Tuesday 15 May 2012

A conversation with Brian Matthew

Brian Matthew was there at the birth of British Rock'n'roll, presenting Saturday Club on the BBC's Light Programme. In the sixties he introduced the Beatles to millions of BBC radio listeners, and even toured with them in the States. Today, Brian Matthew still presents a show in the same slot - he has been the host of Sounds Of The Sixties since 1990, and has the highest listening figures of any Radio 2 Saturday show, not bad when you consider the octogenarian is up against the high-profile likes of Graham Norton and Dermot O'Leary. Over tea and sandwiches at his home in Kent, he told me that he trained at RADA and had always planned to end up a TV producer.

Bob Stanley: You didn't initially want to be a DJ?
Brian Matthew: Not at all. I did forces radio in the army for a year, in Hamburg. It was all BBC equipment. We were based in what had been an old opera house, and lived in a hotel. The guys in charge there included Cliff Michelmore who was head of variety, and Raymond Baxter who was head of the announcing department. He'd not long been out of the RAF, a terribly hoo-ray chap. When he first met me he said 'There's only two things to remember - don't go on air drunk, and don't swear.' I thought crikey, what sort of set-up is this? Of course I broke all the rules. Not intentionally.

BS: I've read that you were at Hilversum too, which is a name I know from my parents' old radiogram, but I still don't really know where it is.
BM: After Hamburg I was at RADA, then I went straight into the Old Vic which is where I met Pamela (his wife - they married in 1951), and someone who worked for Hilversum, in the English department of Dutch radio. He gave me his number. When work was thin on the ground I called and he said 'Please go along to HMV on Oxford Street and record an audition, we want you to read some news. HMV will send us the disc, we've got an arrangement with them'. So I did, and we lived there, in Hilversum for two years. It was the centre for all Dutch radio. It was a funny old set-up, short wave radio, short wave only, and we broadcast the same 40 minute transmission three times a day to different areas - America, the far east.

Dutch radio was split up by five main companies, either religious or run by newspapers. So in effect you had a catholic station, a Conservative station, a Labour one, and a non-conformist one... I don't know what the fifth was. And they all had their own buildings around Hilversum. We had our own set-up in an old house, quite near to the others but not connected. Offices in one house, studios in another. We were there during the time of the enormous flood in 1953, large areas in a terrible state, loads of people killed. The American army came in. They gradually rebuilt the dykes, and came the time they were going to fill in the last block, it was quite a historic event. I was covering it so I learned everything I could about how it had been done. Needless to say I was repeating myself, but they put a copy of the recording in their archives.

BS: What happened between Hilversum and your first job at the BBC in 1955?
BM: We came back and lived with my parents in Coventry. I tried to get work at the Jaguar factory - they kept me hanging on, until one day I noticed there was a dairy across the road, advertising for work. So I was a milkman for six months. I used to go round in a lorry and collect milk from the farms. Then I worked in the dairy doing all the pasteurising, stacking up the next day's delivery in bottles and crates. It was pretty horrid.

While I was there I wrote to the BBC and asked if I could do a programme on Dutch jazz - they had a programme called World Of Jazz - and they said yes. The people in the dairy were very impressed, they said 'bloody hell, we've got a star working with us now!' and all that rubbish. The producer - who left under a bit of a cloud, but that's another story - he liked it and asked me to do a programme on English traditional jazz.
Within weeks I got an offer from Dunlop to edit their works magazine, in Kenilworth, which is not a bad place to live I must admit.  And the BBC offered me a job as a trainee announcer, so I thought I'd go for that.

We found a flat in Willesden, quite a large flat, and lived there for a couple of years on the princely salary of less than £20 a week. They put me straight on to announcing, on all services - in those days it was Home Service, Light Programme and Third Programme. You were usually associated with one of them, but I did everything, I went from one to another quite happily. Read the news, I did prom concerts...I always liked the light music, big band jazz and that sort of thing. Johnny Dankworth had a short series, only four programmes, with a huge orchestra, a 27 piece band. Every week he had a guest classical musician in the band, a viola player or whatever, and each week he'd write a piece featuring this soloist. I did those with Johnny and we became good friends. So I did three years an announcer, then I thought I'd like to be a producer - I thought it might be a way in to television, as a director.

BS: You produced Saturday Club, starting in 1957. How did you end up presenting it?
BM: Jimmy Grant was their principal jazz producer. He was briefed to launch a programme called Skiffle Club which he asked me to introduce. I said I don't even know what skiffle is, he said that's alright, we'll manage. And it was an unbelievable runaway success, getting enormous listening figures. Management thought 'ullo, and asked Jim to do a two hour programme that would include skiffle but also has other elements of all this pop music that's emerging.

We had a traditional jazz band and a modern jazz group as well. We ended up with five groups a week that we recorded ourselves, and one live in the studio on Saturday morning. We were very severely restricted on playing records, what they called 'needle time', which I've never really understood. Basically it was an agreement between the BBC and the record companies that you would severely restrict the number of records in order that you could continue to employ live musicians. And of course, that's how the pirates shot from below everybody's feet and broke all the rules by playing records all the time. And the BBC very soon followed, thank goodness.

