Radio 1 DJs Mark and Lard on playlists, waking up the nation, Nicky Campbell and the future. By Neil Tipton.
Standing in a small office deep within the heart of BBC Norths offices in Manchester, two things strike me. Firstly, my host is moving aside the framed Manchester City shirt (signed by the promotion winning side from 1998-99) with a casualness which suggests that every self-respecting Manchester disc jockey has one.
Secondly, staring prominently at me from the far wall of the cramped room, is a photograph of Russ Conway. Welcome to the world of Mark Radcliffe.
I had travelled down to Manchester as part of the research for my dissertation, which asked whether Mark and Lard had lowered standards on radio with their unique style of broadcasting. But that was only part of the reason I was here; Scrawn and Lard were huge radio heroes, ranking right up there with the likes of Peel and Whispering Bob Harris. It was with relief and jubilation that I learned that they had agreed to my interview, but now I was more than a little nervous.
Meeting ones heroes can sometimes be a deflating and dispiriting affair especially when your heroes are the kings of radio. Will they be how I'd expected? I'd seen them on television, but that can often be quite misleading. I was fully prepared, for example, to meet Mark and discover he was 4ft 8. And grumpy.
Except, of course, he wasn't. He's of average height, and is as cheerful and offbeat as he appears on air. When I arrived, he shook me warmly by the hand and ushered me into his office. But not before I had been accosted by the Boy Lard: "Allright, mate. Do you want me as well for the interview? Two for the price of one? Fairly dos."
Since the debacle of the Breakfast Show, Mark and Lard have landed on their feet. Their afternoon show is now Radio 1s most popular weekday programme, and with 3.5 million listeners, only the Top 40 on a Sunday commands a bigger audience.
Mark and Lard are a rare breed, survivors in a world unforgiving of failure. Now they have regained the critical acclaim built up with their successful night-time show, and a Gold Sony Award for best daytime music show is the icing on the cake. Its a comeback almost as impressive as their beloved Man. City.
Of course, now that they're daytime DJs, Mark and Lard have had to leave their box of records at home and play whatever is on Radio 1s playlist. Having been famous for their eclectic musical tastes, they agree that they now feel constrained. Well we do but I don't think thats the issue really. We knew when we took this show, when we went into daytime that we'd be hampered by the playlist, says Mark. The playlist probably feels hampered by us! adds Lard.
"I mean, thats one of the rules you've got to accept really", continues Mark. "I accept the principal that you've got to have a playlist for a radio station during the daytime - quite often, I don't like the things that are on it, you know Id do it differently. But then everybody who does a playlist would choose different records, so I don't mind that. You learn to work within that but I think the sad thing is that the playlist has started to encroach on other parts of Radio 1, where it has traditionally been more open to play different things."
But doesn't it feel like all that had been built up by the evening show has had to be abandoned in favour of a more mainstream approach?
"You know, I think there are elements of the night-time show in the day-time show", says Lard. "The way the relationship built as well and Mark was adamant about keeping the free-choice play, to have some identity on the music, despite the fact that we've still got to play Chicane or Bryan Adams because its number one or whatever."
"I don't mind that actually, Chicane..." interrupts Radcliffe with a grin.
"OK! You can edit that bit!" continues Lard. "The thing is that its a very popular show in the afternoon. It just goes to show that its the audience thats available at the time of night which obviously dictates how many people listen, because its not that radically different, what were doing now, as to what we were doing then. We just take the poetry out and stuff like that."
Mark and Lards popularity should not come as too much of a surprise. Although their night-time show boasted only a small share of the audience, it was much loved by its listeners, who regarded it as a kind of club. The ironic thing is that you didn't really win a massive audience with it, observes Radcliffe, a touch wistfully. The audience you had were really dedicated to it. And we still get more people coming up to us now and saying: "Oh, I loved that show. I did my O-levels to that and then my A-levels, you know, and all that."
The night-time show, which ran for three-and-a-half years between 1993-1997, was unquestionably different from anything else on Radio 1 at that time. So where there any DJs who shaped the way forward for Radcliffe and provided him with the model of broadcasting he now uses?
"At first when it started we followed Nicky Campbell onto that show, who was a bloke I've had my differences with, although its easier now because I think on his Radio 5 show he's bloody good at it, actually. I never liked him as a DJ because he's the absolute antithesis of what I want to listen to; he was the ultimate smooth, late night DJ. Now, he was good at it, if you like that kind of thing. I just happen not to like that kind of thing. Really, the only DJ whose been any influence was Peel, because it just seemed honest. There was a warmth to it which sort of hooked me."
