Sunday, 9 December 2012

almost famous

Mrs Dave seemed quite bemused when J P Devlin from Radio 4's Saturday Live programme phoned early on Saturday morning. He asked to speak to me and we had a short chat. He was planning on interviewing me live on the programme about a small incident from the past but my mouth - as the Oysterband sing - gets me into trouble.

If you're familiar with Father Ted, you may be familiar with the episode where Ted tells Dougal to chat with the Bishop, "But whatever you do, Dougal, don't mention the son."

"Oh, he's got a son, then, Ted?" And you just know he's going to mention it no matter what.  The tension raised whilst Dougal struggles to come up with something to say is almost unbearable. Well, my short chat with Mr Devlin was a bit like that.

Back in the early seventies, I was Social Secretary for my college. I had taken over from my friend Rob who had managed to organise a charity event where a band called Skin Alley played. The highlight of the evening was for several of us to push a bath on wheels to Biggleswade and back to Stevenage, mostly with two attractive ladies sitting in the said bath. All went well until it became apparent a few weeks later when hardly any sponsor money turned up. Unfortunately, nobody had thought to take the names of all the people who had volunteered to get some sponsors. I guess the Longship gained most of the takings from that arduous evening. There's a photo and a short story about it from a local paper somewhere in the attic of my life - I'll stick it in here if I ever find it.

Anyway, back to the story. In my tenure as Social Sec I was told that we had to make some money fast and don't bother putting any bands on because no one ever makes any money out of them - we were still paying for the charity do. Sorry, but the whole reason I became Social Sec was so I could put bands on. I certainly wasn't going to start putting on Rag Weeks and Jeux Sans Frontière and not watch bands! So, I decided to put on some bands.

Evidently the last time any money was made at a gig at the college was 1968 or 9 when someone had the foresight to put on a pre-Alright Now Free supported by Roy Harper.  A bit before my time, unfortunately. This was 1973 just after Glam had hit the Nation's kids and had them screaming for T. Rex and that fella who wanted us to join his gang.  Most of us, of course, are glad we didn't join his gang. 

So after phoning around I was offered a couple of acts. Two of the acts I was offered had recently released their debut albums so it was a matter of deciding which to have. The first band, Queen had a near miss hit single with Keep Yourself Alive but the great general public seemed totally disinterested.  The other band, a bunch of musos from the Royal College of Music called Gryphon whose main instruments seemed to be recorders and crumhorns looked like they were going to go places.

Okay, with hindsight, most people would say that the first band were the obvious choice.  I could say that I had not only seen but met the band in their early days.  I would have shaken Freddie Mercury's hand and say how I had shared a glass of wine with Brian Cox May.  But, of course, I had decided to book Gryphon.

Now, the reason J P Devlin was going to interview me live on air was because I had missed out on meeting Mr M and his jolly bunch of tunesters. He was just phoning to talk it through and if they go ahead with the interview they'd phone back in about half an hour or so. So what was the Dougal problem? 

Well, it is mostly assumed that the reason that Queen were not chosen is because someone scurrilously said that they "look like a bunch of f*gs!" Now, it is true that someone - and certainly not me - had said that.  But it isn't the sole reason we chose not to put them on. At the time I actually liked the first Queen album, in fact it's the only one of theirs that I ever liked. I had not long since been to The Rainbow to see David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust show so I had no axe to grind about their less than manly appearance. And let's face it - can you really tell the difference from the photos other than, perhaps, two of Gryphon are hirsute of face? 

No, the truth is that although we felt that Meat 1* and all the other hairy-arsed apprentices weren't likely to part with their readies and prop up our imported bar (thanks to my mother's employer Bill Smith from the White Hart) despite loving Slade to see this lot because NO ONE HAD HEARD OF THEM!

However, Gryphon the very week they appeared at the college on Friday night had been on Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, on tv on BBCs 1 and 2 and ITV and also had articles written about them in every newspaper and magazine (including Woman's Own and the Radio Times) going at that time. Taking the step to advertise nationally in the Melody Maker helped too, I guess. So I was actually the first person since 1969 to make money on bands and went on to put on several more excellent gigs. This one had, however, made enough money to get the Student Union out of hock with the college authorities and they allowed us to continue on for a few more years in that vein. 

In truth, Queen's agency wanted to charge us about £250 whereas Gryphon would only cost £150. So the prosaic truth is that we simply couldn't afford to put on a band that nobody had heard of. In today's money £150 is the equivalent of about £1500. That was a lot of money to gamble. Quite simply, I made the right choice.

So there I was going through the pre-interview interview with J P Devlin and in the back of my mind was a little voice chanting over and over, "don't say it, don't say it . . . " when he asked the fatal question: "So, Dave, why didn't you book Queen?"

So I told him. Unfortunately not the economic reason. I could sense the palpable disappointment in his voice when he told me that I'd best not use that word if they decide to go ahead with the interview. Of course I wouldn't but the moment had gone.

Afterwards when they didn't phone back it had occurred to me that the actual presenter of the show, the Rev. Richard Coles, formerly of the Communards, is of course . . . ah well, at least I didn't embarrass myself live on air and cause even more public outcry for the Beeb.

They've got enough problems to worry about.

*If you remember Tom Sharpe's Wilt


Mike C. said...

A close shave. I expect all your students are Radio 4 listeners.

I'm afraid I now use Saturday Live as my prompt to get out of bed and make a pot of tea (on Sunday it's the Archers) -- I hate Rev. bloody Coles and his unctuous blather, esp. now he's doing a chemistry-free double act with Sian Williams. Bring back Fi Glover! Or, better still, John Peel.


Dave Leeke said...


I don't actually think that any of my students know what the phrase "Radio 4" means beyond, "What's a radio for?"

I like the word "unctuous" it sounds like an organic word but you've used it in its true form. I don't think John Peel will be coming back . . .

Brendini said...

Congratulations, Father Dougal Leeke

Dave Leeke said...

Ah well, hold on there, Ted. J P has since contacted me and is interested in doing it as an actual interview with music and such like. Maybe I was a bit hasty there, Ted.

Martyn Cornell said...

One of my wife's old friends from university had an affair with the actor who played Father Ted, who I once saw rush into Pizza Express in Twickenham to pick up his take-away order.

What - we're NOT playing 'claim to fame?"

Dave Leeke said...

Er, no not really. I'm taking it that it was Father Ted who collected the pizza, not your wife's friend?

Martyn, there's a picture on the way to you which may bring back some memories.