Anyway, I started Saturday Club and the Sunday morning programme Easybeat (from 1958), and they said 'we'd like you to start presenting these programmes as well as producing them.' I thought 'Wow, whoopee!', and after six years of that I got an offer to go on commercial radio as well, on Luxembourg, and went freelance. I can't believe the amount of work I was getting through. The BBC said we'd like you to carry on doing what you're doing. So eventually I was doing eight programmes a week on Luxembourg, Sundays I went up to Birmingham and televised Thank Your Lucky Stars (from 1961 to 1965), and produced a World Service programme. I was never at home, ever.

BS: Most of your radio work was on the Light Programme. What happened when it split into Radios 1 and 2 in 1967?
BM: I did Saturday Club for eight or nine years, until somebody in management - now dead, I'm happy to say in this instance - decided they were going to unite people with Radio 1, and that I wasn't really suited for that. So they cast me out. I went to see this chap and I said 'Are you really telling me I have no future in radio?' and he said 'Well yes, I think I am'. Fortunately an engineer I'd worked with on Saturday Club named Brian Willey had started to introduce a daily afternoon programme called Roundabout, with a different compere every day of the week. Brian gradually increased it until I was working five days a week, the only one there. It was what they now call drive time, 4.30 til 7. And I've not really been out of work since.

BS: The first time I remember hearing your voice was on My Top Twelve. Have you ever been on Desert Island Discs?
BM: Never. It's absolutely crackers! It never came up.

BS: That is crackers. So how did you end up presenting My Top Twelve?
BM: That was a surprise. Derek Chinnery was head of Radio 1. Out of the blue (in 1973) he came up with the idea, it was a good idea. Once in a while, someone would surprise me and choose all their own records! It was a weird eye-opener. I remember a My Top Twelve that I did do with Bill Haley. We were chatting about his whole life story. He admitted he'd had a serious drink problem, and that it had interfered with his work. Then suddenly he broke into tears in the interview, sobbing, because he'd made a mess of his life. We got it sorted out, that didn't go on air, but it was quite moving. He wasn't being sour grapes or anything, no reason why he should, but clearly thought he'd fouled it up. Which he had, to a large extent.

BS: I've heard that you found Nina Simone a bit of a handful.
BM: I interviewed her two or three times - this wasn't on My Top Twelve, though. The last time was an absolute disaster. I was a great admirer of her work, saw her at Ronnie's (Ronnie Scott's) and thought she was really great. She was always a bit tight. She got a bit quirky and peculiar because she felt, with a great deal of justification, that she'd been mistreated, mainly by record companies. So she had a great chip on her shoulder. We had her on Round Midnight and Robin the producer was devoted to her, he was thrilled to be meeting her. She came up from Ronnie's with a crowd - I think they were related to her, at least some of them were. He went up to her and said 'Delighted to meet you Miss Simone, may I call you Nina?' And she said 'No! You may not!'. I thought wow, we're off to a flying start here! She sat with her crowd in the control room and eventually one of these guys came in and said 'I want you to tell me the questions you're going to ask Miss Simone'. I said 'I'm not going to tell you. That's down to me, not down to you, I'm sorry we don't work like that'. And he looked a bit put out. So he went back and told her, there was a bit of a hoo-ha... She came in in a very, very black mood and gave me a rich two and a half minutes, it wasn't much, and then said she had to go back to Ronnie's. I said, fair enough. Robin rang and he booked a cab, and we all stood on the steps outside with nothing to say to each other, not too pleased with each other. I remember Robin was holding the cab door open for them and said 'Thank you very much Miss Simone. Fuck off" and slammed the door. I thought good for you, man! I never met her again, I'm happy to say. We were only promoting her appearance at the club. Dear God!

BS: Were any other guests that awkward?
BM: I didn't get to meet many people who pulled that angle, with high blown ideas of their own importance. It was a weird eye opener. I was booked to do a session with Brook Benton. Radio was quite different where he came from. He asked 'who's gonna put this out on disc?' - he really thought we were ripping him off, and he wasted half the session arguing about whether he was going to sing. He gave me a really hard time, but he came out with five songs in the end. Gene Vincent, he was alright, but he came in on Saturday Club swinging a knife and frightened me to death. This dagger he'd bought in Africa. It was just a thing he did, he didn't make any threatening gestures. But I was a bit put out.

BS: One of the better known Saturday Club sessions was with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Where would that have been recorded?
BM: Piccadilly Theatre, round the back of a gentleman's outfitter. Vincent was first, then Cochran came in to do his session, who I must say was a thoroughly nice guy. Vincent got up to leave and Cochran shouted 'Hey Vincent, you ain't goin' anywhere. I got your crutches! You come and jam with me'. They did a twenty minute jam which was fabulous, at the end of which our recording engineer came out of his little booth and said 'was I supposed to record that?' Can you imagine? Twenty joyous minutes.