Its a testament to their durability and prowess that Mark and Lard survived the poisoned chalice that has become Radio 1s breakfast show. Filling the shoes vacated by Chris Evans was never going to be easy and so it proved. The nation, it seemed, was just not ready for a dose of Mark and Lard as it chewed on its cornflakes.
If they have regrets, they hide them well. Both think that the timing of the show was the major factor in its downfall and the reason for their current success. If you think of how many people heard the breakfast show compared to how many people heard the night-time show, says Lard, and then if you look at the figures again for the afternoon, we took a lot of people who'd never heard us before, who must have heard us on the breakfast show and liked us, because the figures immediately were very healthy in the afternoon.
We all know the breakfast show failed miserably and we know better than anybody else why. But there was obviously a lot of people in there who thought: Yeah. Well, there's something going on there. I don't like it at that time of the day but Ill persevere and go into the afternoon with it.
Radcliffe concurs: "I think the time of day had a lot to do with it and because we'd made our name - if we had made a name in the night-time show, people perceived us as being of the night. And there is a darker kind of element. I always think that even though what we do is kind of knock-about in some ways, very laddish, I always think there is a dark core to it. There's something very strange about these two blokes who live in a castle. Theres something kind of, not threatening exactly, but slightly kind of they're social misfits. It's not Ant and Dec territory [thank God!]."
"So it was too much of a change for us and the audience to go right from the night to the early morning when that bright and breezy thing is what's required. And because it was felt that we were a bit of dark act attempts were made to lighten it. That included us trying a bit too hard to be more cheerful than we naturally felt, I think. That was one of the reasons that we came unstuck. Whereas, I do think that one of the things about our afternoon show is that its pretty honest really. Its not a completely false way of speaking. That's why when we do this DJ thing of mixing all the flava in the area were taking the piss out of people who've developed a way of talking, like Ali G has done. Whereas our whole act comes out of the natural rhythm of conversation, which works at night and works in the afternoon but no one has really got into the stride of the natural rhythm of conversation at breakfast time. I think that that's why that didn't work."
Ask Mark which, of all the shows he's done, he's most proud of and he has to stop and think.
"There's too much of any of it to remember, really, he says, straining to choose just one from 10 years of broadcasting for the BBC. Some of the moments that stay with me come from Hit the North (the Radio 5 programme he presented before moving to Radio 1). One of my favourite shows was a Christmas party and me and Marc had gone dressed as liver and onions, to a fancy dress party. What we'd done and I still think its a clever idea we'd recorded the links of our Christmas special as a dead straight show. So it started off as this Christmas special, and then it ducked down to Marc listening to see if out tape was going out. So then the programme was us going to this fancy dress party and getting a cab and saying: Oh, can you turn the radio up mate, and it was us on and the tape was still running."
"We went in the off-licence and it was still on", recollects Lard.
"Dressed as liver and onions!" says Mark, continuing. "We were much younger then and we had loads more creative ideas and we worked for hours and hours and hours on end for no money to get them on the air, which you do when you're starting out. Theres no point wishing it was like that now, because its natural. It was one night a week and its like anything. The excitement wears off and that first rush goes. Its a time I look back on with fondness."
So what does the future hold for radios most dynamic duo? They have been fronting the afternoon show for a year now, but still have the security of two years to run on their contract an eternity by radio standards. According to Mark, though, it is starting to take its toll: There are times now when I feel it would be quite nice not to do a radio show every day of your life. Just to go and re-charge your batteries a bit and go back into doing something where you have perhaps just a different perspective in other things as well. Anyway not doing a radio show every day of our lives may be perfectly easy to organise!
"Somebody else is probably organising that right now!" quips the Boy Lard, in a typically self-deprecating moment. Revealingly, they see a future more guided by the music they play than comedy sketches and characters like Fat Harry White.
Mark: "In fact, the next thing we thought wed do and we've not yet really had the chance is go back to doing just a music show and cut a lot of the comedy and everything out and just go back to it and see what grows out of it. If we were to move back to night time and play music which wed quite like to do at some point, but not for a couple of years and also its unlikely that it would be on Radio 1 because Radio 1, as far as I can see would be a pure dance station by then we would go back to do something pretty simple really. The idea we've always really had was to maybe even build a studio at home and keep doing it more like a soap opera but at our house: Oh, Lards just popped out to the shops, and everything."
Which would bring things back full circle. From success to failure and back again. Just like a certain Manchester-based football club, in fact.
Thanks very much to Neil Tipton for writing this article.
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