne was the main off-peak deputising jock at that time, frequently covering Campbell and Harris, and I remember one five-minute handover at midnight when the namesakes rabbited on about how much they hated being called Nick.
After his marital sabbatical, Nicky came back to do the afternoon and drive shows (might have been the other way round) and was still, along with Mayo, by some distance the most droll and worldly aware presenters on there, even though he now had to pretend to like records by MN8. Eventually, of course, he shifted across to Five Live where he remains the top-level presenter on the station.
There was a marked contrast to be had from Nicky's other job while hosting Into The Night. He was, of course, host of ITV's numbskull quiz Wheel Of Fortune and used to tell his listeners when he was going to be away filming ("Nicky Horne's here next week as I'm off to Scotland to spin the wheel"). I always used to wonder why he couldn't still host Into The Night from BBC Scotland's premises, given that filming would probably not be ongoing at 10pm. His other TV gig was that Central TV shouty thing, although I remember him guesting on Through The Keyhole ("is it James Whale?") not long after David Frost appeared on his programme. He was, of course, on the Top of the Pops roster, once appearing naked save for a strategically-placed guitar. Why he did this I cannot recollect.
Those of us who work in radio have almost certainly been inspired to do so by someone or something we heard on our wirelesses in our younger days. For me, Nicholas Andrew Argyll Campbell was a key player in my career choice. I'll never reach his standards or equal his professional reputation, and I'm never going to follow his lead and inspire someone from another generation into the job, but I'm content with that. I'm happy to recall the four nights a week when he was on, when I would laugh, be musically educated and just feel a bit better for listening. That's about the least a presenter should hope to achieve.