On losing radio friends and wireless sentimentality…

I can’t tell if I’m catching classic broadcasters at the right or wrong time…

A week ago, Desmond Carrington reluctantly hung his headphones up on his The Music Goes Round show. A show with a format that, lodged rather obtusely and admiringly on a Friday evening for one hour, was of course a format both ready-made for both closure and open-ends…

Desmond Carrington's final broadcast...
Broadcasting live for the final time…

First the endings. Carrington announced his departure on 30 September, promising four more editions of the show that has held the Friday 7pm on Radio 2 in recent years. The final show at the tail end of October would bring to a close a broadcasting career that quite astonishingly began on BBC Radio in 1946.

Rotations must always have something to rotate around.

Then the cycle, when as with his first regular show on the network in 1981, Carrington’s final broadcast began with Up, Up and Away by the Johnny Mann Singers – proving that music does indeed go round and round. But of course, in 1981 things hadn’t been so cyclical. Carrington had begun by broadcast the two-hour All Time Greats, dominating early Sunday afternoons until he was dislodged by the power of musical theatre, Break-a-legs and Elaine Paige’s laugh in 2004. Moving to Tuesday evenings before the show reached its final berth on Fridays, by then it had earned the name The Music Goes Round. Each edition took a single theme, Carrington, weaving songs from the 1920s to the present day, with a heavy emphasis on post-war but always incorporating something unexpected, around it – and as of 1997, rather famously, broadcast from his home in bonny Scotland. Perthshire to be almost precise. It was an eclectic mix in some ways, but not in others. Helped by Carrington’s distinctive broadcasting tone and artistic flourish (his career as an actor, particularly as Dr Chris Anderson will follow him into retirement as much as his broadcasting), brevity with facts, and of course the anchor of sentiment remained constant. Rotations must always have something to rotate around. And The Music Goes Round and Round is after all, a song penned in 1935. A musical interlude that’s become a jazz standard as much as a pop song with enduring appeal.

Confessions

I was less fighting subjectivity than the generational intangible

This is where a slight confession comes in. Around the time of Desmond Carrington’s lunchtime shift, something the presenter was clearly displeased with, the topic was ripe for debate in my household. This may have been three of four BBC funding crises ago, when particular press scrutiny fell on the salary awarded to particularly, although not exclusively, Jonathan Ross. Ross was a fellow Radio 2 presenter, helming the coveted mid morning Saturday slot as well as fronting the Film series, his Friday talk show and countless specials for BBC television. My father and I took different view points on this. to him, Ross was vastly overpaid, and no amount of added work would ever represent value against the Licence Fee he paid. To me it seemed laughable to criticise Ross’ potential salary, in the predominantly commercial environment of broadcasting, when Desmond Carrington was turning in two hours a week from a home studio in Perthshire, comfortable position I rationaled, that he’d turned into a trademark. All the more so, because it was so evidently subjective. Ross was hardly aiming at the youth, even before and during the incident that saw him leave the corporation. But of course, I was less fighting subjectivity than the generational intangible. While I certainly didn’t welcome the bombastic arrival of amateur dramatic advertising in its place, Carrington’s show seemed twee at worst.

Over a decade on things have changed. Jonathan Ross has since returned to BBC Radio, taking the reins of The Culture Show on the second station. And Carrington, amid the puns and mild ribbing lobbed in his remote direction by other Friday night broadcasters, has rather owned Friday evenings. It was seldom I listened to his Friday evening show, mainly down to it being that: Friday night. With each passing year it seemed to stick out, from the Drivetime All Request Fridays to the recent arrival of Sounds of the 80s later in the evening. Yet in 2014 The Music Goes Round recorded its best ratings for a decade, gaining nearly 200,000 listeners year on year. At the time, a rather delighted Carrington signalled that he would stay at the helm until at least his 90th birthday year. And so he did.

In the Round

A fine song and finer sentiment

Desmond Carrington
Desmond Carrington (Copyright: BBC)

Although sign-posted, Carrington’s decision was a difficult one. the show that started with an optimistic reference to his first, paid tributes to old friends like Gary Williams, producers, long-promoted singers like Andy Eastwood and made room for a final outing of the show’s most played song. It was the 58th time on air for Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, this time intriguingly covered by Julio Iglesias. Randy Newman popped up with a song that had always stuck in Desmond’s mind: Rider in the Rain. The ante-penultimate song was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s version of Impossible Dream, a fine song and finer sentiment. About it Carrington said it’s, “what I’ve always believed in”. Of course, most thanks come the close went to the listeners. “Thank you my dear friends. Without you, the whole thing would have been pointless.”