BS: During the Saturday Club years, did you think of yourself as a Beatles man or a Stones man?
BM: I thought very much I was on the Beatles side of the coin. But now I prefer playing Stones records. Although I found them much more difficult to get on with. Mick would always do a promotional chat, but he would not be very forthcoming. I found out after he died that Brian Jones was quite a fan. I had a nice letter from one of his family saying he had always spoken highly of me and I was totally surprised, because I never got them impression from meeting him. He was always very cagey. Keith I never got on with at all. I admire what he's done, quite substantially, but he was almost impossible for me to deal with. They were a closed shop, very inward looking.

BS: How well did you get on with the Beatles? Didn't you accompany them on an American tour?
BM: The Beatles were very extrovert - my only regret there is that I didn't have more to do with George who I thought was a lovely guy, absolutely lovely. I went to America with them for a week at Epstein's invitation and they were all pretty good. I never knew where I was with Lennon! Who did? But Paul was always very forthcoming. And I had one long conversation with George in a dressing room in Chicago, and I thought this guy's got a lot more than he's allowed to say. I don't mean not allowed but... the kind of general attitude was John and Paul did all the chat, and Ringo would make the odd comment from the background - he was always all right. But George. I've just seen the documentary his wife made, and I've been practically in tears thinking 'what an opportunity I missed there'. Only because he was obviously somebody that you really ought to know. Extremely talented too. Well, they all were! I'll make an exception for Ringo, he didn't pretend to be particularly talented.

BS: I've read that you and Brian Epstein were set to open a theatre together. What happened?
BM: I knew Brian Epstein very well - only through the Beatles. I met him when they first came to Broadcasting House, and we became extremely good friends. I dreamed up the idea of building a theatre in this area (Orpington, Kent) and the council agreed. They gave me a potential site at a place called High Elms, which is a huge woodland estate, and they would charge me a peppercorn rent. We could have built it for £24,000 - it's unbelievable now when you think about it. Brian said he'd arrange the raising of the funds and I'd run it. In the meantime, the theatre in Bromley burnt down and it was put about that I'd set fire to it. Absolute nonsense! It was raised in council meetings - I had a friend on the council. They said 'we don't want this Matthew chap building a theatre because we'll have our new one' - and their new one cost £3 million. 

BS: Were you aware of what was going on in Brian Epstein's private life?
BM: I knew he was gay, but I didn't know he had quite serious problems in that area, which he had. I didn't know that he was so heavily into drugs, very, very hooked. And generally his life was a bit of a mess. Then the Beatles hooked up with that awful man in America, Allen Klein. A pretty fearsome man. When I was over there Brian said he had a meeting with him and would I like to come. Well, he had armed guards, literally, in this room in a baseball stadium. I don't know why, it was just his nature. I thought 'I don't like this man, he's poison.' Of course Brian didn't know what to make of it; he thought 'he can do things I can't do', which was true, unfortunately. Anyway, Klein got in there eventually and fouled it up for everybody. Poor old Brian. Very sad.

BS: From January 1978 until you took over Sounds Of The Sixties, you presented Round Midnight, which was an arts show.
BM: It was. That was its basic concept. That ran for thirteen years, 11 til 1, five nights a week. We did it as an audience show, live, from theatres all over the country and that was super, I really enjoyed that. We did a book every night, and some sort of entertainment - could be opera, could be ballet. And of course there was a substantial amount of music. We went to Edinburgh every year for a fortnight. And we did other theatres usually when they had a touring show with a big name. We went to Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn was very keen. I couldn't believe it - that was one of the first we did and got an absolute full audience. In the middle of the night! In Scarborough! They didn't seem surprised, but I must admit I was. 

BS: Forty five years after they said you had no future in broadcasting, what are your thoughts on Radio 1?
BM: I've never had much time for it, quite honestly. I don't like a lot of the style that's evolved from it. It obviously had some very good people on it. But they've had some crap as well.

Brian Matthew presents Sounds Of The Sixties on Radio 2 every Saturday morning between 8 and 10

There are more details on Brian's career at:


  1. Great chat with Mr. Matthew. The bit about Miss Simone is unfortunate. C'est la vie!

  2. Brian Matthew is THE cornerstone of Popular Music. Yet he is so 'humble'...Give the man a knighthood before it is too late...

  3. I recall his radio arts programme with great admiration and wish it had kept going even longer than it did. Brian is an intelligent man with much wider interests than just popular music.

  4. This is a fascinating interview! Just came across it as I've been googling and trying to find out if he's ok as Tim Rice is still sitting in (and god, is he a terrible replacement). I wasn't alive in the 60s but Brian is a legend to any serious Beatles fan. I now listen to him religiously every Saturday and really hope he gets better soon. Thanks for this illuminating and entertaining interview, the parts about Brian E and George are particularly touching.

  5. Will someone at the BBC PLEASE give us an update on where/how Brian is?

  6. Tim is starting to become more conversational and enjoyable to listen to however I know Brian is being sorley missed by his legion of fans and am keeping all my fingers crossed we may have the pleasure of his company on SOTS again before too long and wish him health and happiness and a speedy recovery

  7. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyway,
    just wanted to say great blog!

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