While “Inevitably there comes a time to hang up the headphones” he reminded his audience not to forget “the music as it goes round, and pass it on to the next generation.” None of the trademarks slipped, as the expected reference to his cat, “golden paws” Sam who was waiting for him after the show, the greeting “Bye for now, from Desmond Carrington” after the show closed with Tormé’s That’s All. How could any of those trademarks or sentiments be begrudged?

Departures

it was as much about a strange fascination with detestable novelties as a growing renaissance in my relationship with radio.

I’ve written a fair bit about radio presenters over the past 15 years, often on their departure from a slot or station with which they’ve become synonymous. But that was very much from my perspective. this was contemporary nostalgia, never possibly relating to a show that has slid through various forms for the duration of my life. But Carrington’s retirement comes at the end of a bruising few years for Radio 2, where there’s been a real sense of another age slipping away. Oddly, fate has often found me crossing paths with them at the end of eras. A change of work led me to stumble across Carrington’s show in recent months, the sense of dissociation from last decade all but gone – or perhaps mostly missing that wine at Sunday lunchtime.

The same happened in 2013, when I found myself increasingly listening to the inimitable David Jacobs on Sunday nights, a fine purveyor of easy listening and not least one of the original Top of the Pops presenters. I was trialling a highly successful attempt at writing late on Sunday nights, and the weight of his delivery and wealth of knowledge, immune to growing frailty, was a fine accompaniment.

Jacobs signalled his intention to retire in July 2013, hanging up his headphones in August and sadly, he died at home on 2 September 2013 less than month after a final show in which he’d eased the loss by telling us, “I will not stop collecting but my sadness will be that I cannot share them with all my loyal listeners. But rest assured, I will be back from time to time.”

Empty radio studio
Studios… Are never empty.

In recent years I’d warmed to the annual return of Junior Choice on Christmas Day. Its reappearance in 2007 had somewhat passed me by, as had the significance. But helmed by old hand and one-time original presenter Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, for me it was as much about a strange fascination with detestable novelties as Sparky’s Magic Piano as a growing renaissance in my relationship with radio. Stewart was one of those great old stalwarts of Radio 2, the good old-fashioned, good-natured presenter that was such an important component of peak BBC radio, and the pirate stations that had forced the creation of radio 1 in the 1960s. Brushing aside the odd, adorable slip this past Christmas with the fact he would turn 75 in 2016, his passing just 15 days later on 9 January this year was rather overlooked in a terrible month for British pop culture.

Always important, radio had grown into a new stage of my life. I can barely recall the days I’d fail to get any points on Ken Bruce’s PopMaster. That daily quiz, implacable in its simplicity as defined by gnawing introductions and name-dropping, is at the forefront of BBC Radio’s social media presence, alongside always simmering campaigns to keep 6Music ticking over. Every day freelancers, predominately, pile on to social media at the same time to do what the British do very well. Wryly crucify complete strangers. Ken Bruce has inherited the role of handing over to the midday current affairs slot, rising well to the challenge of running rings around Jeremy Vine just as Terry Wogan famously had to Jimmy Young in the same slot three decades ago. And could there have been a sadder moment for Radio Two, or British broadcasting, than Sunday 31 January when the nation reeled at the news that Sir Terry Wogan had also left us. Several years before I’d deliberately caught Sir Terry’s final breakfast broadcast, famous for those final moments where he came the closest, as one might expect, to capturing the unique relationship between a radio broadcaster and their audience.

Whether as part of a seasonally revived show, a banished hour of nostalgia plunging into the night or, yes, from a home studio in Perthshire.

Typically, And often listening on a Sunday lunchtime, to the short slot Sir Terry took up after retiring the Breakfast Show. but of course, somehow, I caught what would be his final show on 8 November 2015, where he posed as always looking the epitome of happiness next to Nadine Coyle and Shane Filan. Of course he did. Desmond Carrington was always on point at reminding his friend listeners that his shows remained available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days following broadcast. Sadly in Sir Terry’s case, the news came just too late.

Desmond Carrington’s final show is indeed available on iPlayer now. May he have a long and very happy retirement, and “Golden Paws” with him.